Alnwick, Northumberland - save 37%
TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Dustin Hoffman - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web
Not blessed with matinee idol good looks, Dustin Hoffman has had to work hard for what he's got. And what he's got is one of the most impressive CVs in Hollywood history. Even the most casual fan of cinema would recall his bumbling Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, his seedy, desperate Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, his cross-dressing soap star in Tootsie or his brilliant autistic in Rain Man. Beyond this, he was the anguished, paranoid Lenny Bruce in Lenny: the student athlete dentally challenged by Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man: the mild-mannered mathematician driven to unspeakable violence in Straw Dogs: the pushy, canny journalist Carl Bernstein, hunting President Nixon in All The President's Men: the myopic weakling swindler brutalized alongside Steve McQueen in Papillon: a pitifully human Willie Loman, drowning in failure in Death Of A Salesman. He was seven times nominated for an Oscar, eleven times for a Golden Globe. He was an off-Broadway star, an on-Broadway star and a big hit in the West End of London. Clearly, he is one of the finest actors of his, or any other generation.
He was born on the 8th of August, 1937, at the Queen Of Angels hospital in Los Angeles. His father was Harry Hoffman, his mother Lillian (nee Gold). Harry's parents had come to the US from Romania, setting up a barber's shop in Chicago. His father, a devout Jew, found it hard to cope with this new life, endlessly studying the Talmud and leaving his wife, known as Red, to run the business. He'd die in a mental home when Harry was just 9, the boy being forced to help support the family from an unreasonably early age. Harry would train as a carpenter, but his ambitions would expand when he met and married Lillian. A big movie fan, she'd dreamed of a life in showbiz, indeed she'd once passed an audition to dance in a big stage show but had been thwarted by her severely Orthodox mother. Now she would seek the limelight in a different way, persuading Harry to go west and try to make it as a film producer. So, in the mid-1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, she, Harry and Ronald (their young son, named after Ronald Colman), climbed into their Model A Ford and took off for California.
Where the Joad family in Steinbeck's The Grapes Of Wrath would suffer persecution and starvation in 1930s California, the Hoffmans, arriving a little earlier, were luckier with Harry finding work digging ditches for the new freeway system. Astutely, though, he quickly moved closer to his Hollywood goal by taking a job installing sewerage pipes at Columbia studios. Going beyond his remit, getting involved, he soon found himself a place in the props department, rising to the position of supervisor. Thus he'd see the likes of Cary Grant and Jean Arthur at work, and score young Ronald a walk-on part in Frank Capra's Mr Smith Goes To Washington. Still keen to be a producer, and being pushed all the way by Lillian, Harry tried hard to network, to connect with the prime movers, but this was a tempestuous time at Columbia. Studio boss Harry Cohn was attempting to take on the Big 5 and, to pursue his project, sacrifices had to be made. When Dustin was still a toddler, Harry would be laid off, his Silver Screen dreams destroyed.
The Hoffmans would now endure some wild ups and downs, mostly downs. Harry would become a travelling furniture salesman, working for the department store chain Barker Brothers. In these hard times money was tight. Working on commission was a nerve-wracking proposition, and Harry was not a success. Sometimes the repo men would come to take the family's stuff while he was at work; the arguments at home were endless as Lillian found herself living far below her anticipated level. In such a bad atmosphere young Dustin - called Dustala or Tootsie Wootsie by his mother - would learn new ways to gain his parents' attention. Though he could not speak properly until the age of 3, by 5 he was a consummate comedian, using his wit to lighten the mood, copying skits by favoured stars like Jimmy Durante, Milton Berle and Abbott and Costello. At one point he stopped eating until his mother bought him a mongrel Alsatian called Buffy. Much to Harry's disgust the hound would sit beside Dustin at table, eating from a plate. Already, Dustin had learned the bloody-minded tactics sometimes necessary to get your own way.
Still Harry kept trying, now using his talents as a carpenter to set up the Harry Hoffman Furniture Company on Jefferson Boulevard. To get business moving he'd sell on credit but wouldn't get paid. To look successful, he'd borrow money to lend to others. Bankruptcy was near inevitable. Having moved the family to Beverly Hills and with Dustin in a nice Beverly Hills school, it would all go wrong. Harry would bounce back, fuelled by that work ethic he'd learned when a boy. Dustin, though, would begin to flunk and would remain something of a failure throughout his school years.
It was thought that maybe Dustin's talents lay in other areas. At 10, Harry bought a piano and the kid turned out to be a natural. Still, though, he was academically weak. Perhaps this was unsurprising given his disadvantages. By the age of 12 he'd already lived in 6 different places, constantly being shifted between schools, forced to deal with new sets of bullies who'd pick on him for his big nose and short stature. Being Jewish didn't help - the Hoffmans were not devout, did not celebrate Jewish holidays and the boys did not enjoy bar mitzvahs, but they were both circumcised. While living in one tough downtown area Dustin would actually join a minor gang, taping a knife to his leg in readiness for action he, thankfully, never saw. Even his first stage performance would prove to be a disaster. Predictably chosen to play Tiny Tim in an adaptation of A Christmas Carol, he was persuaded by an older boy to change his last line, ending the play with an emphatic "God bless us all, goddammit!" He'd bring the house down, but be suspended from school.
What would make life even tougher was his status compared to that of Ronald. Competition between brothers is usually fierce, but here the result was never in doubt. Ronald was a Straight-A student, a football star, captain of the baseball team. Dustin, already lacking in confidence, would always look weak by comparison. He did, however, later claim to have lost his hated virginity thanks to Ronald's success. Aged 15, Dustin claimed, he attended a New Year's Eve party where he scored with a 19-year-old girl who, in the dark, thought he was his supremely attractive brother. Dustin, the dog, didn't let on and had his moment, a moment ended abruptly when the girl realised her mistake and screamed, Dustin fleeing the scene buck-naked.
Having attended John Burroughs Junior High School in the Hancock Park area of LA, Dustin would move on to LA High - a school also attended by Charles Bukowski and Ray Bradbury, as well as Oscar winner Anne Baxter and nominee Piper Laurie. Still taking piano lessons and playing at school parties and assemblies, Dustin was now dreaming of becoming a concert pianist. His over-riding ambition, though, was to get girls and, in this, given his looks and his overt failure in all areas academic and sporting, the outlook was bleak. So, he took up weight training and long distance running, making of himself a real marathon man - still no joy. Eventually, he hooked up with some other outsiders at LA High, black kids who let him join their jazz band. Even this brought no nookie, and Hoffman came to suspect that the black guys only tolerated him because he'd drive them to jazz clubs in his '37 Pontiac.
In 1955, Hoffman would graduate from LA High, but his grades were not good enough to take him to university. Unwilling to join the military, he'd instead choose to continue his education at Santa Monica City College, enrolling on the 30th of September, the same day James Dean was killed. Here Hoffman would major in music, but once again bomb out in his other academic subjects. Abject failure beckoned till a friend suggested a sure-fire way of gaining credits, a class that no one ever failed - acting.
This would be the turning-point for Hoffman. Although he entered acting for the lowest of reasons - to gain cheap points and, of course, to meet girls - he quickly found that this was, at last, a subject that captured his imagination. In a way he had been primed. Though Lillian would later deny it, he had actually been named after the actor Dustin Farnum, a specialist in cowboy roles who'd appeared in Cecil B de Mille's The Squaw Man and whose last part was as General Custer in 1926's The Flaming Frontier. Also, like many American teenagers he'd recently been gripped by Marlon Brando's performances in On The Waterfront and The Wild One and James Dean's in Rebel Without A Cause., seeing his own alienated self in their characters. He'd also been opened up to the possibilities of theatre when, at 17, Ronald had given him a copy of John Gassner's compilation Best American Plays, the third series covering 1945-51, including such powerhouse plays as The Iceman Cometh, A Streetcar Named Desire and, above all, Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman. In Willie Loman, perhaps Miller's greatest character, Hoffman could easily see his own wildly optimistic, ever-struggling father and, in the prodigal son Biff, seeking redemption in his assault on phoniness, himself.
Hoffman's first scene in acting classes would see him play Jim, the gentleman caller entering the fraught Wingfield household in The Glass Menagerie. Here at last was something on which he could naturally focus; it was hard work but did not feel like an imposition. With Harry struggling again and unable to support both his sons, Dustin sold newspapers on Beverly Boulevard. Then Harry's fortunes turned once more as he began to design and deal in Scandinavian-style furniture. This was good for Dustin financially, but bad in that his mother now decided to improve herself and enrolled at SMCC, causing him acute on-campus embarrassment till she left just prior to his graduation. Hoffman may have discovered acting but he'd long seen music as his future. Thus he now enrolled at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to study classical and jazz piano. It was a mistake, and he knew it. He'd finally stumbled upon his true vocation but was abandoning it to continue on the same old unsatisfying path. He begged his parents to let him change course (and pay for him to do so) and, once Harry had agreed, joined the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatre Arts.
This turned out to be the perfect place for him. As a beatnik outsider, long-haired and scruffily stylish, Hoffman was no fan of studio system heroes like John Wayne and James Stewart. Instead he worshipped at the temple of Brando, lauding method actors like Paul Newman, Rod Steiger and Eli Wallach. And, at Pasadena, he would be taught by Barney Brown, a keen student of Stanislavsky, who advised hard work, deep research and massive introspection. It was Brown who'd first tell Hoffman that he would be a star - though, quite rightly as it turned out, he'd add that it would first take 10 years of theatrical toil. Brown, sadly, would not see his prediction become reality, dying in 1961 at the age of just 50.
Though still something of a social outcast, Hoffman would rapidly make friends at Pasadena. He'd enjoy a relationship with fellow student Judi Clutinger (sadly, for Hoffman, platonic) and share a flat with Steve Ihnat, a Czech-born Canadian later to appear in almost every major American TV show as well as hit movies Our Man Flint and Hour Of The Gun, a retelling of the Wyatt Earp legend that featured future Hoffman co-stars Jason Robards as Doc Holliday and Jon Voight as Curly Bill (like Barney Brown, Ihnat would also not live to see Hoffman's reach his peak, dying of a heart attack in Paris in 1972). Another friend would be a fellow six years older than Hoffman, who'd already served in the Army and got married to one Faye Maltese. This was Gene Hackman, who lived close by on the same street. As an older student he was also an outsider and he took to Hoffman, liked his attitude, the way he railed against compulsory classes in speech, movement, fencing and even the history of costumes. Often they'd have dinner and big laughs. Unfortunately, it would not last. After only one semester Hackman would be kicked out of the college, having achieved the lowest grade in their history. He'd return to New York and then, in summer stock the next year, at Bellport, Long Island, appear in a production of Miller's A View From The Bridge, directed by Ulu Grosbard and starring another newcomer, Robert Duvall. These new connections would later serve Hoffman well.
Though loathing most of his classes, considering them to be painfully old hat, worse than useless, Hoffman persevered and, against his own wishes, gradually learned his craft. He appeared alongside Clutinger in Ibsen's Peer Gynt, played Brutus in Julius Caesar, acted as narrator on A View From The Bridge and took the lead in Danton's Death. It was said that he lacked the physical stature to play the hulking, hedonistic Danton but, with sheer passion, he pulled it off. The boy definitely had something.
Encouraged by Barney Brown, upon graduation Hoffman took off for New York City, hoping to find steady work off-Broadway. Knowing next to nothing about the place, his first port of call was Gene Hackman's two-room flat in the East 20s. Here Hackman, working as a removal man while himself trying to make it in the theatre, was living with wife Faye and a new-born child. They really had no room for their young guest, but allowed Hoffman to crash on the kitchen floor. After three weeks, with Hoffman showing no signs of getting his own place - indeed, he seemed scared of going out alone - Hackman passed him on to another friend, Duvall. Like Hackman, Duvall was some years older than Hoffman. The son of a rear admiral, he'd also served in the military and was struggling for acting work. Nevertheless, he took Hoffman on and so young Dustin found himself sharing a walk-up apartment on 109th and Broadway with Duvall, a Russian choreographer called Vladimir Kostinoff and two other actors, brothers Richard and Robert Morse, Richard having in 1955 appeared in Marty, which won a Best Actor Oscar for Ernest Borgnine, and Robert having enjoyed stage hits with The Matchmaker and Say, Darling.
With these new buddies, Hoffman began to come out of his shell and enjoy the city's freedoms. They'd party with other actor friends, often at Hackman's place where Faye would cook them all spaghetti. There'd be music, with Hoffman at the forefront, and they'd all perform skits for each other. Along with Hackman, Duvall and Hoffman, other guests would include fellow strugglers Elliott Gould, James Caan and Jon Voight. Though ambitious, could these young hopefuls have imagined that between them they'd be nominated for Oscars 24 times, winning six?
In order to progress, Hoffman recognised that he needed top-notch tuition. Caan and Voight were attending the Neighbourhood Playhouse and, like Duvall, being taught by Sanford Meisner. Hackman and Duvall were also denizens of the famed Actors' Studio and would recommend Hoffman to their master Lee Strasberg. However, despite their commendations, Hoffman would fail to win a place, and would be rejected four more times, only making it in after two years of trying. Now, at last, he would spend two years working under Strasberg and Lonnie Chapman, following in the footsteps of his hero, Marlon Brando. In search of reality in his performances, he would be encouraged to study people on the streets constantly, and even visit the zoo to study the animals.
With his father's business now reasonably profitable, Hoffman was surviving on a regular allowance sent from LA. But he also needed to work and, over the next few years would earn his dough in a crazy variety of jobs. He'd play piano and work as janitor in dance studios: tour as stage manager for a small ballet company: make Hawaiian-style garlands in a stuffy factory in the flower district: type for the Yellow Pages: act as a companion for the lonely child of a 70-year-old millionaire and his young wife: file cutting for Time magazine: make cold calls for a charity: dress as Paul Revere and march up and down Times Square to plug the Army & Navy store: check hats and sell drinks at the Longacre Theatre where Zero Mostel was appearing in the play Rhinoceros. Of course he'd also be a waiter, working at Radleys on Columbus Circle and at the Village Gate. He'd serve, too, in a French restaurant where one day he'd try to impress uber-producer Sam Spiegel and, in his rush to charm the man, spilt coffee on his suit. "Actually, I'm not really a waiter, I'm an actor" he said, by way of excuse and introduction. "You're neither a waiter nor an actor" came Spiegel's withering reply. Hoffman would also work in the toy department of Macy's, at one point winning a bet by selling Hackman's son to a customer as a state-of-the-art doll. Hackman would also help Hoffman in his romantic pursuits by pretending to be a mad vagrant and hassling a shop assistant his friend fancied. Hoffman dragged Hackman off into the toilets and together they faked a loud fracas, Hackman eventually howling in pain and running off. Sadly, Hoffman gained no rumpo for his efforts, the girl reprimanding him for assaulting a sick man.
Perhaps the most fruitful job Hoffman performed outside the theatre during this period was the time he spent as psychiatric assistant at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute on West 168th Street. For eight months he looked after the lost, the broken and the out-of-control, even having to hold patients down during shock therapy. The experience would deepen his insight considerably, and give him a wealth of characters and scenes to play for the amusement of his actor friends.
Outside of work, he'd see as much theatre as he could, being most impressed with a John Gielgud reading of TS Eliot's The Waste Land (and also by Gielgud's departure form the theatre when he drunkenly yelled "Who wants to fuck an actor?" before being helped into a cab). During the days he and Duvall would spend a lot of their time cracking jokes in Cromwell's drugstore on Rockefeller Plaza. In the evenings they'd make for Downey's Steak House where they'd discuss Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, Chekhov, Stanislavsky, the inevitable Brando and, of course, girls. Having suffered so many years of unrequited desire, Hoffman couldn't ever get enough of the girls and, according to Duvall, who nicknamed him Dustbone, was relentless and usually successful in his hunting.
Hoffman would score his first professional acting job in his second year in New York. This would be in Yes Is For A Very Young Man at the Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, also featuring one Jane Quigley, later to change her name to Jane Alexander and appear alongside Hoffman in his hits All The President's Men and Kramer vs Kramer. It wasn't much - Hoffman still had to pay his own train fare - but it was a start. His next part would be in a showcase revival of Dead End, put on by the Equity Library Theatre at the 41st Street Theatre. This was intended to allow agents to peruse new talent and Hoffman, playing a fast-talking street kid, would indeed bag himself representation. Quickly this would lead to a TV debut in an episode of Naked City, where his roomie Robert Morse would cover up for Dustin, a garage worker and criminal. Playing Morse's mother would be Jan Miner, later to serve as Hoffman's mother in Lenny.
Now, before Hackman or Duvall had managed it, in 1961 Hoffman would make his Broadway debut as Ridzinski in Fielder Cook's A Cook For Mr General. This was an army farce set in a rehab clinic in the Pacific in 1944 and Hoffman had only one line - "Yes, sir!". Still, he nearly lost the job. With the play undergoing problems when being tested out in Philadelphia, director David Pressman was brought in the save the production. Calling a rehearsal for 10 o'clock one Sunday morning he gave Hoffman a severe ticking off for arriving late. Then, on the day the play was due to open on Broadway, Hoffman arrived late for the technical run, his shirt torn, his face mud-streaked, clearly shocked. Pressman asked what on Earth had happened, Hoffman explained that he'd been in an accident and would really rather not talk about it, and a concerned Pressman made no more mention of the incident. Years later, when Hoffman was a star, he'd meet Pressman again and admit that, in fact, there'd been no accident. Hoffman's scooter had run out of petrol in Central Park, he'd had no money for more and, knowing he'd be late again, had faked the whole episode to avoid the sack.
Over the next several years, Hoffman would find himself overtaken by his friends Duvall and Hackman. In 1962 Duvall would make a haunting appearance as Boo Radley in the Oscar-winning To Kill A Mockingbird and hit big onstage as Eddie Carbone, the longshoreman tragically infatuated with his own niece in A View From The Bridge. Hackman, meanwhile, would score onstage in 1963 in Irwin Shaw's Children At Their Games, then the next year break through opposite Sandy Dennis in his mentor George Morrison's Any Wednesday, also making a screen debut alongside Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg in Lilith.
Hoffman would have to wait a little longer. In the winter of 1962 he'd find three months' work in a community theatre in Fargo, North Dakota, acting and directing. One of the plays he put on would be William Gibson's Two For The Seesaw which, in 1958, had given Hoffman's future seducer Anne Bancroft her big entry to the New York stage, opposite Henry Fonda (Gibson would also write The Miracle Worker, which would give Bancroft both a stage hit and an Oscar). Discovering that he took great pleasure in sharing his knowledge with other actors, on his return to New York Hoffman would start his own acting class at the East Harlem Boys' Club on West 110th Street. He'd also direct his old favourite Death Of A Salesman for a small summer stock company in New Jersey.
Workwise, 1963 would be tough, plenty of study, lots of auditions, but only another episode of Naked City to show for it all, Hoffman playing a young armed robber shot by a cop who turns out to be just a wannabe cop. The year before there'd been an episode of The Defenders directed by Stuart Rosenberg, who'd helm Cool Hand Luke in the same year that Hoffman would become a star. 1963 did, though, see him meet his future wife, Anne Byrne. At the time, Hoffman was sharing a flat with operatic tenor Maurice Stern. Stern, like Hoffman, always had an eye out for the girls and had discovered a laundrette frequented by ballerinas where he would often seek tottie. Picking up Byrne, a young dancer dreaming of joining the New York Ballet, he took her to The Premise, an improv theatre where Hoffman would wash the dishes, play the piano and study under George Morrison, a follower of Lee Strasberg, close friend of Mike Nichols and, as said, longtime mentor of Gene Hackman. That night Hoffman would hit it off with Byrne and, when her relationship with Stern quickly ended, the couple would become an item. But only for a month, Hoffman taking off for summer stock in Fishkill, New Jersey and Byrne joining the Pennsylvania Ballet. Four years later, Byrne would return to New York, still aiming to join the New York Ballet. Now she'd be married with a kid but on the verge of divorce. She'd meet Hoffman again and they'd rekindle what they had, getting married on the 8th of May, 1969.
In the meantime there was more rejection, more work, more struggle. In January, 1964, Hoffman would travel north to join the Theatre Company of Boston. Though earning only $65 a week, this gave him a wealth of theatrical experience, ten plays in nine months including Beckett's Endgame and Waiting For Godot, Behan's The Quare Fellow, Brecht's In The Jungle Of The Cities, Pinter's The Dumb Waiter and The Room, Sartre's Les Mains Sales and Eliot's The Cocktail Party. Next he'd move on to Princeton, New Jersey, to play gambler Frankie McCarter in the 1935 comedy Three Men On A Horse, also appearing when the Boston production of Waiting For Godot was staged as a one-off at the Circle In the Square. Here he'd play the pompous aristocrat Pozzo, suffering a series of breakdowns, causing chaos for Vladimir and Estragon and keeping his exhausted slave Lucky (played by Duvall) on leashes of different lengths. Hoffman's efforts impressed director Ulu Grosbard who was about to reprise his earlier Bellport production of A View From The Bridge, this time at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in January, 1965. There was no part for Hoffman but Grosbard asked him to be assistant director and stage manager and he accepted, thus having to watch jealously as his friend Duvall enjoyed his big breakthrough, accompanied onstage by another up-and-comer with matinee idol good looks, Jon Voight. If the success of his friends wasn't painful enough, Hoffman would also suffer a put-down from one of his heroes, the play's author Arthur Miller. During the production Grosbard would point Hoffman out to Miller and predict that he'd one day make a great Willie Loman. Miller was not impressed, later writing that "My estimate of Grosbard all but collapsed as, observing Dustin Hoffman's awkwardness and his big nose that never seemed to get unstuffy, I wondered how the poor fellow imagined himself a candidate for any kind of acting career". Ouch.
A big hit, A View From The Bridge would run for 780 performances, with Hoffman working backstage on nearly all of them. The few he'd miss were due to a tasty engagement elsewhere, when George Morrison invited him to join the cast of Harry, Noon And Night, set in Munich in 1955, where an alienated American would meet a disaffected GI and a limping homosexual German hunchback. Hoffman would nab the hunchback role and win good reviews, the first time he'd been picked out for special praise by the press, but the show, opening on the 5th of May, 1965, would last only six performances. Hoffman could console himself only with a steady job on A View From The Bridge and a second appearance in TV show The Defenders for which he was paid $500, his biggest ever pay-day.
But there was more disappointment on the way. One of the big Broadway hits of the time was The Subject Was Roses, where Martin Sheen starred as the 20-year-old GI Timmy Cleary, struggling to adapt to civvie life after three years away at war. The show had been so successful that the original cast was to transfer to Los Angeles, so replacements were needed to keep the New York run going, first to understudy the originals, then take over. Hoffman's friend Ulu Grosbard was to direct, Hoffman auditioned and was duly awarded the part of Cleary. A breakthrough was on the cards. Unfortunately, while making fondue for friends, Hoffman contrived to badly burn himself. Desperate to keep the part, he refused hospital and hid his injuries throughout three weeks of rehearsals. It was a mistake. His wounds became infected, his blood was poisoned and he collapsed. The situation was serious - in hospital his card read "Hoffman/Burns/Terminal" - but somehow he pulled through. Even then it was not over as he became addicted to the Demerol doctors prescribed and had to endure cold turkey. Much worse for the ambitious Hoffman, though, was the fact that Grosbard had, through necessity, cast Walter McGinn as Timmy Cleary. It would be him, not Hoffman, who'd star opposite Maureen O'Sullivan - Jane to Johnny Weismuller's Tarzan - at the Helen Hayes Theatre, then at the Henry Miller Theatre, a gig that lasted until February, 1966. Grosbard offered Hoffman a job as stage manager and understudy to McGinn, but Dustin was rabid in his feelings of betrayal and frustration. Eventually, though, he calmed and took the work.
After years of rejection, Hoffman was finding it hard to keep his cool. Most actors had a way of dealing with the frustration - Duvall, for instance, would pick a person in the audience he thought didn't like him and feed off the supposed bad feeling, using it to boost his performances (he was even known to whisper "Fuck you" to the unknowing innocent on his way offstage). Hackman, meanwhile, would simply say "I gotta go" and trawl New York's bars looking for a fight. Hoffman himself would pace round his flat, endlessly repeating to himself "I'm a great fucking actor, I'm a great fucking actor". But the mantra wasn't helping. Hoffman was becoming too self-absorbed, too sensitive, too difficult to work with. Another problem was his intense determination to succeed. When given a role, he wanted desperately to be so impressive that he'd win a steady stream of work and escape poverty for good. To achieve this, to reach the "truth" within a role, he'd think and talk and discuss and improvise and experiment endlessly, working with a manic energy few others could match or, indeed, tolerate.
1965 would see Hoffman's temperament and work ethic causing him trouble. He'd win a prime role in Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt Of The Sun but then be asked to leave, the play going on to run for eight months at the ANTA Playhouse with Christopher Plummer and David Carradine. He'd then win a part in the British pacifist play Sergeant Musgrave's Dance at the Theatre-de-Lys, but changing his character's nature over and over had him kicked out after six days of rehearsal. The play would then run for 135 performances, starring Roy Scheider, later to hit big with Hoffman's buddy Hackman in the French Connection and then Hoffman himself in Marathon Man. Recognising that it was counter-productive to rage at directors who didn't seem to understand what he was attempting or refused to experiment with him, Hoffman now entered therapy. Given that he'd would never mellow in his pursuit of excellence, he'd continue in analysis for decades.
Despite a growing reputation for being difficult, Hoffman's talent and persistence would not allow him to be out of work for long. Early 1966 would see him win the lead in The Journey Of The Fifth Horse, based on Turgenev's Diary Of A Superfluous Man. Opening at St Clement's Church, off-Broadway, in April, this would see Hoffman as crusty old bureaucrat Zoditch, reading the inflammatory diary of a dead 19th Century Russian landowner. The play would run for just eleven performances, but this was enough. Hoffman would inspire great reviews and win himself an Obie, an off-Broadway Tony. He was now officially a "hot young actor". The Journey Of the Fifth Horse would be screened on TV in October, 1966, also featuring Susan Anspach, alongside whom Hoffman had appeared on TV twice the year before, in episodes of The Nurses (featuring Hoffman's future Midnight Cowboy co-star Brenda Vaccaro) and, once again, The Defenders. 1966 would also see Hoffman in the TV play The Star Wagon where Orson Bean would play an inventor who for years has watched other people make fortunes from his work, much to the annoyance of his wife. Now, aided by his annoying little sidekick Hoffman, he aims to use his new time machine to sort his life out. Hoffman would make a final TV appearance of '66 is A Christmas Masque, an episode of the Hallmark Hall of Fame staged by John Langstaff, famed for creating the Christmas Revels, a combination of dance, ritual and traditional theatre. Hoffman would play the dragon slain by St George.
August, 1966, would see Hoffman at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Massachusetts . Here he'd act in several pieces by the renowned playwright Murray Schisgal - The Old Jew, Reverberations and Fragments - and he'd also begin a close working relationship with the writer. Each morning Schisgal would leave his hotel for a bracing walk and each day Hoffman would be there waiting, script in hand, asking questions, making suggestions, seeking the truth. Impressed by the young actor's curiosity, Schisgal would throughout the 1970s often work with Hoffman on his film scripts, and become godfather to two of his children.
The same year would bring yet more highs and lows. Hoffman would make some handy dough from a Volkswagen TV ad. He also lose out on a plum role when Alan Alda pipped him to the lead in the Broadway comedy The Apple Tree, directed by Mike Nichols and co-starring Barbara Harris. Painfully for Hoffman, Alda would win a Tony nomination, but unbeknown to him he was making important connections, impressing the right people. His failed audition for Nichols would change his life.
Another failure, Journey Of The Fifth Horse, was already having a positive effect. The play had been seen by producer Theodore Mann and he decided to cast Hoffman in his next New York production, Eh? by Henry Livings. The play had been a success for the Royal Shakespeare Company and David Warner at London's Aldwych two years previously, and only two months previously had been a hit in Cincinatti with Sam Waterston in the lead. Mann, though, decided to ignore Waterston's efforts and go with Hoffman as Valentine Brose, a crazy machine operator in the boiler room of a dye factory, who grows magic mushrooms at work, annoys the hell out of everyone, then gets them all stoned before the boiler eventually blows them all to hell. It was a troubled production from the start. Hoffman's methods caused ructions again, but this time Hoffman was a name and two directors were fired before Alan Arkin was brought in. Arkin, about to be Oscar-nominated for The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, decided to credit himself as Roger Short to avoid embarrassment, but he needn't have worried. By allowing Hoffman to stretch himself, test out all the possibilities of the role, he put the production back on track. It would open on the 16th of October, 1966, at the Circle In The Square, with Hoffman appearing alongside Elizabeth Wilson (soon to play his mother in The Graduate). It would be a big hit, with Hoffman enjoying his best reviews yet, some of them comparing him to Buster Keaton. He also had a glass of beer poured on his head by English actor Victor Henry, who thought he was terrible. Well, you can't please everybody.
Soon after the opening of Eh?, Hoffman would take three hours to film his Silver Screen debut in The Tiger Makes Out. This was an extended version of Murray Schisgal's play The Tiger, produced by Eli Wallach and his actress wife Ann Jackson in order to keep the roles they'd originated onstage. Directed by Arthur Hiller, the film would see Wallach as a sexually repressed postman accidentally kidnapping socially reserved Long Island housewife Jackson, Hoffman appearing for around 45 seconds as a beatnik lad in polo neck and raincoat, dumping his girlfriend. Also during the run of Eh?, Hoffman would sign on for Madigan's Millions, filmed in Rome in April, 1967. Here he'd play a bumbling, bespectacled and bewildered Treasury agent sent to Italy on a mission to uncover the fortune of the gangster of the title. George Raft was supposed to play the gangster but was replaced by Cesar Romero and the film became a misfiring slapstick caper. It would not be released in America till 1969, and then only to cash in on the success of Hoffman and his Midnight Cowboy co-star Jon Voight. Put on a double-bill with Voight's rancid Fearless Frank, the films would be preposterously billed as "The Two Most Incredible Comedies Ever Laughed At". Clearly unmissable, right? Also in '67 he'd appear in the stage play The Trap Of Solid Gold, an episode in the ABC Stage 67 series. Here Cliff Robertson would play an ambitious businessman overstretching himself in order to appear a big-shot and climb the ladder further, Hoffman appearing as the smart accountant who tells Robertson to either get a raise or stop pushing, advice that leads to Robertson's downfall. Also featuring would be James Broderick, father of Matthew, alongside whom Hoffman would co-star 22 years later.
Before filming Madigan's Millions and while still appearing in Eh?, Hoffman would get his first shot at the big time. In late 1966, Mike Nichols would begin casting for his new movie, The Graduate. Katharine Ross would quickly be taken on, with Gene Hackman to play her father. As her mother, the central role of Mrs Robinson, Nichols wanted Susan Hayward, but she refused to leave her semi-retirement so a role so lacking in glamour and featuring semi-nude scenes. Her potential replacement, Doris Day, considered the whole project offensive: Jeanne Moreau was considered too European: Anne Bancroft was hired, despite being only 35. For the starring role of Benjamin Braddock, Robert Redford had read but was too attractive. Nichols hunted for months for the right actor. Then he recalled Hoffman's audition for The Apple Tree and read the excellent reviews he'd received for Eh? In February, 1967, Hoffman would be flown to LA for a screen test, his place in Eh? being taken by MacIntyre Dixon. Feeling ugly amidst Californian beauties, nervous at the importance of the opportunity, jet-lagged and still unsure whether cinema was a fitting place for a stage actor, Hoffman would blow his lines, infuriate Ross by grabbing her butt and generally make a hash of the whole thing. Well, at least he had a stage hit to return to. He would be shocked when Nichols, feeling Hoffman's nervousness and inappropriate behaviour would suit the role of Braddock, called him in New York to offer him the part. Quickly he informed his neighbour, Mel Brooks, that he couldn't play the Nazi author in Brooks' upcoming The Producers as he would be sleeping with his wife, Anne Bancroft instead.
The Graduate would be a tough shoot for Hoffman. Only three weeks into rehearsal his friend Hackman would be sacked (Hackman would immediately be hired by his friend Warren Beatty for Bonnie & Clyde, a role for which he'd be Oscar-nominated). Beyond this, Mike Nichols was beginning to think he'd made a mistake in casting Hoffman. Now it was too late to get a replacement, so the director drove Hoffman mercilessly in order to get the best possible performance and somehow salvage the film. After the shoot ended, deeply insecure about his performance, Hoffman returned to New York, Anne and her daughter Karina. The $17,000 he was paid for The Graduate did not go far. Soon he was on welfare again and was embarrassingly photographed by Life magazine while signing on. Failing an audition for Anouilh's The Lark at the Lincoln Centre, he was still reliant on the $200 his father sent every month.
When The Graduate opened in December, 1967, it was an unexpected revelation. With Hoffman, then 30, as a mumbling kid at a crossroads in life, seduced by suburban life but rejecting it all in favour of something, anything different, it appealed hugely to counter-culture kids and would give Hollywood an inroad into the hard-to-reach 18-25 market. Reviews were ecstatic, claiming that the movie captured the prevailing feelings of the nation's youth (despite Hoffman being 30 - Barney Brown had been proved correct). The film would receive seven Oscar nominations and eventually take over $100 million at the box office. Hoffman would be one of those nominated, alongside his hero Paul Newman (they'd lose to another Hoffman hero, Rod Steiger), and friend Hackman. Hoffman would also win a Golden Globe. Indeed, everyone would be a winner - except Charles Webb, author of the 1963 novel on which the film was based. Having signed away his rights for $20,000, he would see no share of the massive profits. Then again, he didn't want to. One of the western world's great anti-materialist heroes, Webb would, in the course of his lifetime, give away two houses and most of his possessions, choosing instead to live in liberated semi-poverty.
The success of The Graduate would bring both joy and pain. Anne, having left the ballet and begun work as a counsellor for the blind, was afraid that Dustin would be taken from her by some Hollywood starlet. And she was right. After all those years of female rejection, Hoffman could not resist the sexual ego boosts that showered upon him as Hollywood's next big thing (his flings would not last, though, and he'd soon be back with his family). Deep down he remained insecure about his newfound celebrity, believing that many people failed to recognise his ability as an actor. They thought, so he thought, that svengali Mike Nichols had simply found some kid who was like Benjamin Braddock and shoved him in front of the cameras. There was still much to prove. He began to practise ballet and singing to give himself a chance of securing employment in musicals. And, still under the spell of Brando, he retained a degree of contempt for screen acting, planning instead to return to the New York stage. Needing work though, he would appear in Higher And Higher, one of a series of pilots screened in the summer of 1968 to replace The Carole Burnett Show. Hoffman's earlier nemesis Alan Alda would also feature, the pilot being directed by Paul Bogart, who'd already shot Hoffman in The Trap Of Solid Gold. For fun and as a favour to his friend Murray Schisgal, he'd also appear in Schisgal's short, Sunday Father, a wordless but tender vignette where Hoffman would play a divorced dad taking his daughter, played by Schisgal's daughter Jane, to the park.
Given all this, if ever the right film arrived at the right time for the right actor it was Midnight Cowboy. The film had all the contemporary reality required by a Brando fan: $250,000 would get him off the dole: and, after playing Ratso Rizzo, no one could ever accuse him of not being a consummate character actor. Hoffman, naturally, leapt at the chance - despite the warnings of his peers and agent who felt that playing a seedy, consumptive and possibly gay cripple would damage his career. Hoffman had been seen in Eh? by Jack Gelbar who'd been hired to adapt James Leo Herlihy's novel. Gelbar then advised producer Jerome Hellman to see the play and he was taken by Hoffman, too. Director John Schlesinger, though, who'd just bombed badly with Far From The Madding Crowd, was desperately keen to get the casting dead right and was unconvinced. His attitude would change immediately on meeting Hoffman in a New York caf'. Deliberately dressed as Rizzo, scruffy in a dirty raincoat, Hoffman fitted perfectly on the streets. He was also - as The Graduate had not yet been released - cheap, and United Artists were only stumping up $1 million to make the movie (this would rise to $3 million).
As for Hoffman's co-star, the producers had pencilled in Michael Sarrazin to play Joe Buck, the young Texan who comes to the city to service rich ladies and gets ripped off and roundly abused. Sarrazin, however, would prove too expensive and would instead make They Shoot Horses, Don't They? Now Hoffman would step in with a recommendation. Just two years before, he'd been the stage manager on A View From The Bridge, watching enviously from the wings as his friend Robert Duvall accepted the applause and the tall, good-looking Jon Voight got the girls. Now, the tables turned, backstage at another theatre he'd be approached in the gloom by Voight who'd hesitantly beg him to intercede with the producers of Midnight Cowboy. He did, and Voight became Joe Buck.
The shoot was a real joy for Hoffman. Schlesinger, who'd just come out as a homosexual, was utterly liberated. As an Englishman, he saw New York with an outsider's eyes, noticing something wild, wonderful or vile on every corner. With his crew and stars, he took to the streets, stealing shots to place his characters in the heart of the city. He also trusted Hoffman and Voight, denizens of New York, to come up with goods of their own. The pair would improvise together and Schlesinger would create new scenes, new dialogue from their efforts. And what scenes, what dialogue. Voight would be superb as the wide-eyed Buck, constantly conned into giving away his sexual wares, and Hoffman brilliant as Rizzo, the whining sneak-thief ravaged by life on the streets but still dreaming of a dignified retirement in the sun. Lurking in cafes, arranging sexual encounters or simply sat there, dispassionately assessing his new companion, Voight, he was outstanding. It had not been hard, he said, to find the ugly outsider within himself.
After filming, which began in April, 1968, Hoffman would take his $250,000 and move to a $400 a month flat off 5th Avenue. He'd also hire a business manager and someone to cook and clean. Quickly he'd return to the stage in Murray Schisgal's Jimmy Shine, an episodic comedy where he'd play a failing artist who retains his optimism despite disasters in life and love. The drama aside, Hoffman would also get to sing and dance with beer cans attached to his feet, being joined onstage by Ulu Grosbard's wife, Rose Gregorio, Rue McClanahan (later a hit in The Golden Girls) and Cleavon Little.
Things had certainly changed. Now that The Graduate had made him a star, Hoffman was on $4,500 a week plus 10% of the box office (he even took half the profits from the programmes - that business manager let nothing slip). Testing the play in Philadelphia, he made the producers haul a pool table up the side of his hotel and place it in his suite so he could relax as a star should. When director Donald Driver complained that Hoffman was taking over the production it was he who had to walk. To gain extra sympathy, when Hoffman cut his finger he had it announced that he was performing despite an injury - even after the wound had healed. The play would open on Broadway at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre on the 5th of December, 1968, the reviews saying that Hoffman's was a brilliant performance in a terrible play. Nevertheless, Hoffman's star power would keep it running for 161 performances, ending in April, 1969.
. During the run of Jimmy Shine, Hoffman would sign on for and complete his next film project, John And Mary. With the screenplay written by John Mortimer, this was originally to have been directed by Anthony Harvey, with Glenda Jackson starring. Harvey, however, had moved on to The Lion In Winter, and Peter Yates, hot after Steve McQueen's Bullitt, had come onboard. Keen to hire Hoffman, Yates and Mortimer flew to Philadelphia where Jimmy Shine was in trouble. The play just wasn't working and Yates and Mortimer contributed some improvements, Yates even returning later to help some more. Impressed by this kindness, Hoffman agreed to appear in John And Mary and would film his parts at night after his performances in Jimmy Shine, once the play had arrived in New York (he'd attend therapy in the morning, then sleep for the rest of the day, Fox buying him out of Wednesday matinees). The film was originally to be set in Swinging London but was now transported to New York, with Hoffman to star alongside Mia Farrow, the flower power poster child who'd meditated with the Beatles in India, hit big with Rosemary's Baby and stirred controversy when she was divorced from Frank Sinatra and began seeing Andre Previn, funky conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. In the movie, she'd work in an art gallery and meet furniture designer Hoffman in a singles bar. They'd go to bed as strangers, then spend the weekend taunting, teasing and getting to know each other, each learning the other's name only at the end. Satirizing both Sixties politics and Nouvelle Vague cinema, it would also feature Tyne Daly as Farrow's flatmate and Olympia Dukakis as Hoffman's mother. And it would win Hoffman a Golden Globe nomination.
He'd receive another Golden Globe nomination for Midnight Cowboy, also released in 1969. But that was a minor part of the film's success. Both he and Voight were Oscar nominated (as was Sylvia Miles) and, though they'd split their vote and lose out to John Wayne, the film would garner awards for director Schlesinger and its writers as well as snatching Best Picture. Two years before, Bonnie & Clyde had announced the arrival of counter-culture movies by winning 10 nominations, but had won in none of the big categories. Midnight Cowboy, the first X-rated movie to be named Best Picture, had broken that barrier. It smelled like revolution.
Hoffman's next picture would keep him on the cutting edge, roundly attacking American imperialism and materialism and, in particular, questioning its involvement in Vietnam. Director Arthur Penn had bought the rights to the epic western Little Big Man back in 1965, then gone on to score heavily in the youth market with Bonnie & Clyde and Alice's Restaurant. Bringing in Hoffman and writer Calder Willingham, co-writer of The Graduate, he assembled a team of unimpeachable credibility, and tested them both to the max. Willingham would need to deal in history, comedy, tragedy and political metaphor. Hoffman, meanwhile, would have to play hero Jack Crabbe from a teen to the age of 121. Orphaned by Indians, Crabbe would be raised as a brave by the Cheyenne, then captured by whites and taken in by a preacher and his less than pure wife Faye Dunaway. Slipping between societies, Crabbe would meet such legends as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, become a gunfighter, a religious acolyte, a mule skinner, a drunk and a swindler, before playing hilarious mind games with Richard Mulligan's psychotic Custer and taking part in the Little Big Horn massacre. Visiting old people's homes to try to find his ancient voice, Hoffman would eventually resort to constant screaming to achieve his laryngitic rasp. The movie would keep him at the top, appealing to contemporary values in depicting the Cheyenne as hippie victims and whites as brutal, soul-less invaders.
Returning to New York after filming, Hoffman, seeking to work with only the best directors, entered discussions with Franco Zeffirelli to take the lead in Brother Sun, Sister Moon, but pulled out at the last. A close shave as Zeffirelli's biopic of St Francis was monumentally tedious. Hoffman would have an even closer call in March, 1970, when the rebellious daughter of the rich radio station owner living next door hosted a meeting of the local branch of violent dissident group the Weathermen. They were discussing the making and planting of bombs, and that morning accepted a delivery of dynamite. Now two months pregnant, Anne had gone shopping with her daughter, Hoffman leaving the house to join then at 11.30. Forty-five minutes later, three huge explosions would blow apart the townhouse next door. The desk at which Hoffman had earlier been sitting was sent through a wall. Three people were killed, 23 left homeless. Racing home, Hoffman, still mindful of recent poverty, would rescue three modern paintings and a Tiffany lamp before the police stopped him. Much of the rest of his new collection of art and furniture was charred or destroyed outright.
Though in demand, Hoffman was insistent that his roles be creatively interesting and so now signed on for the clumsily titled Who Is Harry Kellerman And Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? Directing would be his old friend Ulu Grosbard, who in 1968 had enjoyed success with a filmed version of his stage hit The Subject Was Roses, a movie that had won an Oscar for Jack Albertson. Here Hoffman would play a Bob Dylan type with fuzzy hair and moustache, a former street-level protest singer who's sold his soul to the corporate machine. The Harry Kellerman of the title's not happy about this sell-out and has been calling people to bad-mouth him, an increasingly paranoid Hoffman seeking to find out who his enemy really is. Concerning the nature of fame and the need for love, the movie would also stab at the musical spokespeople of the Sixties counter culture, for the most part bloated, egomaniacal and living high on the hog. Hoffman would do his own singing and playing. None of it worked, really. A far happier experience would come in November, 1970, when Hoffman would receive the William J Germa Human Relations Award for his contribution to society and "human understanding" (outside of work, Hoffman had made donations to many charities, including the Psychoanalytic Institute where he used to work). Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier had been previous winners, and it was a mark of Hoffman's and the award's standing that five hundred directors and producers would attend a luncheon in his honour.
Throughout his career, Hoffman would make many decisions he'd later regret, most of them being refusals to work with directors of high repute. One of these came in 1970 when, not wishing to miss the birth of his daughter, Jennifer Celia, he turned down a chance to star alongside Max Von Sydow and Bibi Andersson in Ingmar Bergman's Stateside debut The Touch. Hoffman's old friend Elliott Gould would take his place as the American archaeologist who comes between Von Sydow and his wife. Instead, Hoffman would lend his voice to The Point, a TV animation written by pop star Harry Nilsson where a round-headed boy named Oblio, along with his trusty hound Arrow, would seek acceptance in a world of pointy-headed folk. With Fred Wolf animating and Hoffman narrating, it would be screened on the 2nd of February, 1971, as ABC's Movie of the Week and would be both hip and a ratings hit.
Though keen to engage in family life, after those years of rejection Hoffman found it impossible to turn down all the opportunities now offered to him. The day after Anne went into labour, he'd sign on to work with Sam Peckinpah, notorious after the blood-spattered The Wild Bunch, on an adaptation of the novel The Siege Of Trencher's Farm. Written by J Anderson Black under the pseudonym Gordon M Williams, this would give Peckinpah, who'd lost out on Deliverance to John Boorman, a chance to explore the subject of justified violence and the reactions of ordinary people pushed into life-threatening situations. On arrival in St Ives, Cornwall, Hoffman was, as ever, well-prepared, indeed Peckinpah would later say it took half the filming to catch up with his star. Together with writer David Zelag Goodman, they'd add huge complications to the script, bringing levels of psychological complexity not present in the novel. Peckinpah would also introduce his own particular brand of violence, plus rape and buggery that would cause Black to vow never to sell his work to Americans again.
In the film, Hoffman would play a mild-mannered astro-mathematician who, fearing social unrest in America, takes his young wife Susan George to live back in her old family home in the wilds of Cornwall. Here he finds an unrest he cannot have imagined as the local village is on the edge of anarchy, with firebrand patriarch Peter Vaughn inflamed by the presence of suspected paedophile David Warner. Hoffman shies away from any confrontation - with George's former boyfriend Del Henney, with the builders outrageously stretching out the job on his garage roof, and with George herself, who's bored, continually interrupts his work, and eventually taunts him for his cowardice. The situation finally explodes when Hoffman runs over Warner and takes him home, then deciding to protect him from Vaughn's vigilantes, using wood, iron, wire, a shotgun and a mantrap to make his stand against the attackers.
Even now the film remains fascinating. Almost all the characters are conflicted, hypocritical, compromised, human. Hoffman was excellent, gradually revealing a long-buried temper, then revelling in the slaughter. George - whom Hoffman had thought too young for the part (Judy Geeson was also up for the role) - was wholly convincing both as a bolshy youngster and as her feelings ebbed and flowed in that ever-mutating rape scene. Warner was wonderfully strange and weak, losing his fight against his own compulsions; even Sally Thomsett, in her follow-up role to The Railway Children, made an impressive thwarted Lolita.
Released under the name Straw Dogs, the movie would generate huge controversy, particularly amongst feminists viewing the rape scene with bigoted eyes. And, like that of A Clockwork Orange, its fearsome reputation would grow, so much so that 12 years after its 1972 release it would be banned in the UK as a Video Nasty - an unbelievably thick-headed decision. Only the very dumbest could fail to find the film massively thought-provoking. Right at its core, aside from its intriguing relationships, it's deeper than Deliverance. Hoffman's character chooses violence, rather than being forced into it. And his violence - as proven by the actions of the film's other intellectual, Colin Welland's priest - is not necessarily necessary. The rape is not a rape, then it is, then it isn't, then it is.
Back in New York, Hoffman would accept the lead in Till Divorce Do You Part, by Pietro Germi, director of 1962's Divorce - Italian Style, which had won the Best Screenplay Oscar. Enticed by the role of co-producer, he quickly took a crash course in Italian before, in October, 1972, taking off with his family to the mountain town of Ascoli Piceno. Hoffman would face problems immediately as he was told he must act in English and, in the usual Italian fashion, be dubbed later. As his first step in building his characters was to discover their voice, this did not make his job any easier. Still, he ploughed on, playing a timid bank teller who dreams of becoming a Casanova-like seducer. Picked up by pneumatic pharmacist Stefania Sandrelli, he marries her, only to discover she's not only sexually insatiable but also absolutely domineering, locking him in the cellar when her parents arrive. Escaping at night, he finds love with architect Carla Gravina, struggles to divorce Sandrelli then reluctantly remarries to his new belle. Renamed Alfredo, Alfredo after Hoffman's character, the movie would seek to be both dramatic and amusing, as well as politically incisive in its assault on conservative Italian customs and divorce laws. Unfortunately, with those laws being changed just as the film was released, it worked on none of those levels and was critically panned. Hurt by this sudden downturn in his until recently meteoric career, Hoffman returned home to lick his wounds, ignoring - or at least claiming to ignore - all scripts sent his way.
Of course he'd soon be made an offer he couldn't refuse. Indeed, in September, 1971, he'd lined himself up for great projects by signing to First Artists Productions, a company formed in 1969 by Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and Barbra Streisand and intended to give stars control over their own pictures - provided they cost less than $3 million and stayed under 140 minutes (restrictions intended to cut out the more extreme of vanity projects). Steve McQueen had joined the company just before Hoffman and now the pair would be cast together in the big screen production of Henri Charriere's bestselling Papillon, the tale of his varied escapes from French penal colonies in South America. Originally, Charriere being French, the lead was intended for Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of Godard's debut Breathless, but to finance such an epic the producers required an international star, so McQueen was hired. The film then went through two years of development, with screenplays being written by Robert Benton and William Goldman, then it was decided that - what with the fashion for buddy movies like Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid - a part should be found for the brilliant young tyro Hoffman. Apparently everyone laughed at the meeting when this was suggested, but still Lorenzo Semple Jr spent six weeks writing a character for Hoffman, the white collar forger Louis Dega who becomes Papillon's accomplice in escape.
As for Hoffman, he was presently working with Milos Forman on The Witness, a film where he'd be playing a homosexual murderer. When this fell through, though, he was available for work and, partly flattered by having a character written just for him, and partly drawn by a huge $1.2 million pay-packet, he accepted Papillon. His wife, too, would be involved, playing Hoffman's treacherous wife, who stitches him up and leaves him to die in one's the world's most infamous prisons. The film would be a tough and exciting drama, featuring a major battle between Hoffman and McQueen. McQueen desperately wanted the kind of respect Hoffman had received for his acting while Hoffman, in turn, had always wanted to be a fabulously good-looking and wealthy superstar like McQueen. Both would work hard to avoid being acted off the screen, Hoffman being especially effective as the myopic, shambling Dega, a lamb among wolves, drawn along in the charismatic Papillon's wake but gradually conquered by age and fear. (Interestingly, though a major star, McQueen was no run-of-the-mill egomaniac. When the producers ran short of money during filming, they decided to pay only McQueen and Hoffman their per diem living allowances. When McQueen found out, he went on strike until everyone else was paid).
Papillon would open in December, 1973, on the same day as Alfredo, Alfredo. Both movies would receive bad reviews, but Papillon would score well at the box office, maintaining Hoffman's Hollywood standing. His next project would boost it further. This was Lenny, a biopic of the renegade comedian Lenny Bruce, who'd died of an overdose in 1966 after years of harassment by the police and judiciary. A film of his life had been in the works since 1968, and he'd been the subject of a hit play that had won a Tony for Cliff Gorman in 1971. Now Bob Fosse, hot after the success of Cabaret, had signed as director. Fosse wanted Hoffman as his Lenny, and had even taken to crawling up to him on his hands and knees whenever he saw him at a party or function, comically begging for his approval. Hoffman, though, was a little intimidated by Gorman's award-winning performance, unsure that he could match it. He was tempted but would not commit.
What pushed him into accepting the role was the possible involvement of Al Pacino. At the time, Hoffman and Pacino were seen as being very similar characters. Each had made his name off-Broadway then exploded into cinema. Both were followers of Stanislavsky, intense in their working practices. Indeed, odd though it may seem now, people considered them to be so similar that jokes were told about how they were never seen onscreen together. Ever competitive, Hoffman would have been aware of their rivalry, particularly as Pacino had scored such hits with Serpico and The Godfather. When Pacino's name came up as a possible Lenny, Hoffman took the role immediately.
For research, Hoffman would listen to Bruce's LPs, watch footage and interview over 60 people who knew the man. The result was a brilliant performance as he followed Bruce from his early days, cracking ancient gags in the Catskills, through his double act with wife and stripper Valerie Perrine, and on into fame, infamy and paranoia as the weight of the law rumbled down upon him. At first, Hoffman is fresh-faced and needy onstage, almost imploring his unimpressed audience to like him. Discovering sex, drugs and his own voice, though, he gains confidence in his performance and material, challenging his audience to accept his dirty truths. But underneath the bravado he's still insecure, seducing the nurse who cares for a hospitalized Perrine, pushing Perrine into kinky sex, pushing himself into heroin. He's amused and enthused by the reaction of the Establishment, and genuinely shocked when they turn on him (the horrified double-take Hoffman performs when the judge tells him he's going down is priceless).
It would not be an easy role to play and Fosse - who was rehearsing his Broadway show Chicago during the day and filming Lenny at night - would drive Hoffman mercilessly, forcing him to perform before live audiences. And his efforts would pay off. As said, Hoffman would be magnificent as Lenny Bruce. Loud, convinced, self-righteous and doomed, cute with Perrine, cheeky with the cops, responsible and loving with his child, then finally outraged, obsessed and - most painfully of all - boring. Yet again he'd be Oscar-nominated, this time alongside his former teacher Lee Strasberg. However, taking his cue from George C Scott's protest four years earlier and Marlon Brando's just the year before, Hoffman would refuse to attend the ceremony. He was still annoyed, he said, by the 1968 awards ceremony which had been delayed by the assassination of Martin Luther King but during which no proper mention of the great man's death had been made. And, like Scott, he said he did not believe actors should be compared in this manner. It wasn't a beauty pageant, after all. While he may have been motivated by these things, he may also have been scared of being publicly defeated by Al Pacino, nominated for The Godfather Part 2 (in the end both lost out to Art Carney). Whatever his reasons, his no-show was ungracious, if not hypocritical, and he was rightly pilloried by both Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope.
One month after the release of Lenny, Hoffman would return to Broadway as director of his friend Murray Schisgal's All Over Town, a comedy peopled by Manhattan neurotics. As Hoffman was not appearing onstage, finance was hard to come by; stepping into the role of angels would be Adela Holzer (who'd financed Hair), Gene Hackman and Hoffman himself. Hoffman and Schisgal would audition over 1,500 wannabes for the play, including non-actors. One hopeful would be Meryl Streep, just out of Yale, who, Hoffman having introduced himself with a belch, would describe him as an "obnoxious pig". The play would open at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago in August, 1974, to indifferent reviews. Then, after desperate efforts to patch it up, it would move to London's National Theatre in November and on to Broadway's Booth Theatre in December. The play would feature Jill Eikenberry and Cleavon Little, who'd appeared with Hoffman in Jimmy Shine and who'd recently played the black sheriff in Blazing Saddles for Hoffman's old friend Mel Brooks. Though running till July, 1975, it would lose big money.
Though he'd dealt with America's history, aspirations and hypocrisies in The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and Little Big Man, and censorship and penal injustice in Lenny and Papillon, Hoffman was not an overtly political figure. Nevertheless, he had been investigated by the CIA. So had the rest of his family. This was due to his brother, Ronald, who'd been hired by Herbert Stein to serve as a staff economist on President Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers. As Ronald was a Democrat and, worse, had signed a public letter condemning US involvement in Vietnam, the secret services did not trust him and tried to block his appointment. Stein, though, held firm, and Ronald was taken on. The whole sorry scenario piqued Dustin's interest in his country's political set-up and Nixon's shenanigans, and he'd make an effort to buy the rights of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's Watergate expose All The President's Men. Unfortunately, Robert Redford had nabbed the rights before publication, but Redford was keen to get Hoffman involved, and so they starred as Woodward and Bernstein respectively. William Goldman, who'd written Butch Cassidy and The Great Waldo Pepper for Redford and been involved in Hoffman's Papillon, was hired to write. Redford's Woodward would be cool and idealistic, Hoffman's Bernstein nervous and pushy, but it would be Jason Robards as editor Ben Bradlee who, along with Goldman, would take home an Oscar.
Hoffman's offers were now many and varied. He was interested in a biopic of 1950s wrestler Gorgeous George, and one of Willie Sutton, the gentleman crook and escape artist known as Willie The Actor or Slick Willie, who held up over a hundred banks between the 1920s and 1950s and, though always armed with a pistol or submachine gun, never fired his weapons. There was also a chance to star in The Brinks Job, directed by The Exorcist's William Friedkin. Hoffman, though, was keen to make his own movie for First Artists. This was to be Friday, The Rabbi Slept Here, based on the first of Harry Kemelman's novels featuring the rabbi-turned-detective David Small. Ulu Grosbard would direct. However, the project would come to little, Hoffman withdrawing, the money disappearing and the book being adapted into a 1976 TV movie starring Stuart Margolin.
Probably fortuitously, Hoffman would divert his attention to Marathon Man, based on a novel by his recent colleague William Goldman and to be directed by Midnight Cowboy's John Schlesinger. Schlesinger actually considered that Hoffman, now 39, was too old to play the post-grad hero - he was pushing for Al Pacino or Keith Carradine - but the producers insisted. Consequently, Hoffman would spend six months training with an Olympic coach. The film would see Laurence Olivier as a Nazi doctor leaving his hiding-place in Uruguay to claim a cache of diamonds he stashed years before in New York. Tailed by US agent Roy Schneider (fresh from a big hit with Jaws), he comes to believe that Scheider's brother Hoffman is also involved, thus the innocent Hoffman is drawn into a web of murder, kidnapping, double-crossing and sexual intrigue, also undergoing perhaps the most famous torture sequence ever filmed. Everyone remembers Olivier's relentlessly repeated "Is it safe?". No one could forget Hoffman's shriek of pain as the camera finally, mercifully cuts away. It would become a longstanding joke that once, when Hoffman had prepared for a scene by running for three miles, Olivier would mock his method by asking "Why don't you try acting, my boy?" Goldman would later write of another more moving incident when Hoffman and Olivier were shooting the movie's penultimate scene, where the tables are turned, Hoffman has a gun pointed at Olivier and the pair cautiously circle one another in a big hall. Goldman would say that Olivier, just recovered from cancer, was now suffering from agonisingly inflamed muscles but Hoffman would not cease in his improvisations. Round and round they went, Olivier refusing to sit despite the pain, Hoffman refusing to let up, Schlesinger's letting it happen in case the scene was somehow improved. Goldman was shocked by the cruelty of the process, wondering if the ever-competitive Hoffman wasn't using Olivier's weakness to gain an advantage onscreen. It's possible. Many actors have said that Hoffman is very helpful but also massively competitive, and acting alongside Olivier, the consummate scene-stealer, would have been perhaps his greatest challenge. But it's worth remembering that, in character, having been so horribly tortured by Olivier, Hoffman ought to have been taking some pleasure in the old man's discomfort; it was appropriate for the scene. Hoffman is big on what's appropriate. Goldman would tell another story of how Hoffman was supposed to wake in the night, grab a torch from his bedside table and shine it upon Scheider, who's crept into his room. Hoffman would argue for over an hour that it didn't work, his character wouldn't have a torch by the bed. Goldman, rather cynically, would say that an actor of Hoffman's undoubted intelligence should be able to justify anything to himself; he was simply scared that his fans would consider him a coward.
Whatever his reasons, Hoffman's efforts would bear fruit again. Opening on the 8th of October, 1976, Marathon Man would be a big hit, winning an Oscar nomination for Olivier and a Golden Globe nomination for Hoffman. It would also return Hoffman to the Top 10 box office earners. He'd been a constant presence in the charts between 1969 and 1972 but had since fallen away. 1976 would see him come third behind Robert Redford and Jack Nicholson.
Hoffman would now enter one of the most difficult periods of his life. Still keen to stretch his artistic wings, he embarked on his own project for First Artists - Straight Time. This was based on Edward Bunker's autobiographical No Beast So Fierce, the rights to which Hoffman had bought back in 1972. Hoffman would star and direct. Jeffrey Boam, later to pen The Lost Boys and episodes of the Lethal Weapon and Indiana Jones franchises, would make his writing debut, though many writers would become involved, including an uncredited Michael Mann.
Hoffman would play a con released from jail after a six year stretch for armed robbery, trying to go straight but drawn back into a life of crime. For research he'd spend some eight months in and out of prisons, interviewing inmates, even spending several hours incognito as a prisoner in San Quentin. On and off, since 1972 he'd spent five years on the project, it was his baby, he was totally responsible for it. And it was all too much. Just a few weeks after filming began in February, 1977, when his duties as director and producer began to affect his performance as an actor, he decided to replace himself as director. Always ready to continue a successful partnership, he called on Schlesinger, Nichols, Fosse and Alan J Pakula of All The President's Men, but none of them were available or willing. Finally he turned to Ulu Grosbard, his old friend, who'd directed him in theatre and in Who Is Harrry Kellerman. It would prove to be a mistake. After five years Hoffman was in full control of every aspect of Straight Time. Grosbard had no room to manoeuvre. With the pressure on to complete the film and the shoot running over budget, conflict was inevitable and their friendship was destroyed. The film would also bring an end to Hoffman's marriage.
To escape the fraught atmosphere of Straight Time and his collapsing marriage, Hoffman would take a break from it all by signing on for Agatha, to be shot in England in late 1977. Starring Vanessa Redgrave, this would concern the eleven days when author Agatha Christie famously went missing in 1926, booking into a Harrogate hotel under the name of her husband's mistress. Julie Christie was set to play Redgrave's best friend but broke her wrist at the last, Helen Morse being called in as replacement. Hoffman liked the script and was happy to take a cameo as a journalist on Christie's trail, calling producer David Puttnam to ask for the part. Puttnam, glad to have such a name onboard, would consequently make the character Canadian to accommodate Hoffman. First Artists, however, were unhappy with the situation, claiming Hoffman was taking this tiny role to wriggle out of his contract, his relationship with the company having deteriorated during the making of Straight Time. First Artists and Warners now demanded that Hoffman co-star. Suddenly this was a Hoffman vehicle and Puttnam and director Michael Apted had to beef up his role. But their problems only got worse as Hoffman, forced to become a major player and ever-careful about how he would look in the finished film, now became a fully-fledged producer and arrived for filming with Murray Schisgal in tow, set on rewriting the script again. With First Artists convinced that the movie would make more money this way, Puttnam was ordered to comply and, hugely disgruntled, walked. Hoffman asked First Artists to delay the shoot to give him time to knock the script into shape but was refused, rewrites continuing throughout the filming. The set, it was said, was frenzied and Hoffman, though very helpful, was difficult to direct. No one was prepared for his exploratory methods, for characters and scenes to change every day. With a tight deadline, it must have been absolutely terrifying.
And it got even worse, for the producers of Agatha and for Hoffman himself. Over Christmas, 1977, Hoffman would return to Los Angeles to continue editing Straight Time. When signing on for Agatha he'd believed he would have several months to cut the movie to his satisfaction, but now he was being pressured by First Artists. Agatha, also over budget, was under pressure, too. Hoffman would return to continue filming in January, 1978, but the plug was quickly pulled. Very keen to keep the production going, insisting that an extra scene was required to explain his character's obsession with Christie, Hoffman even offered to pay for the filming himself, but First Artists were having none of it. In fact, they'd had enough of Hoffman altogether. As Agatha wrapped and Hoffman was walking back to his trailer, he was given a letter informing him that First Artists were taking Straight Time away from him. The film was now in the hands of First Artists president Phil Feldman, the man who'd infamously hacked twenty minutes from Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Naturally, Hoffman was incensed and refused to dub Agatha until his baby was returned to him. Contractually, though, he was on shaky ground and was forced to complete the work. Instead, he launched a lawsuit against First Artists, demanding $2 million in lost salary and $66 million in damages, and seeking an injunction on editing and exhibition while the court decided. At the same time he'd be sued himself by Agatha producer Jarvis Astaire. It was all a horrible mess. And to think he could have avoided it all by delaying Straight Time and taking the lead in Coming Home, a role that would win an Oscar for his friend Jon Voight (Voight was originally down for the Bruce Dern role).
As said, Hoffman's work troubles were compounded by the break-up of his marriage. Frustrated by life as a housewife, tired of her husband's job taking priority at all times, Anne had gone back to dancing and begun to take drama lessons. As an actress, she'd been third on the bill in Lina Wertmuller's The End Of The World In Our Usual Bed In A Night Full Of Rain, starring Candice Bergen, and would soon appear in Woody Allen's Manhattan (featuring soon-to-be Hoffman co-star Meryl Streep) as the wife of selfish adulterer Michael Murphy. Now she decided to leave her husband and take the kids back to New York. Hoffman begged her to stay until the chaos around him had subsided and he could concentrate on his marriage and family. But she was tired of it all, and left.
Despite Hoffman's legal attempts to prevent it, Straight Time would open on the 16th of March, 1978. In it, Hoffman would be a tough and charmless ex-con, with long hair and big moustache, suffering terrible indignities at the hands of mean parole officer M Emmet Walsh. Theresa Russell would appear as Hoffman's girlfriend, Harry Dean Stanton a former partner in crime now bored by a straight life, and Gary Busey would excel as the weak accomplice who botches the big job. It was a harsh film, marked by the "reality" Hoffman habitually seeks, but it was a critical and financial failure. Hoffman had already disowned it, of course, as he would Agatha, which would not be released till February, 1979.
After the release of Straight Time, Hoffman would devote himself to his next project, Kramer vs. Kramer. This had been written by Robert Benton, who'd penned Bonnie & Clyde and had done early script work on Hoffman's Papillon. This time, Benton was to direct, and he'd sent Hoffman a script and then visited him on the set of Agatha. After the madness of Straight Time and Agatha, Hoffman was keen to return to the theatre, where he could have control, but would agree to join Benton if they could collaborate equally from the start. Hoffman also demanded $1 million plus a percentage of the profits, the final cut he been so cruelly denied on Straight Time, and freedom to improvise while filming, with extra takes to be his whenever he asked. First Artists would try to prevent Hoffman from taking the job, but would fail. The company would not last for much longer.
Hoffman had now begun a relationship with Kate Jackson, an actress enjoying massive success as Sabrina Duncan, one of Charlie's Angels. He wanted her to play his wife in Kramer vs. Kramer, but ABC refused to release her. Instead, the part would go to Meryl Streep, whom Hoffman had so grievously insulted in auditions years before. Streep had by now appeared with Hoffman's recent co-star Vanessa Redgrave in Julia and won an Emmy for her role in the heartbreaking concentration camp drama Holocaust. However, Manhattan, The Deer Hunter and The Seduction Of Joe Tynan had not yet been released. Streep's brilliance was still very much an industry secret. Interestingly, at her audition for Kramer vs. Kramer, Streep was supposed to be going for the small part of a lawyer. Streep, however, was under the impression that she was up to play Hoffman's wife and kept banging on about how the character must be given proper justification for taking off and leaving Hoffman's workaholic businessman to look after their son. This was interesting, just the kind of feisty input Hoffman liked. Despite not being up for the part, she was hired anyway.
Kramer vs. Kramer would begin shooting in June, 1978, and Hoffman would enjoy the experience of, for the very first time, drawing on his own current personal situation, as Streep was leaving him onscreen just as Anne had in real life. Compared to Straight Time and Agatha, Kramer vs. Kramer was a joy and Hoffman threw himself into promoting the movie, attending the Royal Command Performance, talking to everyone. His reward was a huge hit - alongside Alien, the Jerk and Rocky 2 one of the biggest of 1979 - and also his first Oscar. Probably mindful of his no-show when nominated for Lenny, Hoffman was careful to explain in his acceptance speech that he didn't feel he had beaten his rival Al Pacino, former co-star Roy Scheider, or the others. Also beaten that night would be Hoffman's old roomie Robert Duvall, nominated for his caustic part in Apocalypse Now.
Just as Kramer vs. Kramer brought Hoffman's career back on track, so his romantic life now came to order, too. The new woman in his life would be Lisa Gottsegen, grand-daughter of his mother's best friend. As a child, Dustin had been playmates with Lisa's mother and, later, had been babysitter for Lisa herself. Now Lisa was grown up, had studied law and Hoffman, at his parents' request, had hired her to look after his affairs in Los Angeles. Gradually, they became closer. By August, 1980, she was pregnant and they'd marry that October, six days after Hoffman's divorce from Anne was finalised. In March of 1981, however, Lisa suffered complications in her pregnancy, an emergency Caesarean was needed. Son Jacob was born with lung problems. With Hoffman's mother Lillian having in June, 1980, suffered a heart attack and stroke, this meant that three generations of Hoffman's family were at risk at the same time.
Workwise, Hoffman was still making the odd regrettable decision. In 1980, he'd set up a meeting with Samuel Beckett in Paris to discuss a production of Waiting For Godot, but had bottled it and failed to show. He'd then turned down a chance to star in Fellini's City Of Women, a biopic of the Gershwins where he'd have played George to Richard Dreyfuss's Ira, and Robin Williams' role in The World According To Garp. Instead of these he chose to concentrate on a project called Would I Lie To You?, a movie being put together by Charles Evans. Evans had made money in the clothing trade and was now attempting to match the Hollywood success of his brother Robert, who'd hit big with Chinatown and Hoffman's own Marathon Man. Originally, George Hamilton was to have starred as an out-of-work actor taking the role of a nurse in a soap opera, but as the script went through various rewrites, so Hamilton became less suitable. Dick Richards, one of the rewriters, who'd directed The Culpepper Cattle Company and Gene Hackman's March Or Die, showed the script to Hoffman who was very interested. By coincidence, Hoffman and Murray Schisgal had been working on a script where a male tennis player attempted to pass as a woman. This was better. For $4.5 million plus total control over casting, script and final cut, Hoffman was in.
In order to secure his director of choice, Sydney Pollack, who'd been Oscar-nominated for They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and made four well-received films with Robert Redford, Hoffman would have to give way on casting and final cut. Larry Gelbert, who'd been Oscar-nominated for 1977's Oh God! and created the TV series M*A*S*H, would work on the screenplay for two years, with yet more writers becoming involved, Elaine May adding three weeks' worth of polish and beef late on. Over $1.5 million would be spent on writers alone, with Hoffman and Murray Schisgal still adding to the script as filming began. The fights and compromises with Sidney Pollack were seemingly endless, Pollack later saying that he'd gladly give back the $14 million he eventually made from the movie just to have back the 18 months he spent working with Hoffman. The project dragged on to such a degree that it was seen within the industry as a disaster-in-waiting, Hoffman's own Heaven's Gate.
Gradually, though, it did come together. Jessica Lange, big news after bearing a child to exiled ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov and nearly eating Jack Nicholson in The Postman Always Rings Twice, was brought in to play the actress Hoffman fancies and who, of course, thinks Hoffman is a lesbian. Terri Garr, who'd appeared in Young Frankenstein and The Conversation with Hoffman's friends Mel Brooks and Gene Hackman, would play his friend and Bill Murray his struggling playwright room-mate.
The movie was now known as Tootsie, the name given to the infant Hoffman by his mother, who'd died in September, 1981. Indeed, though she'd never see it, Lillian was a huge influence on the picture. Hoffman had spent a great deal of time by her hospital bed, getting closer to her than he ever had before. Much of what he learned in watching and listening there would come out in the character of Dorothy Michaels - so much so that some believed Michaels was Hoffman's way of keeping his mother alive, or at least of dealing with his grief. Hoffman would work on his character for some eighteen months, not being satisfied till he could pass as a woman on the street. Once he felt confident enough, he would, typically, play tricks on his friends, outraging Jose Ferrer by offering him a blow-job and embarrassing Jon Voight in a restaurant.
The film would see Hoffman playing up to his own reputation as an actor who's so intense he's impossible to work with. Desperate, he's advised by his agent, played by Pollack, to pose as a woman and go for a part in the hospital soap Southwest General, on which he becomes a star and begins his complicated relationship with Lange, the point being that he becomes a better man by understanding the trials of women. The reviews would be glowing, the receipts impressive and Lange would win an Oscar (she'd be nominated for Frances that same year), with Hoffman, Garr and Pollack also nominated. It was joked that Hoffman, beaten by Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, should have gone for Best Actress, but he'd probably have been beaten there, too, by his former co-star Meryl Streep's top-line turn in Sophie's Choice. As consolation, he'd take home a Golden Globe.
Having spent some time helping to recruit Nazi hunters by writing to the press and public figures on behalf of Simon Wiesenthal, Hoffman would now set up a new production company, Punch - to be run by his brother-in-law Lee Gottsegen - and consider his options. During the making of Tootsie he'd been approached by Ridley Scott for the lead in Blade Runner, but turned it down. Now he was offered Gorky Park, but the producers could not match his $2.5 million asking-price. Beyond this there was a possibility of The Two Jakes, a sequel to Chinatown not made till 1990. The part that interested Hoffman the most, though, was the lead in Blake Edwards' The Man Who Loved Women, a remake of Truffaut's 1977 classic, where an absurdly lucky Charles Denner got to chase after such beauties as Leslie Caron, Brigitte Fossey and Nathalie Baye. Given his uproarious past, ole Dustbone was made for the role, and Hoffman was furious when it was handed to renowned hunk and box office idol Burt Reynolds.
Still, there were other fish to fry. The Hoffman family, now with new daughter Rebecca, were living in relative luxury, flitting between a big apartment on Central Park and a 90-acre estate in Roxbury, Connecticut. One near neighbour in New England was one of Hoffman's early literary heroes, Arthur Miller. Hoffman would visit Miller in June, 1983, and mention he was thinking of returning to the stage in a revival of Lawrence and Lee's Inherit The Wind, based on the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" where a schoolteacher was put on trial for teaching Darwin's theories of evolution. Miller in turn suggested that Hoffman take on his own Willie Loman and Death Of A Salesman, a possibility that Miller had scoffed at when it was brought up by Ulu Grosbard some twenty years before. Hoffman, now 46, reckoned that he'd rather wait for ten years to get closer to Loman's age of 63, but Miller noted that, at 56, he might not have the energy necessary to match Loman's mania. Hoffman agreed. They were on.
Much of the finance would be put up by CBS who planned to film the play as a movie. Hoffman would take a meagre $735 a week plus a percentage of the profits. Michael Rudman would direct. Throughout the summer of 1983 over five hundred actors were auditioned for the few roles on offer. The main problem was who to hire as the prodigal son Biff, the former sporting hero and apple of Willie's eye, who rejects the phoniness of his and his father's life, finds his soul amidst the dregs of society and returns home to hack his family apart, wielding the truth like a sword of vengeance. Hoffman's former roomie Robert Duvall would suggest John Malkovich whom he'd seen in True West off-Broadway. Malkovich had already played Biff in a well-received production of Death Of A Salesman by the Steppenwolf company in Chicago; he seemed an ideal choice. But Malkovich, then 30, was at a crossroads in his career. Already feted as one of America's finest young stage actors, he'd been eyeing a move into movies and was reluctant to commit to what would surely be a long run in Miller's play. Instead he signed on to make his cinema debut in the Depression era drama Places In The Heart, to be directed by Hoffman's Kramer vs. Kramer helmsman Robert Benton. It was a wise move with the movie winning an Oscar for Sally Field and nominations for Malkovich and Lindsay Crouse. This left Hoffman at something of a loose end. At one point he even invited Robert De Niro - at 40 way too old to play Biff -down to the rehearsal space. In the end, he decided to wait for Malkovich. And Malkovich, despite being warned by friends not to work with the demanding Hoffman, was OK with that. When it was all over he'd describe Hoffman as very competitive but nevertheless giving. Christian Blackwood's Private Conversation, a documentary about the staging of the play, reveals exactly what he meant.
Death Of A Salesman would run at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway between March and July, 1984, then again between September and November. Hoffman, having partially based Dorothy Michaels on his mother, now used his father to create his Willie Loman. Loman, of course, like Harry Hoffman, was a travelling salesman under constant pressure, using deluded optimism to ward off the crushing truth that he is a failure in life. He has cheated on his wife, failed his sons and has been laid off after decades of service to the same company. By borrowing money from a neighbour he pretends he's still going to work each day, still bringing home the bacon. When Biff returns, intent upon making his family face the truth about themselves, Willie, already losing it, cracks completely.
It's a blessing that Death Of A Salesman was filmed, because Hoffman's Willie is a marvel (snigger). Hunched, twitching, shuffling and groaning with the strain of sitting, he carries every year of Loman's 63. Yet still he springs up time and again, wildly ranting and gesticulating in defence of his dreams. Slipping between crazy optimism and enraged frustration, he cannot accept his place in the world, cannot face the fact that he's not a big shot, that he's betrayed his wife, that he has raised his sons to be a drop-out and a useless philanderer. Tortured by visions of the past, of hopeful faces, opportunities missed and sins committed, he's unable to give or receive love and, stripped of his self-respect, he gradually, almost exultantly loses his mind. It's a must-see movie, which won Hoffman both an Emmy and a Golden Globe despite being made by the wrong director. Impressed by the movie Mephisto, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 1981 and featured several theatrical scenes, Hoffman thought the director might effectively and inventively transfer Death Of A Salesman to the screen. However, due to some inexplicable confusion, Hoffman found himself interviewing not Istvan Szabo, director of Mephisto, but Volker Schlondorff, director of The Tin Drum, Best Foreign Film of 1979. Typically, Hoffman liked what Schlondorff had to say and went with it.
For his next project, Hoffman had considered The Yellow Jersey, intended to be Michael Cimino's comeback after the disaster of Heaven's Gate. Written by Colin Welland, who'd appeared alongside Hoffman in Straw Dogs, the film would have seen Hoffman play an aging professional cyclist who trains a young prot'g' for the Tour de France then ends up competing himself. Hoffman would even follow the 1984 Tour by way of research. Instead, he'd be drawn into a disaster of his own when persuaded by Warren Beatty to be his co-star in Ishtar, to be written and directed by Elaine May, who'd been a comedy partner of The Graduate's Mike Nichols and helped polish Tootsie. May had also directed The Heartbreak Kid, a hit for the hilariously dry Charles Grodin and had written Beatty's charming Heaven Can Wait. Bringing in Grodin and Isabelle Adjani as love interest (Adjani would quickly become Beatty's partner in real life), she'd begin scouting across Morocco while Hoffman and Beatty, to be paid $6 million each, would begin practising their roles as an inept singing duo.
The shoot would prove problematic. Rumours flew of outrageous expenses, including ten days spent shifting sand dunes. There'd be more delays for Hoffman and Beatty to brush up their act while May demanded many extra takes. Also the set was racked by paranoia once David Puttnam was slated to take over as CEO of Columbia in November, 1986. There was still bad blood between Puttnam and Hoffman over the Agatha affair. To clear the air a meeting was set up between the pair at New York's Russian Tea Rooms in October, 1986, but the old arguments flared up again and Hoffman stormed out. Beatty also had a beef, believing that Puttnam had bad-mouthed his movie Reds when it was in competition with Puttnam's Chariots Of Fire at the 1981 Oscars (Chariots Of Fire had triumphed at Best Picture, though Beatty had won for his direction). Beatty was convinced that a vengeful Puttnam would ensure that Ishtar flopped.
As it was, they didn't need any help from Puttnam to make a hash of Ishtar. It saw Hoffman and Beatty as Simon and Garfunkel wannabes booked into a Marrakesh nightclub, and getting involved with an evil Emir, the CIA, Russian agents and local freedom fighters, one of whom was Adjani. Grodin's CIA agent would recruit Hoffman while Adjani would win over Beatty, an ongoing joke being that Hoffman is a flashy seducer, irresistible to women, while Beatty is a dumb sap who gets nowhere with the opposite sex. Despite the vast expense, it wasn't particularly epic and certainly not funny. Indeed, it was the kind of slapstick comedy of errors only made when Hollywood stars go out of control and greedy producers let them. The movie's release would be delayed till May, 1987, and then battered by critics, only Grodin escaping with his dignity intact. As if shaken from an egomaniacal stupor by the press and public's reaction to the colossal stupidity of Ishtar, most of the main players would quickly produce some of the best work of their lives - Grodin with Midnight Run, Adjani with Camille Claudel, Beatty with Dick Tracy and Bugsy and Hoffman, well, Hoffman would reach a new peak with Rain Man.
Before this, of course, aside from a gig narrating Prokofiev's Peter And The Wolf at a charity concert in Central Park, there was the usual plethora of possibilities. Hoffman always has various projects on the go, but commits to very few. This had led to disappointment for many, though one writer would say that, despite being hurt by Hoffman's eventual rejection, he had thoroughly enjoyed working with him, learned from his curiosity, enthusiasm and open-minded approach. There was now talk of a six-hour miniseries based on Jeffrey Archer's Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less, and a biopic of Shostakovich called Testimony, following the great composer's wracked progress as he's forced to toady to Stalin in order to continue his career. Beyond this, Hoffman had optioned Random Hearts (finally made ten years later with Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas and directed by Tootsie's Sydney Pollack), considered the lead in Dead Poets' Society and entered talks with Louis Malle about playing a brilliant con man in Moon Over Miami. Then there was the possibility of Elmore Leonard's La Brava where he would've played a former secret service agent trying to solve an extortion plot against an aging alcoholic movie star - Hoffman was even mentioned in (prematurely) early adverts for this one. And there was a chance of a remake of the French hit Les Ripoux, a winner at the 1984 Cesars, where Philippe Noiret had played a cynical cop lumbered with a keen young partner.
Rain Man had begun life as a newspaper article, penned by Barry Morrow about a mentally handicapped fellow who worked in a restaurant alongside Morrow's wife. It would become the 1981 TV movie Bill, starring Mickey Rooney and Dennis Quaid, with Rooney playing the title role of a man trying to reintegrate into society after 44 years in an institution. Come 1986, Morrow had refined the idea for Rain Man, then the tale of two middle-aged brothers, one normal and one handicapped, and the project was set up at United Artists. The first draft of the script would be sent to Hoffman in September, 1986, with the thought that he might play the normal brother. Hoffman though was intrigued by the other brother. Then Tom Cruise was brought in, the normal brother having to be made younger. Director Martin Brest was onboard and, in January, 1987, he added Ronald Bass, writer of Coppola's Gardens Of Stone. Then Richard Price, who'd penned The Colour Of Money, would have a go, then Michael Bortman. Adding complications, Brest would leave to make Midnight Run with Hoffman's Ishtar co-star Charles Grodin, Brest trying to take Hoffman with him to play the lead eventually taken by Robert De Niro. To replace him, Michael Ovitz would call Steven Spielberg (who'd directed Hoffman's narration segments of the documentary series Strokes Of Genius in 1984), then completing Empire Of The Sun with Hoffman's recent colleague John Malkovich. Spielberg liked the original Ronald Bass script and asked him to redraft it, to Hoffman's approval. But, after six months work on Rain Man, Spielberg would now himself leave to direct the third installment of the Indiana Jones franchise. Hoffman and Ovitz would now persuade an extremely reluctant Sydney Pollack to take over but he'd quickly and gladly hand the torch to Barry Levinson, who'd contributed to Tootsie, had offered Hoffman the lead in his Tin Men and had just hit big with Good Morning, Vietnam. Levinson, like Pollack, Spielberg and Brest, was a client of Ovitz's CAA organisation - the main reason the project hadn't fallen to pieces.
Amidst the writing and rewriting, Hoffman's character had become autistic, a massive challenge for a method actor as he could not connect his character to part of himself. Filming would be brought forward to avoid a writers' strike in May, 1988, and Hoffman, as usual, would continue to improvise and work on the script throughout.
The movie would see Cruise as a flash youngster flogging posh cars. His business in trouble, he's mightily peeved when he discovers his estranged father has died and left $3 million to someone else. Tracking down the beneficiary, he discovers it's Hoffman, his autistic older brother, who's been in an institution since Cruise was two. Desperate to get the money, Cruise must take Hoffman to LA and, since Hoffman won't fly, undertakes a road trip via Las Vegas during which he discovers his brother's amazing skills and recognises his humanity, learning to love him. Both Cruise and Hoffman did excellent work, Hoffman making no eye contact, never voluntarily speaking, having no real dramatic arc. Some said the movie was a cop out, that Hoffman coming to recognise Cruise's jokes was unrealistic, nevertheless it was a huge success on its release in December, 1988 and won Oscars for Levinson and Hoffman, nominated alongside his old friend Gene Hackman.
The long birth of Rain Man meant that Hoffman's next projects were up in the air. He had planned to make Once Around, the US debut of Lasse Hallstrom, director of My Life As A Dog, and the film was delayed to accommodate him, but eventually he dropped out and was replaced by Richard Dreyfuss. Hoffman's next film, then, would be Family Business, directed by Sidney Lumet. This was an odd choice, with Sean Connery, Hoffman and Matthew Broderick playing three generations of the same family. Connery's a charismatic career criminal, his son Hoffman's a former crim gone legit, and Broderick, Hoffman's boy, is an MIT grad keen to follow in his granddad's dodgy footsteps. Lumet's super-fast filming methods would not have suited Hoffman, but the film was flawed on every level, from casting to script. Neither a comedy nor a thriller, it was a bomb. Hoffman would quickly move onto to his next, a reunion with Warren Beatty in Dick Tracy, a film that would see him credited alongside Beatty's girlfriend Madonna and his old rival, Al Pacino. Hoffman would appear only briefly, with thick eyebrows, purple suit and a plastic grimace, in the comic role of Mumbles, trying to grass to cops who can't understand what he's saying.
It was most unlike Hoffman to take these two rushed jobs, but he now had something bigger on his mind. Now past 50, he'd decided he wanted to return to the theatre and, at last, take on a major Shakespearian role. Oddly, the one he'd had in mind was Hamlet and he'd begun working on it during the protracted progress of Rain Man. Hearing that Sir Peter Hall had formed his own company after fifteen years as director of the National Theatre and had scored a hit with his debut Orpheus Descending, starring Hoffman's Agatha co-star Vanessa Redgrave, Hoffman called Hall about Hamlet. Hall, of course, knew Hoffman as he'd put on that production of All Over Town back in 1974 and advised the actor against playing the Dane. He was too old by far - why not try Shylock, an easier role that would also allow Hoffman to explore his own Jewishness? They talked it through and Hoffman was convinced. Hall would coach him in verse, helping him to find Shakespeare's rhythms. He'd be paid '2,000 a week.
Hoffman would arrive in London in April, 1989, along with Lisa and the kids - Jacob, Rebecca, 5-year-old Max and 18-months-old Alexandra. They'd take up residence in a four-bedroom Kensington semi Hoffman had bought back in 1986 for '725,000. Hall would note how Hoffman went immediately into top gear during rehearsals, driving the other actors - including Geraldine James as Portia - forward for seven hours a day. Suddenly, though, Hoffman's father Harry suffered a stroke and went into a coma. Hoffman had to leave, causing the cancellation of the play's out-of-town run at Bath's Theatre Royal. Nevertheless he was back and ready for its West End premiere at the Phoenix on the 1st of June, 1989, a prestigious occasion attended by such theatrical luminaries as Dame Peggy Ashcroft and Sir John Mills. Reviews were mixed but often hugely positive, applauding the balance Hoffman had found between drama and comedy. Some wondered at the method aspects of the performances, asking if it were necessary for the Christians to really spit on the star. The play would run through till September, Hoffman missing only one performance through illness. Still immensely competitive, Hoffman would call his understudy three times during the performance to offer advice, and then again at the end to gauge the level of the applause. Hoffman would then take The Merchant Of Venice, along with James and several of the British cast, to Broadway where it would play at the West 46th Street Theatre. Opening on the 19th of December, 1989, it take an upfront $20 million at the box office, and run through to March, 1990.
Having narrated the Oscar-winning AIDS documentary Common Threads and appeared on TV in the Earth Day special, performing a skit with Robin Williams, Hoffman would now reunite with his Kramer vs. Kramer director Robert Benton for Billy Bathgate. This appeal to another aspect of Hoffman's Jewishness as it saw him playing Dutch Schultz, prime mover in the Jewish mafia in 1935. The role would allow him to be both charming and vicious; charming to a young recruit and his moll Nicole Kidman, unspeakably vicious to rival gangster Bruce Willis.
Having not headlined a hit since Rain Man, Hoffman now latched on to what appeared to be a sure-fire winner. This was Hook, written by James Hart and Nick Castle (who'd co-written Escape From New York ten years before), discovered mouldering in development hell by Mike Medavoy when he took over as chairman of TriStar and taken on as one of his first projects. Medavoy would send the script to Hoffman's agent but be told it was too violent. Undeterred, he then flew to New York to meet Hoffman in person. Three days later, Hoffman called to declare himself onboard. Together they called their director of choice Steven Spielberg and, having missed out on working with Hoffman on Rain Man, he signed on, too. With Robin Williams and Julia Roberts, now a major star after Pretty Woman, also hired, Hook was looking like the event movie of 1991. Hoffman, Williams and Spielberg would all defer their salaries against 40% of the gross - the biggest back-end deal ever - and, with Hoffman bringing in Malia Scotch Malmo, who'd written Once Around, earlier dumped by Hoffman, filming would begin in February, 1991.
It would be a difficult shoot with Roberts calling off her wedding and taking off for Ireland. The sets were huge, the costs escalating to $84 million, making Hook the second most expensive film ever made. TriStar were so concerned they had to rework their deal with Hoffman, Williams and Spielberg, yet remained hopeful of success, dreaming of a sequel, spin-offs and even a Saturday morning cartoon series. Hoffman would make his Hook an English aristocrat, for his voice drawing on Terry-Thomas. Wide-eyed and humorous, he'd manipulate his crew and value his contest with Williams' Peter Pan over revenge. What he missed was a cruel edge, the upper-class meanness of Tim Roth in Rob Roy or even Jason Isaac's Hook in 2003's Peter Pan, a psychotic touch that would have allowed both the characters and the film's audience to fear (and love) him. Even so, though he was only in 20 of the film's 135 minutes, those were the best 20 minutes, Hoffman's sparring with Bob Hoskin's Smee being most enjoyable. He certainly provided a welcome break from the mawkishness of much of the rest of the film, and would be duly nominated for a Golden Globe.
As said, it was hoped that Hook would be the event movie of 1991. Coming from the makers of Jaws, Rain Man and Good Morning, Vietnam, how could it not be? Then again, the same people made 1941, Ishtar and Popeye, so there was always a risk. Plus the market was down and there was stiff competition from Disney's Beauty And The Beast. Released in December, 1991, Hook would be seen as a financial catastrophe. In reality this was far from the case, box office, TV deals and other revenues making the studio over $50 million.
Having considered taking the role of the Penguin in Tim Burton's Batman Returns, Hoffman would move on to Stephen Frears' Accidental Hero. Here he'd play a loser, kicked out by wife Joan Cusack and disrespected by his son. Nearby when a plane crashes, he pulls out people trapped inside, including TV newscaster Geena Davis, then goes back to his sorry life. When Davis's TV station offer a reward of $1 million if he comes forward, drifter Andy Garcia steps up and nabs the plaudits. It could have been tough and interesting, but the movie went for sympathy instead, Hoffman perhaps overdoing the sentiment in dealing with his kid. It would crash at the box office.
Times were getting hard for Hoffman. Now in his mid-fifties and without a hit since Rain Man, he wasn't getting offered the choice leads of the past. His next offering would be 1994's Outbreak, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, the Das Boot director who'd just enjoyed his first US hit with In The Line Of Fire. Outbreak would concern a deadly plague that liquefies human innards within a day. When it last appeared, thirty years before, it could only be controlled by the firebombing of the African village where it sprang up. Now it's entered America via a smuggled monkey. Hoffman and Rene Russo (who'd appeared in In The Line Of Fire) would be experts in micro-organisms, newly divorced, and Hoffman, along with sidekick Kevin Spacey, would be assigned by his army boss Morgan Freeman to track down the disease. No one will listen to Hoffman's theories, sinister general Donald Sutherland is plotting another firebombing, and time is running out. With its medical detection story, romantic and professional jealousy and its race against the clock, it was a reasonable pot-boiler, and a medium-sized hit.
Hoffman's next release would see him return to American theatrical classics with a filming of David Mamet's American Buffalo. This was a three-header featuring Hoffman, Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson and set in Franz's junk shop. Franz is annoyed that he's been duped out of a rare coin and, along with his underling Nelson, talks about stealing it back. Hoffman, the weasely Teach, tries to get in on the action, all of them whining, planning, going right round the houses and eventually doing nothing. The lack of action's not important, though, as Mamet creates a fascinating labyrinth of words and Hoffman, as you'd expect, finds their meaning. Some critics would say he was a tad too earnest, not as self-aware as his old rival Al Pacino had been when playing Teach onstage. Others might counter that one of Pacino's few failings is that he can sometimes be too self-aware.
It was around this time that Hoffman would accept that meaty lead roles were no longer worth waiting for. If he was going to continue to enjoy his career and work with top-line stars and directors, he'd have to take on smaller parts. He began with Sleepers, a reunion with his Rain Man director Barry Levinson, where a group of ex-reform school kids would seek revenge on their brutal rapist guards ten years after the fact. Once a malevolent Kevin Bacon is shot and Billy Crudup and Ron Eldard put on trial, shabby drunken lawyer Hoffman is hired to defend them, with their old friend Brad Pitt as prosecuting attorney and Robert De Niro as a local priest willing to perjure himself to protect them. This was subtle work by Hoffman, his weak, quavering character still being up for the fight.
1997 would bring ups and downs. First there'd be Mad City, enabling him to work with the legendary director Costa-Gavras. Here John Travolta would star as a museum security guard who's sacked and foolishly tries to scare his boss into giving him his job back by producing a shotgun and some dynamite. The situation quickly gets out of hand, escalating into a hostage crisis that becomes nationwide news due to Hoffman, a former network news star who's quarrelled with anchorman Alan Alda (Hoffman's theatrical rival back in the Sixties) and been banished to the provinces. Covering a minor story in the museum, Hoffman sees his chance to climb back to the big time, wheedles his way into lunkhead Travolta's trust and becomes his media advisor, telling him what to say, what demands to make. Similar to the classic Ace In The Hole, the film would question the power of the news media, but would not seize the public's imagination.
Far more successful would be the political comedy-drama Wag The Dog, directed once more by Levinson and written by David Mamet, Hoffman's second Mamet script in two years. Here the President of the USA has got himself involved in a sex scandal and spin doctor Robert De Niro is called in to calm the waters. His idea is to bury the story by inventing a fake war against Albania and he hires Hollywood producer Hoffman to come up with a wave of jingoism and phony propaganda. Many other stars would appear briefly; Kirsten Dunst as a girl supposedly fleeing Albanian rapists, Woody Harrelson as a soldier rescued from Albanian murderers and given a hero's welcome home. And Hoffman would be on fine form, smart but horribly insincere, and miffed that the secrecy of the operation means he won't get credit for his efforts. He'd be Oscar-nominated yet again, once more alongside his old buddy Robert Duvall.
Wag The Dog was actually shot during pre-production of Hoffman's next project, also with Barry Levinson. This was Sphere, where a team was sent to investigate a spacecraft found on the floor of the Pacific. Hoffman would play a psychologist, Samuel Jackson a mathematician and Sharon Stone a biochemist, Stone having once been Hoffman's student and lover. Drawing on both science and philosophy, the film would begin promisingly as a cross between 2001 and The Abyss, but then descend into run-of-the-mill action. More interesting would be The Messenger, Luc Besson's epic retelling of the Joan of Arc story, with Besson's partner Milla Jovovich as Miss of Arc. Here Hoffman's former co-star John Malkovich would play the Dauphin, swayed by Joan's passion, with another, Faye Dunaway as Malkovich's scheming mother. Depth and meaning would be brought to the action during interludes where Hoffman, a behooded inquisitor, would interrogate Joan in her cell, questioning the validity of her religious and political beliefs. The same year, 1999, would see Hoffman in the papers when he won $3 million in damages from Los Angeles magazine after they printed a digitally altered picture of him in a dress. The decision would be overturned two years later when it was decided that, as the feature was not an advertisement, the magazine was protected under the First Amendment.
Having, as producer, won a Daytime Emmy in 2000 for the kids' TV special The Devil's Arithmetic, an award he shared with Mimi Rogers and old workmate Murray Schisgal, Hoffman would lend his voice to the experimental animated short Tuesday, BAFTA-nominated and scored by Paul McCartney - it was one of his frog things. He'd then voice Benedict Arnold in the revolutionary war animation Liberty's Kids, appearing alongside such luminaries as Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Ben Stiller, Whoopi Goldberg and Annette Bening, wife of his former co-star Warren Beatty.
Hoffman's next screen appearance would be impressive. This was Moonlight Mile, set in 1973, where a girl would be killed and parents Hoffman and Susan Sarandon and fiance Jake Gyllenhaal left to deal with the aftermath. Lost in grief, Gyllenhaal would come to stay with Hoffman and Sarandon, Sarandon suspecting he's hiding a secret but Hoffman hoping he may be gaining a son who'll join him in the real estate business. Indeed, Hoffman's character would share many qualities with Willie Loman, being a small fry dreaming of making a killing. Holly Hunter, meanwhile, would feature as a lawyer handling the murder case. Based on writer and director Brad Silberling's own dreadful experiences when his actress girlfriend Rebecca Schaeffer was killed by an obsessed fan back in 1989, the film would deal with the many aspects of grief but remain uplifting.
2003 would see Hoffman continue with his powerful cameos. In James Foley's Confidence, Edward Burns would play a con man who rips off the bagman of crime lord Hoffman and then, in order to pay him back, persuades Hoffman to front more money for a new scam. It was a fairly smart caper but Hoffman's vile gangster would stand out a mile. Running a strip club to launder mob money, he'd be bearded, bespectacled and suffering from ADD, as well as a sexual deviant, making dirty threats to both Burns and his partner Rachel Weisz. Following this would come Runaway Jury, again with Weisz, a John Grisham thriller where a widow would sue a gun manufacturer when her husband is killed in an office massacre. She hires decent, upstanding and idealistic lawyer Hoffman, who must go up against Gene Hackman's hateful jury consultant, a man who'll do anything to get the jury he wants. Meanwhile, John Cusack manages to get on to the jury and, along with Weisz, plots to sell the verdict to the highest bidder. It would be another excellent performance by Hoffman, his morality questioned as he's asked to pay for a fair result. He'd also enjoy a loaded, toilet-set scene with Hackman, the first time they'd shared the screen in film careers stretching back 35 years.
Runaway Jury was a rare Grisham failure, but Hoffman would immediately be back on a winner with Marc Forster's Finding Neverland. Here Johnny Depp would play the playwright JM Barrie, who meets Kate Winslet and her children in Kensington Gardens and becomes obsessed with them, through them rediscovering his own childhood and being inspired to write Peter Pan. Hoffman would appear as the theatre impresario who's suffered failure with Barrie's earlier plays and needs a hit quick, though he's pretty sure he's not going to get it with what he considers to be a silly tale of pirates, fairies and boys who won't grow up. The movie would be a financial hit and a multi-Oscar-nominee, a decent reward for Hoffman's bravery in daring to return to the world of Hook.
Now a grandfather, his daughter Jennifer having had a son, he'd move on to the wildly ambitious I Heart Huckabees. Here eco-activist Jason Schwartzman, battling big business in the shape of Jude Law, would find himself in crisis and turn to existential detectives Hoffman and Lily Tomlin. To get to the root of his problems, they follow him everywhere, hiding in bins and under furniture, constantly taking notes and discussing his life, Hoffman basing his character on Uma Thurman's dad Robert, the academic guru who'd taught director David O Russell. With extra complications and romance added by Naomi Watts, Mark Wahlberg and Isabelle Huppert's rival psychic detective, the film would attempt to work as a satire, a comedy and a work of philosophy, but would leave critics and audiences confused. There'd be no confusion, though, with Meet The Fockers, a crude slapstick follow-up to the immensely successful Meet The Parents. This would see Hoffman reunited with former co-stars Robert De Niro (Wag The Dog, Sleepers), Ben Stiller (Liberty's Kids) and Blythe Danner (Mad City), as well as Barbra Streisand, co-founder of First Artists, with whom he'd had such a fraught time in the late Seventies. In the movie, the parents of Stiller and his fiancee would all meet up, Streisand playing Stiller's mum, a successful sex therapist, and Hoffman his dad, a former lawyer who took paternity leave to raise Stiller and never went back to work. They're both enormously touchy-feely, an amusing counterpoint to De Niro's uptight CIA profiler, this culture clash spawning most of the jokes. Revelling in a rare comedy role, Hoffman would be purposefully silly. The film's take, though, would be deadly serious. Taking $500 million worldwide, it would be the highest grossing live action comedy ever made.
The same year, 2004, Hoffman would pop up in Lemony Snicket's A Series Of Unfortunate Events where Jim Carrey would ham it up as a wicked count trying to extract a fortune from orphaned children. At the end, Carrey would stage a play where, by sneaking a real Justice of the Peace into the cast, he hoped to marry young Violet and thereby gain control of her cash, Hoffman appearing for seconds as a critic of the piece. He'd then move on to the animated Racing Stripes, where he'd voice a gruff pony, an equine Angelo Dundee training a zebra to become a racehorse. The Lost City would then see him return to the Jewish mafia as Meyer Lansky. This was the pet project of Andy Garcia, who'd appeared alongside Hoffman in Accidental Hero and Confidence and whose family had been caught up in Castro's revolution in Cuba in 1959. Garcia would play a suave businessman running a Havana nightclub, with the sly Hoffman hoping to turn the place into a casino and take over. Hoffman's former Tootsie room-mate Bill Murray would also make a showing as a writer wittily criticizing both Batista's government and Castro's rebels. Hoffman would then end the year with an appearance in Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm. This was the show's fifth season and David had decided to kill his character off, being led around heaven by angelic guides Hoffman and Sacha Baron Cohen. But, though heaven is nice, David keeps getting into arguments with Hoffman and is eventually sent back to Earth.
2006 would be another interesting year. Hoffman would begin it with Perfume: The Story Of A Murderer, based on Patrick Suskind's 1985 novel. Set in Paris in the 1700s, this would see Ben Whishaw as a foundling with an amazing sense of smell who scores an apprenticeship with master perfumier Hoffman. Through his work, Hoffman offers a reprieve from the stinking streets, but Whishaw is interested only in distilling the essence of beauty itself, an obsessive path that leads him to murder. It was a lush and dark feature, well directed by Tom Tykwer, and Hoffman would bring humanity to a tale dominated by Whishaw's introverted mania. Though a bomb in the US, the movie would be a big hit in Europe, particularly Germany.
Hoffman would now reunite with his Finding Neverland director Marc Forster for Stranger Than Fiction, written by Zach Helm. Here Will Ferrell would play an IRS auditor who begins to hear a voice in his head, describing his life as it happens, as if it were a novel. Ferrell seeks out Hoffman, a literary professor who tries to work out who's writing the novel but, thinking it to be a comedy, he overlooks Emma Thompson, who is indeed writing Ferrell's life and whose books always end in death. It was an interesting premise, well played out, asking important questions about art by wondering whether Ferrell ought to die to complete a masterpiece. Hoffman would end 2006 with a momentary cameo in The Holiday, featuring his former co-stars Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Edward Burns. Hoffman had noticed the crew filming on the street and wandered over to see what was up. Knowing director Nancy Meyers, he agreed to join in and so would pass through a video store just as Jack Black is discussing the score to The Graduate. 2006 would also see Hoffman's son Jake play Adam Sandler's boy in Click. Jake was an NYU film grad and Hoffman's other son, Max had just completed his first indie film, continuing the family's connection to cinema.
2007 would see Hoffman stick with Stranger Than Fiction author Zach Helm for Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium, penned and directed by Helm. Here Hoffman would play Magorium, the 243-year-old owner of the world's most amazing toy store. Every day has been an adventure for the sprightly Magorium, but now he craves the adventure of death and wants shy employee Natalie Portman to take over. She's not sure she's up to it, particularly once an accountant explains that the shop is on the edge of ruin. Will the magic continue? It was slight but charming enough, with Hoffman clearly enjoying himself. He'd then move on into 2008 with the rom-com Last Chance Harvey, featuring his Stranger Than Fiction co-star Emma Thompson, where he'd visit London for his daughter's wedding and get another shot at love himself. Then he'd lend his voice to two more animations. First would be Kung Fu Panda where Jack Black would play a lazy bear called upon to protect his valley from a rampaging snow leopard, training in martial arts under the tutorship of guru panther Hoffman. Next there'd be The Tale Of Despereaux, based on the book by Kate DiCamillo, involving a misfit mouse, an unhappy rat, a servant girl and a princess, Hoffman playing the rat Roscuro, a liar and a bully taught to bring misery to others but fascinated by goodness and light. From Ratso to Rat, it had been a long, strange journey.
Where next for Hoffman? Well, this son of the theatre can surely not yet be finished with the stage. Does he have the power and the inclination to return to Shakespeare once more, as Lear perhaps? Or will he simply treat us to a continuing series of delightful and often dangerous cameos, imbued with the art and imagination of his great roles of the '60s, '70s and '80s? Either way, he'll always be worth watching.