In the late 1950s two young guys named Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman set out on a road trip. Hackman, who'd just dropped out of the Pasadena Playhouse, was headed to New York to give Broadway a try. Hoffman, a fellow struggling actor, hitched a ride only as far as Colorado, where he was going to do summer stock. Well along the way, as the elevation climbed, Hackman got stuck behind a clunker. After he finally managed to squeeze past on a muddy mountain road, his wheels skirting the edge of the highway, Hoffman yelled out: "Damn, that was good driving."
"In reality, it was stupid," Hackman now says. "But I think that exemplifies Dusty: always the positive thinker and, best of all, an encouraging friend."
Five decades and many blockbuster films later, Dustin Hoffman pulls up in his Toyota Prius for our meeting at Santa Monica's The Broad Stage, a newly opened playhouse he's spent much of a decade championing. His enthusiasm for this grand steel, glass, and stone theater is due in no small part to its affiliation with Santa Monica College, where Hoffman studied before deciding he just didn't have the goods to realize his dream of becoming a jazz pianist. With more than four dozen movies, and two Oscars, to his credit, Hoffman, 71, now says, "If God was to say to me, ' You want to play really good jazz piano, you have to give up what you are doing,' I would do it in a minute."
Life is fleeting, Hoffman says. “There is not a moment that I take any of my life for granted.”
Wearing a denim work shirt and jeans, he helps me—my arms full with a tape recorder, notebook, magazine—by carrying my purse to a small room backstage, where we will talk. Several times during our chat, he looks off, crinkles his nose, and says, "That's a really good question," and I am reminded of his cheering Hackman along that winding highway.
He enthuses about his latest movie, Last Chance Harvey, a romantic comedy in which Hoffman plays a washed-up, divorced jingle writer who has traveled to London to attend his daughter's wedding. His character is estranged from her, and, seemingly, the rest of the world—until he meets Kate, played by Emma Thompson. She's an employee of the Office of National Statistics, and as much of a lost soul as Harvey.
"In this film," Hoffman explains, "Emma and I said, 'What if we play as close to ourselves as we can?' In other words, 'Do not play. Just be yourself.' "
Really? Dustin Hoffman, among the most popular of Hollywood stars, a last-chance Harvey?
"I have never been a man's man," Hoffman confesses. "I go in a restaurant, see that long table of men with cigars, and I do not understand it. And I have never been a [sports] fan, either. Ultimately I'm for whoever the underdog is."
Hoffman's identification with the underdog explains a lot about him: he always thought of himself as the quintessential black sheep. The son of a pianist and a Columbia Studios prop man turned furniture salesman, he endured what he describes as a loveless upbringing. "I really think my brother and I grew up in a house with two people who should not have had children," Hoffman says. He read his first play, Death of a Salesman, at age 16 and now says, "It was a blueprint of my family. I was the loser, the flunky, and my brother, a high-school varsity football player, was Biff."
Though he studied piano and plays beautifully to this day, Hoffman made a fateful decision. "I just was not gifted. I did not have an ear." At Santa Monica College he took an acting class to get an easy passing grade—he says he had always had difficulty focusing and was on the verge of flunking out—and caught the acting bug. For the next ten years he struggled for acting work, and he was far from surprised when he didn't hit the big time just out of the gate. "I was a peripheral person," he explains. "I was never invited to the parties. I did not go to the prom. So I was certainly comfortable as an actor hanging out with people that were also unemployed and struggling."
Hoffman landed in New York, where he intermittently lived with pals Hackman and Robert Duvall. To pay the bills, he waited tables and worked odd jobs. "Dusty and I shared a certain joy in going to auditions," Hackman remembers. "The idea that either of us would do well in films simply didn't occur to us. We just wanted to work."
"Then suddenly this freak accident happened," Hoffman says. When the still-struggling actor was 29, director Mike Nichols cast him as an angst-driven 21-year-old who was having an affair with a friend of his parents. His title role in 1967's The Graduate changed Dustin Hoffman's life.
From the start, he viewed the celebrity part of acting as a compromise. AfterThe Graduate, Hoffman briefly went on the presidential campaign trail for Eugene McCarthy, visiting college campuses around the country. "The students would be kind of looking at me in awe," he remembers. "I would say, 'I'm 30, and I'm not anything like that character.' It was like saying, 'Do not look at me as a movie star.' "
He told his friends he'd never do another movie, that he was going back to the theater. Then he read the script for Midnight Cowboy and changed his mind. Against the advice of Hollywood colleagues, he took a supporting role in the movie as the consumptive street con Ratso Rizzo—beginning a string of memorable parts in such landmark films as Little Big Man, Lenny, All the President's Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Rain Man. He won Best Actor Oscars for the last two, after having been nominated seven times. One of those nominations was for his turn inTootsie, as actress Dorothy Michaels (the female alter ego of Michael Dorsey), a character he holds a special fondness for and who he is said to have modeled after his mother. "In a sense," says Hoffman, "you try to be autobiographical with your work if you can. In my mind's eye I would have done what Dorothy did. She loved her work and did not want fame."
But Hoffman himself wasn't able to avoid it. Film audiences adored him. Hackman encapsulates his friend's popular appeal this way: "People see in Dustin possibilities: the little guy who can represent the way they feel in a variety of situations." Emma Thompson says his strength lies in being true to who he is. "So many actors make you think of other actors, but Dustin is completely original. He doesn't make you think of anyone but Dustin."
He also worked extremely hard and gained a deserved reputation for being exacting; at times, difficult. Still today, Last Chance Harvey writer-director Joel Hopkins says, the actor is as self-critical as ever: "He often wanted to try things stripped down, because less is sometimes more. He worries about every little detail." Which is in part why Hoffman was able to carry on, through the late '80s and the '90s, winning another Best Actor nomination forWag the Dog, despite some box-office flops-among them, Ishtar and Hook.
It was in 1999, when he was awarded the American Film Institute's Lifetime Achievement Award, that all the success—and the melancholy behind it—hit him in the face. "There was this reel of pictures, me playing all these different roles," he says. "I had my first—and only, thank God—panic attack. What followed was depression, but I was not aware of it. I told my wife, Lisa, 'I do not want to act anymore.' It had to do with a central core in me, which was that I never felt I deserved success."
Hoffman again decided, 32 years after The Graduate, that he would stop acting in movies. He would spend time with his children, maybe write a screenplay, maybe direct.
The actor has always put a lot of stock in his relationships with women. "I always wanted to just find the girl that I could be with," he says.
In 1969 he married for the first time, to a New York ballerina named Anne Byrne. Hoffman adopted her daughter Karina, now 43, and the couple had another daughter, Jenna, now 38. (She is the mother of Hoffman's two grandchildren.)
A decade later, while playing a divorcing father in Kramer vs. Kramer, the actor realized his own marriage was falling apart. The couple divorced in 1980, and Hoffman got remarried to attorney Lisa Gottsegen, now 54, with whom he has four more children—Jake, 28; Rebecca, 26; Max, 24; and Alexandra, 21. "There is something unnatural about marriage," Hoffman admits. "These two people are not going to be the same people in a few years." Recognizing that, he says, has been key to the success of his second marriage. "The trick is to live your own life while sharing the same space."
Lisa launched a line of skin-care products in 2007 and has met with considerable success. "I can brag about her. She's in stores in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong. I'm still the focus," he notes with a wry smile, "but I'm losing ground rapidly."
By all appearances, that's unlikely. It was Lisa who persuaded Hoffman to be treated for his depression and to get back into acting in 2001. "My wife finally said to me, 'Do you realize you have been wearing a cardigan sweater for more than two years and you are not an old man?' " Hoffman remembers. "That's when I went into therapy, and it was the best move I ever made." Seven years later, at a Hollywood party for the studio producing Last Chance Harvey, Lisa is still standing behind—or beside—her man. Hoffman arrives quietly, sipping a paper cup of hot tea. "I have strep throat," he explains. Next to him, Lisa, also nursing a steaming cup, is not sick. "I just wanted to be in solidarity with him," she says.
The older he gets, the more Hoffman reminds his wife that their time together is too short. "There is not a moment that I take any of my life for granted," he says.
"If life is a three-act play, I am chronologically in my third act," says the actor. "But I am in the first act of my life in terms of the feeling I now have about my own worth, my talent, my gift." These days Hoffman is ready to do what he's been putting off for years: finish the screenplay he's been writing—he won't reveal what it's about—and direct it.
And after that? Master the game of tennis? Read all those books he's got in his library? Learn to speak Spanish, then French, and make films speaking those languages? They are all on his bucket list. As for that dream of becoming a jazz pianist, he says, "I may just have that talk with God."
West Coast editor Meg Grant wrote about actress Glenn Close in the January & February issue of AARP The Magazine.