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Gene Hackman's Novel Idea

The legendary actor has turned to writing, and his latest book is inspired by his favorite Westerns

In the 1985 film Twice in a Lifetime, Gene Hackman played a man who concludes that his life has been one long interruption between what he intended to do and what he never got around to doing. Nearly 20 years later, Hackman decided that acting was interrupting what he really wanted to do — and at age 74 he turned to writing novels.

See also: Q & A with author James Patterson.

Gene Hackman, Actor, Author, Payback At Morning Peak

Photo by Brian Smith

Gene Hackman has moved from acting to writing. His new book came out this past summer.

His latest, Payback at Morning Peak, came out this summer. Set in the late-19th-century Southwest, it's a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy who tracks down a band of desperadoes. Though this is Hackman's fourth work of historical fiction, it's the first he's written without a partner.

Publishing is in Hackman's genes: His grandfather and uncle were reporters, and his father worked as a pressman — all at a daily newspaper in Danville, Illinois. But young Gene dropped out of school at 16 and did a three-year stint in the Marine Corps. "As a kid, I never would have chosen to be a writer," he says. "I had too much energy to sit and write. Writing is all about revision. Your first impulse is not always the truest."

After training at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1956 — where some of his teachers suggested he had scant promise as an actor — Hackman went on to win two Oscars. He was still in demand by Hollywood when he called it quits. "I was getting great offers, but the roles were mostly doddering great-grandfathers," he says. Another incentive: Hackman underwent angioplasty in 1990 for congestive heart failure, and felt that "after 80 films the stress wasn't worth the risk." Writing is more private and allows him greater creative control.

For the past two decades Hackman, now 81, has lived out of the spotlight in Santa Fe with his second wife, classical pianist Betsy Arakawa. (He and first wife Faye Maltese, divorced in 1986, have three grown children.)
"I think it would make a pretty good film," the Oscar winner says of his new book.

In New Mexico he met underwater archaeologist Daniel Lenihan, and the two became fast friends. "We realized that we both loved Hemingway and Melville," Hackman recalls. "I said, 'Let's write a novel together.'" They did: a saga about diving, salvage, and piracy called Wake of the Perdido Star.

The pair wrote two more, but with Lenihan busy on another project last year, Hackman tackled Payback at Morning Peak solo. The plot is reminiscent of his favorite westerns: Shane and Red River. "I think it would make a pretty good film," he says.

If it does make it to the big screen, Hackman won't pen the script. During the 1970s he optioned the novel Silence of the Lambs and attempted to cobble together a screenplay. A third of the way into it, he realized the tight, clipped script form was not his forte, and he surrendered the rights. "Not my smartest move," he says, chuckling.