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Gene Hackman: On Top of His Game

At 70, the consummate actor shows no signs of slowing.
Alysse Minkoff
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

"I used to have to borrow my daughter's car to go to interviews in Hollywood. Just a piece-of-shit Toyota and I'd have to park it a couple of blocks [away] and walk so I wouldn't be seen as being that needy. Yeah, I was in trouble in those days. I was six, seven million bucks in debt; I had spent too much and I had a lot of tax shelters that didn't work. I owed the government four million dollars. I was just barely hanging in, taking pretty much anything that was offered to me and trying to make it work."

The voice is Gene Hackman's, recounting one of the toughest periods in his life--from the mid-1970s to mid-'80s, when the afterglow of his Oscar win for 1971's The French Connection had faded through a string of commercial failures. The anecdote places his resume in historical context, and it is not an apology. For this private man who has always made it look easy, these hard times were part of a process of maturing, as a human being and an actor. Today, at 70, Hackman occupies a rare place. He is both revered by his peers and beloved by moviegoers.

Thriving as an actor for more than 40 years with a unique body of work populated by a wide range of complex characters, he stands apart from the typical Hollywood star that succumbs to the implied demand that screen icons create carbon copies of salable images in film after film. While many actors are busily serving up a career based on that premise, Hackman's career is a study in diversity, a unique journey. There's the murderous rube Buck Barrow in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde and rogue cop Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, one of Hollywood's consummate antiheroes.

He played a basketball coach who taught his players about life in the 1986 film Hoosiers and brutal Old West sheriff Little Bill Daggett in 1992's Unforgiven, a role that won him another Oscar. Other memorable roles include Harry Caul, the surveillance expert who hears too much and feels too little in Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 classic The Conversation, producer Harry Zimm opposite John Travolta's loan shark and Hollywood wannabe in 1995's Get Shorty, and Brill, the techno-genius who saves Will Smith in 1998's Enemy of the State. And who can forget "The Greatest Criminal Mind of All Time," Lex Luthor, in the Superman films? Or the avaricious, seductively lost lawyer Avery Tolar in 1993's The Firm? Even with that roster of great characters, the self-effacing and engaging Hackman shuns examination, by his own hand or anyone else's. "I don't look back," he says resolutely.

"I don't watch my films unless I absolutely have to. I get very nervous. It's more my perception of myself, or my desire of what I would like to look like. All I see are the double chins and the bags under the eyes and the receding hairline." Even under the harsh fluorescent lighting in his favorite Santa Fe counterculture hangout, The Cloud Cliff Bakery and Cafe, it's difficult to figure out what he's talking about. His lived-in face looks the way a man is supposed to look: not nipped or tucked with artfully arranged hair. He looks like the kind of guy you'd like to watch a ball game with; but one who would go to the museum on the way home. It should surprise no one that he rarely watches his own work, which now totals 78 films. It's a healthy dose of male vanity, coupled with a desire not to be forced into a position where he might have to second-guess his own self-contained sense of creative ballast.

"I feel like when I'm actually doing the work, I know what I'm doing and I feel good about most of the stuff that I do. But when I see it on the screen, I have no idea if it's good, bad or indifferent. I can't be objective. I leave it up to other people to tell me." When some of Hollywood's top character actors--Gary Sinise, William H. Macy and Kevin Bacon--all put you at the top of their list of acting heroes, the message should be clear. "Gene's a perfectionist. He never does anything in half measures. He's an icon. A very strong guy, very tough, very straightforward and honest. He can't abide indecision. Yet there's such a myriad of color and passion inside of him. When he was younger, it was more on the surface. Now that he's older, it's more inside. But he still communicates it; you still see it." --Tony Scott, director of Crimson Tide (1995) and Enemy of the State (1998) "I always wanted to be an actor," Hackman says.

"That's all I ever wanted to do from the time I saw my first movie. I loved Jimmy Cagney. I just thought he was the best, probably because he's the kind of guy that could not be imitated. Nobody could do what he did. And I liked Errol Flynn's panache and style. When I would come out of the theater having seen one of these kinds of actors, I'd look in the mirror in the lobby of the theater and be stunned that I didn't look like that person. After having sat there for two and three showings of a film, I would get so deeply into that psyche and those characters that I convinced myself that I could do that. And then I would look in the mirror and I'd think, 'I don't look anything like those guys, maybe I can't do it.'"

Hackman's dream of becoming an actor started taking shape during his childhood in Danville, Illinois. Eugene Alden Hackman was the elder of two sons of a newspaper pressman who left the family when Gene was 13. In an unsuccessful attempt to win the heart of a local girl, 16-year-old Gene lied about his age and joined the Marines in 1946, serving for six years in China, Japan and Hawaii. After his discharge, the GI Bill financed his brief studies at the School of Radio Technique and the Art Students League, both in New York City. After years of odd jobs, Hackman, then in his mid-20s, moved to California, where he joined the Pasadena Playhouse. He and fellow student Dustin Hoffman shared the role of Petruchio in a tag-team production of The Taming of the Shrew, with the two splitting each evening's performance. He and Hoffman shared a more dubious honor: their class voted them least likely to succeed. Returning to New York in 1956, Hackman studied with famed method acting coach George Morrison.

"New York was really great for me," Hackman recalls. "I was very immature when I went to New York and by the time I left, I knew how things worked and what it took to be successful. I think I would have been out of acting if I had started any younger. I didn't have the discipline to do the things that are required of you as an actor and I was just right on the edge of being mature enough to understand what it took to be a good actor."

Working in summer stock, off-Broadway and live television, Hackman went on to Broadway, scoring a hit with the 1964 comedy, Any Wednesday. But it was a small role in the 1964 film Lilith with Warren Beatty that changed the direction of his career. Beatty recalled Hackman's performance when he and director Arthur Penn were casting the role of Clyde's brother Buck for Bonnie and Clyde. His performance in the 1967 film garnered the first of five Academy Award nominations for Hackman, with a second nomination to follow three years later for his work with Melvyn Douglas in I Never Sang for My Father. Four years and eight movies after Bonnie and Clyde, Hackman landed the coveted role of Popeye Doyle in William Friedkin's The French Connection.

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