Hoffman, Dustin Lee
HOFFMAN, Dustin Lee
(b. 8 August 1937 in Los Angeles, California), two-time Academy Award winner and a 1960s acting sensation who captured the decade's preoccupation with alienated youth in his first starring film, The Graduate.
Hoffman is the second of two sons born to Ukrainian Jews who first settled in Chicago and then in Los Angeles shortly before his birth. Harry Hoffman was a furniture salesman who had worked as a set designer and prop man for Columbia Pictures before losing his job during the Great Depression. His mother, Lillian Gold, loved show business and managed to get Hoffman's older brother Ron a walk-on in Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
Hoffman's development in childhood was slow. He rode his first scooter when he was two-and-a-half and did not speak until he was three. Arguments over money meant "we lived in a great state of friction in our house." Those struggles forced the family to move from one working-class neighborhood to another, contributing to the shy child's sense of alienation and uncertainty. From his earliest days he saw himself as an undersized "outsider and observer." He remembers being "a kid who was always too short, wore braces on his teeth, and had one of the worst cases of acne in California." Hoffman's brother Ron received "straight As," but his own grades were poor. "I lacked concentration and discipline," he later admitted.
Hoffman found that comedy routines at the expense of his teachers won attention and approval from other students. His height won him the part of Tiny Tim in the John Burroughs Junior High School production of A Christmas Carol. At Los Angeles High School he turned to tennis, lifted weights, ran track, and began studying classical piano. Beginning in 1955 he half-heartedly pursued piano studies at Santa Monica City College. He then attended the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. In early 1957 Hoffman enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he "picked certain acting classes because of the girls in them."
Hoffman had enough success at the playhouse to try acting in New York City. He reasoned "it would be easier to fail at a distance" than closer to home. For seven years Hoffman lived the life of a struggling New York actor with an increasingly intense commitment to his developing craft. Five times he auditioned for Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, a famous method acting school prominent in the 1960s, and failed to get in, before he was finally admitted. He shared an $80-a-month cold-water flat on New York's Lower East Side with classmates Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. Around odd acting jobs Hoffman found work as a psychiatric attendant, dishwasher, waiter, typist, and for three consecutive Christmases, a toy demonstrator at Macy's department store. He studied acting at Lonnie Chapman's Manhattan studio, taught acting at a Harlem boys' club, and directed community theater productions.
Hoffman's first stage appearance in New York was unpaid. On the evening of 20 May 1959 he opened in the Sarah Lawrence College production of Gertrude Stein's Yes Is for a Very Young Man. His Broadway debut was a one-word walk-on in A Cook for Mr. General, which ran twenty-eight performances in 1961. He joined the Theater Company of Boston and performed in ten plays in nine months as a character actor making $65 a week. This led to a one-evening stand at the Circle in the Square in the off-Broadway production of Waiting for Godot, in which he played Pozzo the slave driver. He got bit parts on two television series—Naked City and The Defenders—and then assisted Ulu Grosbard in directing Duvall in A View from the Bridge, which opened at the Sheridan Square Playhouse in New York on 28 January 1965 and ran for 780 performances.
Hoffman might have given up acting for directing if it weren't for the rave reviews he received for the part of Immanuel, a crippled German homosexual, in Ron Ribman's Harry, Noon and Night, which opened in lower Manhattan at the American Place Theater in the spring of 1965. The play's director, George Morrison, remembered that Hoffman had already learned "to annihilate his own ego and become the character," leading to "the most memorable performance I have ever witnessed." Hoffman appeared poised for his first major role on Broadway when he was set to replace Martin Sheen in Frank Gilroy's Pulitzer Prize–winning The Subject Was Roses, but he was dropped from the cast after his first rehearsal when a cooking accident at home left his hands badly burned.
Hoffman's disappointment didn't last long. On 21 April 1966 he opened in Ribman's The Journey of the Fifth Horse, in a role that won him the Obie Award as the best actor in an off-Broadway production. On the eve of its opening the part of Zoditch, a bitterly ingrown Russian clerk, had Hoffman perplexed. He was desperately looking for "the key to the character." The more he thought about the part, the less certain he seemed about how to play it. On opening night, instinctively, he "let go," delivering his first line in a nasal, high-pitched voice that unlocked the character for him. The New York Times critic Stanley Kauffmann was captivated. Hoffman's ironic portrayal of a paranoid, he wrote, "has the vitality of a born actor and the fine control of the skillful one." Hoffman had succeeded "in making this unattractive man both funny and pathetic." Kauffmann seemed certain that those who had seen the performance were "watching an extraordinary career develop." Years later Hoffman considered his evocation of "an impotent bird" the best work he had ever done.
In August 1966 Hoffman continued experimenting as an actor, appearing as a schizophrenic in Murray Schisgal's play Fragments at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stock-bridge, Massachusetts. He began to develop a reputation for being difficult. Two directors quit the off-Broadway production of Henry Living's play Eh? before its 16 October 1966 premier. Hoffman had the lead role of Valentine Brose, a deliberately inefficient cockney machine operator, and he was clearly struggling with the character on the eve of his opening. He clashed with Broadway veteran Alan Arkin's directing advice as well. Eventually there was a truce. Arkin found Hoffman "difficult because he's passionate about his work." In Hoffman's view, "The director's job should be to open the actor up and … leave him alone! There are a … lot of good actors around, and not even a handful of good directors." The play's four-month run was a huge success. Critics compared his work to Charlie Chaplin's and Buster Keaton's. The Times of London celebrated "the finest new American actor." Hoffman won the Theater World, Drama Desk, and Vernon Rice awards for off-Broadway excellence. More importantly, he won an audition to play the lead in The Graduate.
The film's director, Mike Nichols, and its producer, Lawrence Turman, had been seeking someone to play the part of Benjamin Braddock, an irresolute college grad who is seduced by a bored, middle-aged friend of the family before he falls in love with her daughter. The audition did not go well. The pale and pimply actor, only five feet, fiveand-a-half inches in height, "seemed three feet tall" to female lead Katharine Ross as they rehearsed a love scene. Hoffman was painfully aware that Charles Webb's book called for a tall, blonde, athletic leading man and that Nichols had first sought "a walking surfboard" for the part. Nichols, however, liked Hoffman's nervous energy and ability to project bewildered, youthful vulnerability. Hoffman was not so sure. At thirty he felt he was ten years too old for the part and still thought of himself as "a character actor on Broadway." He flubbed his lines and struggled to make sense of the character. Nichols told him, "He's Jewish on the inside." Hoffman later called it the "key" he'd been looking for.
Greatly aided by Paul Simon's score, The Graduate soared to revenues of $80 million within a year of its December 1967 release, establishing a youth market in movies and making Hoffman, who had earned $17,000 for the title role, an "overnight" success. Writing in the Nation, Robert Hatch found Hoffman's performance "disconcertingly direct and well armed by incredulity." Bosley Crowther of the New York Times appreciated his "wonderfully compassionate sense of the ironic and the pathetic." Newsweek considered the performance "unforgettable." To the Time magazine critic, Hoffman was a symbol of disillusioned youth. Hollis Alpert of the Saturday Review agreed, calling Hoffman the most unexpected "film hero of our generation." Nichols won the Oscar as best director, and Hoffman was nominated as best actor. It was now official. He had finally "plummeted to stardom"—a phrase he used to signal his ambivalence about becoming a celebrity.
In April 1968 Hoffman signed a contract for $250,000 to appear in the role of Enrico "Ratso" Rizzo in the film Midnight Cowboy for United Artists. The gimpy, tubercular con man who hustles the underside of New York City helped make James Herlihy's novel a best-seller. The part appealed to Hoffman as a vast departure from the "Andy Hardy" roles he was being offered. Jon Voight was signed as the male prostitute who shares his loneliness and friendship. Under the direction of John Schlesinger, Hoffman "got inside one of those people" society regards "as the scum of the earth." His discovery was that Rizzo "is really no different from us. Only his circumstances are different."
Hoffman appreciated Schlesinger's patience during filming. He liked "coming at the character from the inside," and that meant "going down to the basement and starting to explore" before "getting the character locked in." Hoffman told interviewers, "I don't know how to act.… [But] certain things … I've learned. The biggest thing is when it doesn't feel right, … you go until it does feel right." Critics and fans seemed certain he'd gotten Rizzo right. Midnight Cowboy was released to selected theaters on 26 May 1969 after receiving an "X" rating for its frank sexuality. It became a smash hit, winning Hoffman his second Oscar nomination in two years. The movie won the Academy Award for best picture of the year, and Schlesinger was honored as best director.
Before the distribution of Midnight Cowboy, Hoffman returned to the Broadway theater in Schisgal's Jimmy Shine, playing the role of a teen who turns on to drugs, art, and the hippie culture of the 1960s. The play was panned, but on the strength of Hoffman's deft performance and large fan following, it ran 161 performances, closing 26 April 1969. Hoffman was proving as good a businessman as he was an actor. He received $4,500 a week for creating the role plus 10 percent of the show's receipts. In addition, he was guaranteed half the profits from every souvenir program sold. Hoffman earned $450,000 for his next screen role, the part of a Manhattan swinger who tours singles bars and sleeps with a woman he barely knows. John and Mary, costarring Mia Farrow, was released on 25 November 1969 but generated indifferent box office receipts and mediocre critical reviews.
Firmly entrenched financially, Hoffman married his longtime love, the ballet dancer Anne Byrne, on 4 May 1969 and helped raise her daughter, Karina, a child from a previous marriage. They joined him on location during the shooting of Little Big Man (1970), Arthur Penn's well-received, revisionist Western in which Hoffman plays the part of 121-year-old Jack Crabb, the sole survivor of Custer's Last Stand. The Hoffmans' daughter was born on 15 October 1970, shortly after the film's release.
Hoffman remained a major film star throughout the 1970s, drawn to controversial projects. In Sam Peckinpah's violent Straw Dogs (1971), he is a meek mathematician forced to defend his wife and home from predatory English hooligans. In the graphically realistic Papillon (1973), Hoffman and costar Steve McQueen escape from Devil's Island, a famously draconian prison off the coast of French Guiana. Hoffman received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of legendary nightclub comic Lenny Bruce in the profane Lenny (1974), directed by Bob Fosse. He teamed again with Schlesinger and costarred with Laurence Olivier in the Nazi-hunting thriller Marathon Man (1976). Hoffman played Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein investigating the Watergate cover-up, costarring with Robert Redford as Woodward, in All the President's Men (1976). He starred in and codirected Straight Time (1978) for Warner Brothers before winning an Oscar for his performance as a divorced father trying to cope with his young son in Kramer vs. Kramer, the Academy Award's best picture of 1979 and a $100 million success at the box office.
Hoffman split his time between Hollywood and the stage in the 1980s and started a new family. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1980. On 21 October 1980 he married Lisa Gottsegen, a twenty-five-year-old law school graduate; they have four children. Hoffman appeared as an out-of-work actor who disguises himself as a woman in Tootsie (1982), a Sydney Pollack farce that made $177 million at the box office and earned its star another Oscar nomination. He received a second Oscar for his portrayal of an autistic savant in Rain Man, the Academy Award–winning, $172-million megahit of 1988. Hoffman also achieved stage success in a 1984 revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman.
By the end of the 1990s Hoffman's twenty-seven starring vehicles had grossed $1.1 billion, with Dick Tracy (1990) and Hook (1991) contributing $224 million to the total. Outbreak (1995) and Sphere (1998) were commercial successes but critical busts. His sardonic look at moviemaking and politics in Wag the Dog (1997) won Hoffman his seventh Oscar nomination. In 1999 Hoffman received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in recognition of his artistic and commercial success. "Above all else," he told interviewers, he had done all he could "to find the proper note" in each performance. For an actor, there was "nothing like realizing that moment." Film historians duly noted that at their best, those moments captured as well as any actor's his generation's painfully uncertain encounter with postmodern America in the second half of the twentieth century.
English-language biographies of Hoffman include Jeff Lenburg, Dustin Hoffman: Hollywood's Anti-Hero (1983), and Patrick Agan, Hoffman vs. Hoffman: The Actor and the Man (1986). Major articles include those in Current Biography (1969): 215–217 and (1996): 213–217. An early filmography is Douglas Brode, The Films of Dustin Hoffman (1983). Hoffman was interviewed on his filmmaking technique by Susan Dworkin for Making Tootsie: A Film Study with Dustin Hoffman and Sydney Pollack (1983).
Bruce J. Evensen