They’re Hollywood legends, multiple Oscar winners and movie stars in the classic tradition. Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman once lived together when trying to make a living, and now, for the first time, they’re on screen together in the adaptation of John Grisham’s Runaway Jury. In a rare event, the pair met the press for a wide ranging chat on domesticity and acting. Paul Fischer reports.
It’s hard to believe than in careers spanning some five decades, former roommates Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman have never shared the big screen together. Really. Jointly, they’ve been nominated for 12 Oscars, and each have 2 of those statuettes on their respective mantelpieces. Now finally, movie audiences have a chance to see both actors strut their stuff in the new thriller Runaway Jury, from the John Grisham bestseller.
Yet if Hackman had played his cards right, the duo would have first teamed up back in 1967, as Hoffman now laughingly recalls. “The first time that we would have worked together would’ve been ‘The Graduate’; Gene was cast as Mr. Robinson and we were in the third week of rehearsal. We rehearsed for three weeks, it was at Paramount and Gene and I are in the Paramount bathroom, and I think about six urinals separate us. He looks over at me as he’s taking a leak, saying, ‘I’m going to get fired,’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I’m getting fired today, I can feel it,’ and he did, which opened his career up because Warren Beatty said, ‘He’s not doing it’ and put him in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’.”
Neither actor understands why it has taken this long for each to FINALLY work together, but seeing them interact, in a New Orleans hotel room, is like watching a classic film and it’s pure joy. Ironically, both actors had enrolled together as drama students in Pasadena, where both were voted “least likely to succeed.” Neither of them could have hoped for even the possibility of success, be in movies or anywhere, for that matter, as Hackman smilingly recalls. “I would’ve been happy with an off, off Broadway job and that’s what happened. We both started in something like that.” Hoffman adds.
“Gene lent me to Bob Duvall because it was the only way he could get me out of his apartment. It’s true. I was supposed to stay there for two days and I was there for about three weeks. Bob was working all night at the post office, Gene was working for the Greenwich Village Moving Company, I didn’t have a job yet, and the three of us rent out together for years. Each one had a different acting gig and this was coming off of the day with Tab Hunter, Rock Hudson and Troy Donahue, good looking guys and ‘Bonanza’ while we were character types, meaning we’re ugly,” laughs Hoffman. “If God had come down and said, ‘The three of you sign a contract now, you will never get very far, but you’ll work. I’ll give you a part in an off, off Broadway show for the rest of your life,’ we would’ve signed in a New York minute. I still don’t understand it.”
Before they made it as actors, with Hackman discovered through the likes of Hawaii and Bonnie and Clyde, and Hoffman slightly later in The Graduate, the pair shared a tiny apartment in New York. Well it was Hackman’s and Bob Duvall’s, and Hoffman was a permanent houseguest. Hackman jokingly recalls that his friend “was the worst [housemate]. We had to hose the rooms down and sweep them out.” Hoffman smiles before recalling those good old days of poverty and starvation. “I slept on his floor because he had this small bedroom and then, this little teeny bit larger room where there was the stove with a board over it where you would use to dry dishes because next to the stove was a tub which was also the sink and it had a board over it. So, I would have to take a bath while they were making breakfast. There was also a toilet next to the bath, and all he’s thinking about is that when I had to have my morning bathroom, I didn’t care whether they were making eggs or not. He’s held that against me for forty years.”
From the late sixties, the careers of both actors finally escalated. Hoffman explains his final good fortune to “a decline in the culture.” Hackman cuts in more seriously. “Everyone has a chance if you’re lucky enough to find the property and we all three individually were very fortunate.”
Times have changed and Hackman and Hoffman are both major stars and true Hollywood icons, yet off screen, there is a natural warmth and enthusiasm that emanates from both, and a genuine mutual respect. In Runaway Jury, a story about jury tampering in a case centred around the gun lobby, Hackman is the film’s heavy, a ruthless jury consultant to Hoffman’s more honest lawyer. Working together for the first time seemed a natural fit for Hackman. “It’s funny, I wasn’t surprised at all working with him as I felt like we had worked together.” They team up while drama students back in Pasadena, once in a student production of Of Mice and Men. [“He was a brilliant Lenny”, laughs Hoffman]. Hackman also recalls “We also were double cast in ‘Taming of the Shrew’, playing the same role. I had to wear his tights. I played in the first act and then, Dustin came out and played the same character in the second act. It must’ve startled people.”
Now the pair is finally able to enjoy the experience of working together, even though they don’t exactly play friends in Runaway Jury. For Hackman, it was his third role in a Grisham film, and another heavie. Of course he doesn’t mind. “It just worked out that way. I wasn’t searching for that. It’s just one of those things.” Asked if, when playing so despicable so effortlessly, it’s the real Hackman coming through, the actor laughs. “Well, it’s part of me. What you always try to do is use various things in our personalities that we may not find attractive, but we find them useful.”
The pair clearly loved working together but as fate would have it, it may not have worked out that way, Hoffman recalls. “You know what happened on this movie, was that he was cast before I was because they’re trying to get the movie together and then, I get cast. Maybe I was one of the last principles to get cast, and then the director discovers that we knew each other years ago but we hadn’t worked together, so goes back to the writer and says, ‘We don’t have a scene for them together,’ and he goes, ‘Okay, we’re going to write one.’ The director said, ‘Take your time,’ and decided to shoot the particular scene, the last day of the shoot, but Gene finished his work weeks before and I finished my work weeks before and now, we have to sit everyday, waiting as the clock ticks. It’s always nice to have a film over with and we show up to do the scene the day before here in New Orleans and we admit to each other that we hadn’t slept the night before, how fucking nervous we were and it’s like eight pages. We had to shoot eight pages, and we weren’t going to get through it, and so, we did the first take and we were terrible, both of us, and yet we embraced each other because we got through it. It was intimidating.”
It’s hard to fathom, that these two venerable acting giants would be intimidated by anything, but both admit, they have fear, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “When I’m getting ready to do a scene, I have a kind of opening night jitters or whatever, but I like that,” says Hackman. “That’s part of the reason that I’m still in the business. There’s something at stake, you’re not just showing up, you’re not a day player, you’re not just trying to make a living. The thrill of that is that there’s nothing like it, absolutely nothing like it.” And both actors still love to work, with Hackman describing it as a narcotic.
“You show up on a set and there are eighty people there waiting for you to do something fun and as I’ve said before, the pressure of that is fun for me.” Hoffman agrees. “There is something about coming from the stage. It’s a different way of acting because you certainly don’t have to reach the last person in the audience. I mean, everyone in the movie is sitting in the first row. It’s like watching a play. We used to do that. We’d sneak into the theatres on Broadway, go in with the audience after the first act, after intermission and you’d always find a seat upstairs. Then, as you’re looking down for the third act, you go, ‘Ooh, look, there’s a seat in the first row,’ and then, we’d go there, and then end up saying, ‘It’s a different experience,’ and we’re watching
George C. Scott. Aside from that, we knew we were going to be unsuccessful, that was the beauty of it. It frees you. Yeah, we were out of the Kerouac generation and Ginsberg and the beat generation. We were going to spend a lifetime being anti-establishment. That was the pretence, ‘On The Road’, that’s the generation that we’d come from. I’ve always said, as I’m sure that Gene has, ‘If you become an actor to make it, you’re crazy.’ Ten percent work when we started and it’s still true now. Ninety percent of the screen actor’s guild makes what, seven, eight thousand dollars a years, and yet, there is a whole difference between actors that just go into film; they want to be stars and all of that. I mean, we fucking love it”.