Over five decades, Dustin Hoffman has created characters that show us what it means to be a man—from Benjamin Braddock to Ratso Rizzo to Ted Kramer. But performances like that are rooted in hard living, pain, and wisdom—all of which mark Hoffman's incredible life. With his latest film, Meet the Fockers, opening this month, the master spills his secrets to Michael Hainey
Ask yourself this question: Where would you be without Dustin Hoffman? Where would you be if a five-foot-six-inch, big-nosed, slope-shouldered guy from Los Angeles hadn't crashed his way into Hollywood? Simple: No Hoffman means no ascendancy of Everyman. No Hoffman means we'd all still be living in a world where guys like Robert Redford and Troy Donahue define cool.
Thank God for Hoffman.
Not that he's had it easy. After decades of creating performances that articulated the cultural moment and characters that have become indelible in our minds, he suffered the indignities of middle age, showing up for a role in a hazmat suit in one movie while guys with names like Josh and Ashton got more work.
This year, though, at 67, he roared back with I ♥ Huckabees and Meet the Fockers and showed us he never stopped being great.
BACK IN THE DAY
Hoffman, the ultimate New Yorker, actually grew up in Los Angeles. After high school, he studied at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met Gene Hackman, whom he followed in 1958 to New York to study acting with Lee Strasberg. Hoffman lived for a while with Hackman and his wife, then moved in with another struggling actor, Robert Duvall.
Tell me about rooming with Hackman and Duvall.
Bob and I were obsessed with women. When Duvall and I started looking at acting classes, we'd pick the ones that had the best-looking, most interesting girls. The idea of finding a woman or a girl to be with was paramount. I mean, I got a lot of ass, but I didn't play around. There was a period of time, though, where I went crazy, because I had never been promiscuous. After The Graduate came out, two things started happening at once: Girls started recognizing me, and scripts started coming toward me. It happened in unison.
The party scene in Tootsie where you're hitting on women must have been drawn from those years as an unknown.
Well, the movie is autobiographical. When I started that movie, the idea was to do a satire on myself and actors in general.
What were your pickup lines back then?
"I love the way you dress." I never liked lines like "You're really pretty." I just felt that I didn't have a chance, going the conventional route. It's probably all shit, but I would use my insight, and I would find something that I thought was truly interesting. What point of view they had, the naïveté, humor. It could clearly be called mind fucking. But I like to think of it as exploration. At parties, I'd sit down at a piano and leave a little room on the bench for a girl to sit. And I could feel them standing and listening. And that was a great turn-on. But the spine of it was, Is this going to get me laid?
Those must have been insane times.
There was an era before and after The Graduate—as Warren Beatty called it, the candy-store years—because there was drugs, stardom, the Pill. That window, which never existed before, between penicillin and AIDS. With women, one of the things Warren would do was that he would research a girl the way one would a film.
Isn't that called stalking?
Yes, stalking in an aesthetic way. In other words, Brigitte Bardot: He would find out everything about her he could—where she was born, where she was from, or whatever. But not for one-night stands—he'd fall in love with her. Warren is truly what I would call a romantic. Stalking implies a kind of obsession that's surrounded by casual, abstract need. But he really got the best of an individual. Beatty had a technique: He'd come in, almost like a girlfriend, to a girl that he met. Talking girl talk. It was brilliant. He'd be on an airplane, and he'd say, "Where'd you get those earrings? I love your ears. It's so interesting the way you do your hair...," and you know, one hand was slowly making its way up her leg. If you're thinking that I was a swinger, I really wasn't. I never went to an orgy, although I did meet a couple of girls in bed more than once. I never was into really hard drugs. I do remember going to parties where, yes, there were lines of coke on the table. Everyone thought it was what Freud thought it was—nonaddictive, creative. I didn't take it much because I was allergic. I couldn't breathe for weeks afterwards. And I went to the Playboy Mansion a few times. I had sex in public places. Studio 54. Inside that circle where the disc jockey was.... "Can we just lie down here for a minute?" [laughs] I don't think it's a good thing. If I had to do it over again, I would like to rewrite it.
I think the drugs gave the illusion of intensity but actually took away the substance. But there is something wrong about me not having a better memory of it. That's the old thing: If you remember the '70s, you weren't there.
If you looked like Hoffman, 1967—the era of Dr. Dolittle and Barefoot in the Park—was not the easiest time to break into movies. But with The Graduate, he and director Mike Nichols fueled a revolution in Hollywood. Suddenly, the short, dark (dare we say ethnic?) outsider was the guy to watch.
It seems the only actors we see now by and large are newbies. Pretty boys. Guys like you and Pacino, the anti—leading men, wouldn't get shit today if you were coming up. You certainly wouldn't get cast in The Graduate.
Everything is cyclical. But to be fair, no one besides Nichols would have cast me in that role. He must have been thought of as the most self-destructive person around. People were telling him what a magnificent film it could have been: "It's a shame you miscast the lead." The distributor wanted Anne Bancroft and me to pose nude for the poster because he didn't think it was going to be successful, so he would have her sitting on the bed with the breasts exposed and I would be facing her with my buttocks exposed. In the book, Benjamin's described as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant New England track star, debating. It was Redford. Physically, as written. That was who tested for it, in fact. When Nichols called me, he had been casting it for two years. And he said, "What do you think?" I got the script, and I went and read the book, and I said, "I don't think I'm right for it." I mean, I was kind of resolute. I didn't want to be in anything I thought I could not do good work in. That was the main criterion: not to humiliate myself. Today, I don't think anybody would let them cast me. But ask yourself, Is there a Nichols today? And the studios are so much more conservative. Because $65 million is the average budget, and you have to make that money the first weekend. Look, we're not at a good time now.
Is your reputation for being "difficult" justified?
I antagonized some people before I even tested for The Graduate. My agent told me that I had to sign a contract before the screen test. I said, "What's that?" She said, "Well, you got to agree to do two pictures in case it's a hit, and they will prorate your salary." I didn't care about the money. If you never had any, what's the difference? I said, "They're going to tell me what movies I have to be in? I'm not testing." She was stunned. "You know how hard it is to get a test for The Graduate?" Nichols was the god of theater and film. And I said, "No one's telling me what to do." That was the perk of being an actor. That's artistic freedom. And you can't measure that. And I learned later that they said, "Who the fuck is this Dustin Hoffman who's refusing to sign that contract?" No one else had done it. Then Nichols gives me the part. And then I guess the only way they could get even was to pay me minimum and not to pay me a per diem. I made $650 a week. And that's huge if you've never made $3,000 in a year. So when I went to film it, at first I lived back at my parents' home here in L.A. That lasted about a week. I moved into the Chateau Marmont and rented a Camaro. And when the movie was over, I came back to New York, and I'd put, I think, three grand in the bank. I immediately went on unemployment for $45 or $50 a week, while they're editing me into becoming a star.
It seems like you were born to play Benjamin Braddock.
The genius of Nichols in that movie was, before we started to film, we rehearsed for a month. No one does that anymore. It was a great freedom. To explore the material. The scene where I grab her breast and she doesn't respond and I bang my head against the wall, slowly? That was not in the script. It happened in rehearsal. It happened because I was so nervous, and we were waiting to start, and to break the ice I grabbed Anne's breast. And it was great because she just ignored me. Nichols saw it and laughed, and we put it in.
Did you ever wish The Graduate never happened?
I never wished it never happened. I'm not that ill. The alternative would have been I could have been in a repertory company. I did as well as I could have up until now. I think I fought the good fight. I didn't win it; I succumbed to it in some ways. You take your licks. And you lose your purity. You become seduced by the stardom, by the money, by the agents saying, "They're not going to pay you 10, 20 percent more than you got on your last job? You can't take that job. You're going to take second billing to so-and-so? You can't do that." All of that crap. And I fought that fight as hard as I could. Also the Oscar-itis fight, meaning you do a really good piece of work and now you feel you've got an image to worry about instead of just throwing the dice. I'm doing that now. It's got to be the director. It's got to be the cast. It's got to be the part. The thing has got to have the structure, blah, blah, blah. Why don't you just work with people you want to work with? Forget about everything else. Johnny Depp, who I admire so much, thank God he's finally being recognized as a character actor of the first rank. It is so hard to say, "I want to be an artist," as opposed to a star. Which he has really avoided.
You paved that road for guys like him.
I don't know if I paved it. Narcissism is what will kill you in the sense that narcissism stops you from seeing the mediocrity in your own stuff. Narcissism dissuades you. It's like when you smoke a joint: Everything is brilliant, but it really kills the truth gene. It buries it. You have to have the courage to call the mediocre by its rightful name, that allows you to break it up and to get what's underneath it, which is the truth. On Ishtar—and I know that's a dirty word—
No, I wanted to ask you about it.
It was brilliant in concept. It's not the worst comedy ever made. I mean, it took a hit. And that hit was done before we even started production.
Who put the contract out on Ishtar?
Well, the press. They took the job. And part of it would go to David Puttnam, who disliked me, though he had never met me. He had been one of the producers on Agatha, a movie I did a few years prior. He wrote in the L.A. Times that I was the most malevolent actor he had ever worked with. He hated Warren—I don't know why. I know the press hated Warren because he refused to do interviews for over ten years, and it takes the food out of their mouths. So there were a bunch of reasons. Anyway, the idea of being mediocre, second-rate, and being middle-aged, and still wanting to be Simon & Garfunkel—there is not a musician I ever met that didn't treasure that film, because they know those people. I heard this from Bruce Springsteen and Sting and Paul McCartney. Do you have a copy of Ishtar?
We'll watch just the opening. [Inserts tape. Hoffman gets lost in the moment, chuckling along with the scene wherein he and Beatty lamely try to write a song, then pauses the tape.] It's good stuff. So here's the thing. When it came out, Siskel and Ebert had just come on, I think. And they were on TV saying it was the worst thing in the world. They were very powerful. But I'll say this: I feel as strongly about it as anything I've ever been a party to. The reason I liked those characters was, it's more admirable to be passionate about your work, even if you're second-rate, than it is to be first-rate at work you're not passionate about. It was an effort worth talking about.
Midnight Cowboy still blows me away. It's the best buddy movie ever made.
When people come up to me after seeing Midnight Cowboy and say, "I never look at a homeless person the same way now," that has a more powerful effect on me than anything else they've said about the movie. In 1969 they were called bums. And I've always looked at people like that as hiding in plain sight. Invisible. I always try to see their baby pictures in my head. And I watch them, and I try to figure out: Where was the fork in the road? My goodness. The first image I had of Rizzo was of someone I saw who was crippled on 42nd Street, where I went to research the character and get a feeling. I saw a bunch of people standing at a red light, and then they crossed the street, and this guy got to the other side before anybody else. And he was the only one who was crippled. And that stuck with me. The other image that comes to me is the survivors of the concentration camps, the ones who had their fingers on the bars when the allies came. I felt Rizzo would have survived. And maybe by shrewdness, become a capo. Yeah, the will to live and survive.
Tell me about Kramer—one of those movies that when it comes on TV you have to watch it straight through.
Well, that was the first time I ever played a part of what was happening to me. What I learned in film is you could become a kind of author or a coauthor as an actor, because you could develop the material early on. While I was making it, and going through a divorce, people would say, "Hey, it must be really hard for you." Au contraire—it was exhilarating.
What's the truest scene in there for you?
There's more than one. I really drew from myself, and there's a lot in there that's my writing. [Robert] Benton [the director and writer] asked me if I wanted a cowriting credit after we finished it, and like a fool I said no. [laughs] Talk about in plain sight. Wow. But the inner thing of a husband, Kramer, not going right home after work and not hearing his wife say, "I'm leaving you." That was me.
In acting, you try to admit to more than the lesser crime. You want to get down to the deeper crimes of oneself. Taking that kid to school and saying, "What grade are you in?" You know, I was a first-time father in my thirties when we made that. And that was the decade of filmmaking for me. And filmmaking got the edge. I don't think Kramer is a mea culpa; I think I was trying to understand myself. Because I felt I had failed on a very deep level. You've been in relationships that haven't worked, and you have to look at something afterwards, which is: I lied to myself.
It's like you intentionally deceived yourself.
There it is. That's huge. How many times have we said in a relationship that breaks up, "I knew it the first time I met her"?
It's in your gut.
You knew all the information about the person, and then you disguised it—you put it aside. And you didn't learn anything about them you didn't know the first day. So that was in Kramer. Giving myself permission not only to be present but to be a father was a kind of epiphany for me at that time, that I could get to through my work. And I remember smelling Justin's hair and taking the time&because we were doing take after take. And that was something I think I was aware of, making Kramer: I got closer to being a father by playing a father. That's very painful to say.
Nothing is more intense than making a movie. It's fourteen hours a day. And then, you know, it doesn't leave you. Want to know what making a movie is? You get as close as you can before you get killed. So that was true of Kramer. Being a father, learning how to be a father—because that was the first act. And then transcending being a father to becoming a mother. And we did it through the costumes. Ruth Morley [the costume designer] feminized my clothing in the second half. She gave me big shirts that I wore untucked so I almost looked like I had dresses on. Because she found the mother in him. That was the arc. Benton worked beautifully in that movie. Did you know we reshot the ending? He originally had us going out into the park, each of us holding the kid's hand. In other words, we're still divorced, but the kid has bonded us. That was the original ending. And he wanted a tougher ending. He thought it should be that she realizes at the last minute that she can't do it, which is the scene that he wrote. We were shooting that and Meryl had cried in an earlier take and she was trying to get rid of the mascara stains for the next take. Just before the take, she was standing there and she looked at me and she says, "How do I look?" And I said, "Terrific." And we all were electrified. Benton heard it and I heard it and Meryl heard it. And we felt: There's the end of the movie. That's what made the movie—that they love each other. You can't cut that cord. You want to, but you can't. Did you ever cut the umbilical cord? It's like a garden hose, how difficult it is. That was real stuff. And that was all going on after my marriage had broken up. When you break up a marriage, it's bad enough, but when you break up a marriage and a house, and there's children involved, nothing prepares you. That was as close to death as I think I ever got.
I've heard that Olivier got pretty close to death making Marathon Man.
He was dying of five different things. And he was a general on the field. That's the image I always have of him. I mean, he was so stout. We became quite close.
What did you learn from him?
His mental stamina. If he was going to die while making that film, he was going to die in battle. And I also learned the brilliance of his selection.
What do you mean by that?
For instance, he came in one day and said, "I was having breakfast, and I saw this gardener clipping the roses with such love. And I thought that's the way I should torture you." [laughs] When that film was over, he came to my house because he wanted to give me a gift. And he says, "I got you a collection of Shakespeare." And he sat down, put his leg filled with gout, four times the size it should have been, on the coffee table. And he proceeds for maybe four hours to read lines. God, I wish I had a tape of that. But this is what I'll never forget: After, we went to dinner. And it's etched in my memory when his son came to meet us there, the way he greeted his father: He bent down and kissed his father's head. I'd never seen anybody do that before. I'd never seen a son do that before. He just took his father's delicate head, and he kissed it. [wells up] During dinner I said, "Why do actors become actors?" And he looked at me in one of the great moments of my life—we're nose-to-nose—and he says, "Look at me...look at me...look at me..." And the hair went up all over my back. The bookend to this: Years later I go to London with my wife, Lisa, and we go to the theater, and as I'm going up the stairs, there's one frail old guy grasping the rail. Beard, white hair. I do a double take. It's Olivier. No one recognized him. And I had an impulse to go over, and I thought, it's too naked a moment.
I've always been very moved by Rain Man and the emotional intensity you and Cruise captured.
I always thought of Rain Man as a comedy. Here's a guy that can't be conned. If it's raining, he won't go outside. And then your brother comes and kidnaps you, and he can con anybody out of anything, but he can't move you an inch. How funny is that? You take the laughs out of that movie, it ain't the same movie. As Arthur Miller said about Death of a Salesman, "When I was writing that play, I had to stop so many times, because I broke out laughing. Laughs cock the gun."
THE INTERIOR MONOLOGUE
Judging from his work, one might think the real Hoffman is impossible to know: too intense, too famous, too desperate for an audience. In truth, he's accessible and engaged. Still curious about human nature, demons, motives—especially his own.
Are you still in therapy?
More than ever. I think the largest thing I've learned is I don't want to go back and live the life I did in the same way. And thank God I don't have to. And I so look forward to living the life that I have now and, hopefully, you know, a future.
So you're at peace with the past.
No. At peace? What does that mean? Allow yourself to be angry, to be hurt, and then to go beyond that. My issue was an inability to recognize that I was fucked.
Which manifested itself how?
I didn't realize it, but I felt invisible, and then made myself invisible.
As a child?
Which leads to making yourself visible as an actor?
Yes. But I didn't know that. I didn't start studying acting until I was 18 or 19, and I didn't start doing it for that reason. I just didn't want to continue failing in junior college. I didn't want to go into the service, I didn't want to get a job as a waiter.
But somewhere deep down you wanted to become visible.
No. Somewhere deep down I wanted to fuse—like when you look through a thirty-five-millimeter camera, and you try to focus it, and you see the double image? I was constantly trying to fuse the double image into one image.
Why did you feel invisible?
My home was a fractured place. It was not a place where you felt viable. There was a feeling I had after I started studying acting in which I felt at home. I found my identity by finding another identity. Doesn't a writer say, "I'm all my characters"?
Sure. And you're writing the same story over and over.
Yes. And isn't everything an autobiography, ultimately?
Do you have regrets?
I'm going to have the same regrets five years from now. And that is, looking at old photographs and thinking why didn't I understand how lucky I was? Why didn't I feel full? Why didn't I cherish it more, as it was happening? Why was so much of it just taken for granted?
How does it end?
The ideal way that we all want it to end is the way it ended for Chief Dan George in Little Big Man.
"Good day to die."
Yeah. That's the first answer.
Give me the real answer. There's a part of you that deflects things, that quotes other people rather than quoting yourself.
But that's not bullshit. And there may be a deeper reason for it, which is that I don't trust my own intellect. How's it going to end? I'd like to have my kids around me. And not have fear. And assure them that it's okay, that I'll see them.
You have a great insecurity about your intellect.
For good reason. I got F's. Kicked out of class constantly. That's why I became a good typist. Because in high school, they either sent me to typing class—I loved it—
That came in handy for All the President's Men, then.
Oh, I used to get great scores in typing. The other class they sent me to was projection class, and I learned how to work with a sixteen-millimeter projector, so I was sent to classes to show movies. I loved that, because I loved movies.
You shouldn't be insecure about your intellect.
Well, thank you for saying that. And yes, that's a battle I've been having. I should have said yes to Benton after Kramer, when he offered me a writing credit. I mean, one of the things about my reputation—that I'm difficult and demanding and always trying to change the script—would have been erased. He offered me cowriting credit because I deserved it, not because he was being a nice guy. We cowrote it. And I refused.
Because you didn't see yourself as a writer?
Yes. Yes. That's it. And I know how much writing I've done in some of the films I've done, either written down or improvised or ad-libbed or talked out in scenes.
What was your issue with your father?
In my head, it was that I had to stay an actor. He was able to deal with that, I thought. But don't become a director.
He didn't want you to become a director?
No, it's not that. He wanted to be a director more than anything. He worked for Columbia as a propman.
So you didn't want to surpass him.
You're telling me that even after you were famous, you turned down chances to direct because you were afraid of taking your father's dream?
It ain't all that unique, man!
The story about Olivier with his son...
It was a very moving scene. The way his son greeted him in that restaurant.
Now you're onto something.
It must have resonated with you.
Of course it did. It was the hard part.
What was the hard part?
That part of the relationship I wanted from my father
All of it.
All of it.
Not just the physical embrace, the emotional embrace.
All of it. And the last thing I did to my father as he lay dead, I kissed him on his head. [fights back tears]
I want to ask you for a few memories from your career. Let's do word association.
Oh boy. You know I'm not brief, but I'll try.
Take it down. Certain things you just don't have to nail so hard. Everything.
Fit. Very fit. I started running. It was the beginning of jogging, culturally. I remember we also had these new shoes at the time: Nikes. People would stop me and ask me what they were.
Closer than anyone knows.
Me. I didn't have to dig too deep to find him, kid. He's me. Crippled. Deceitful. A hustler. Survivor.