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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

(continued from page 1)

"The French Connection was just a lucky break for me," he says. "The studio wanted a star in the film and the director, Billy Friedkin, wanted an unknown. And so I fell into a funny kind of happy medium for everybody because I had done some films, I had been nominated for Bonnie and Clyde a couple of years before, and I still wasn't known to the public very well. I'll be forever indebted to Billy Friedkin for not only giving me the opportunity, but for kind of putting up with me in a lot of ways." The problem? Hackman was having trouble finding a way inside Popeye Doyle. "When we first started, I was pretty unsure of myself, because this guy had to be pretty ruthless. In the early parts of the filming, I just wasn't up to it. When we shot a scene with the drug pusher that I chase down the street in the first scene of the movie, I wasn't very good; it was just kind of weak. And I went to Billy and I said, 'I don't know if I can do this or not.' This was like the first or second day of filming, and he would have been in big trouble if, after having gone to bat for me, I couldn't have done the work. And he said, 'We'll put it aside for now and continue on and maybe we can reshoot the scene later.' And that's what happened."

As for his earlier reticence for violent scenes, Hackman got over it. "After having worked in the streets of New York for three and a half months, when we went to reshoot the scene, I was very happy to beat the hell out of that guy." As much as Hollywood had seemed to embrace Hackman, the honeymoon soon ended. "From the 1970s to the mid-'80s after The French Connection, I did four or five films in a row that were not successful commercially, but were thought of as being artistically OK. And then when they didn't work, I thought, 'Well to hell with this, I'll just do whatever's given to me. I don't have to read the script, just tell me how much money they are gonna pay me and I'll do it.' So I thought I could get by, and I managed to fake it in many ways. "I make it sound like I didn't care," he says, "but I cared a great deal and I knew from my work in improvisational theater that I could be experimental, although maybe not as consciously experimental as I would like people to believe I was. But I would show up, find out what they were gonna do that day, and during makeup learn my lines. And there was something kind of spontaneous about my work in those days, so maybe it was a growing period."

Eventually, it was Hackman's commitment to the business that provided the foundation for his turnaround. And in many ways it still mystifies him. "I don't know how it happened, but after I changed agents and found somebody who would look at me differently, it started a whole string of films that seemed to have been better for me. But it was a very tough time." How tough? There were the big debts, as well as a divorce from his first wife, Faye Maltese (they have three grown children: Christopher, Elizabeth and Leslie). In a town fueled by insecurity, where any sign of desperation is anathema to the hiring process, Hackman can now laugh about how bad those times really were for him. "When I was about to do the publicity tour for Hoosiers," he recalls, "I had to call the producer and ask him for some money so that I should look presentable at interviews. I had to borrow a thousand bucks to get clothes. I mean, I literally didn't have a sport coat."

Did navigating those difficult years make him a better actor? Ever the realist, he replies again with a laugh, "Well it's a romantic notion to think, because of tough times one has persevered and made a career of one's self, that your work gets better." He adds with a wry smile, "I don't have the evidence that because I went through tough times, my work got better. I'd like to think of that, though." "You get the sense that Gene is strengthened by his failures. The failure is the catalyst that makes whatever he is going to do that much stronger. As an actor, you've got to get the failure out of the way to get to the stuff that works. It's an evolutionary process, and Gene's not perturbed by that or distant from it. He acknowledges his own process and it keeps acting courageous and fun for him. You never see Gene go through the motions." --Danny Glover, costar in Bat*21(1988) One of the turning points in Hackman's career was Mississippi Burning, the 1988 film about the Ku Klux Klan killings of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. It's another career choice that Hackman could probably do a nice hindsight spin on, but he refuses.

"I'd like to be able to say that I did Mississippi Burning because I felt strongly about the cause, about the way people had been treated in those days. But in reality, I think I probably did it because I felt it was a good role for me. That I could do something with it. And that it was being done by a terrific director [Alan Parker]." For that role, he was nominated for both the Golden Globe and again for the Academy Award, and the Hackman Renaissance was in full swing. That same year he costarred with Danny Glover in Bat*21, a critically praised film that was overshadowed by Hackman's work in Mississippi Burning, Another Woman and Full Moon in Blue Water. Glover has always said that Hackman's presence on the set gave him a sense of security, a much-needed balm for the young actor.

"When you're relatively new to film acting, as I was 13 years ago, you're still trying to feel your way through it. You're just hoping you're going to get through the scene without tripping over your shoelaces," Glover says, reflecting on Hackman's influence. When it came to his Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning performance in Clint Eastwood's 1992 anti-Western, Unforgiven, Hackman almost passed on the project. "It had been sent to me before when Francis Ford Coppola owned it and it didn't happen. When Clint sent it to me I didn't give it a lot of thought. I thought it was just another Western. My agent, Fred Specktor, convinced me to read it again and to think of it more in terms of a bigger scope, a bigger picture. And he told me that Richard Harris and Morgan Freeman were going to be in it, so I reread it and decided to do it."

Hackman credits Eastwood with the success that followed. "I think the interesting thing about Unforgiven was that it was the opportunity to totally commit to a character without having to think I was going too far or not to have to editorialize or edit myself in terms of what I was gonna do. And I think that was due to the atmosphere that Clint Eastwood set up. Clint understands what an actor needs to do good work. If you hire somebody that is close to the type you want, let him do it. And when you're given that kind of freedom and have the confidence to do a character fully, then I think you see people's best work."

What Hackman needs most from a director is room to figure it out for himself. "If a director leaves me alone, I'm great. I have my most trouble with people who don't see what I'm doing. Now that sounds very 'actorish,' but I feel that if a director watches what I am doing he will see some value in it. If he doesn't like it, it's probably because he's not watching. It sounds like what I am saying is that I'm precious, but I don't feel that way. But I do feel that if somebody has hired me, they know the work I have done and they get the package. They know me and they know what I bring to the work." Who is high on his list of directors? "Sidney Pollack or Arthur Penn or Coppola or Clint Eastwood. When they hire you they know what you can do. They know you're right for the part and they let you do it. Your taste and sensibility permeates that role and people perceive that as character.

Also, at my age I think people tend to give you a lot. They know you have performed all these years and they think they know you and so they give you a lot when they come into a theater. There's a gift there. And I think it can work the other way, too. If you disappoint enough times, people are going to sit back with their arms crossed and say, 'You're getting a lot of money for this and I want to be entertained. Prove it to me.'" Musing about whether acting should be considered an art or a craft, Hackman says, "If somebody asked me if it was an art, I'd have to say no, it's a craft. But in some ways, I also think that's a hedge.

Because I think all of us actors would like to think of ourselves as being artists. But having said that, you may feel that you're being pretentious. It's a nice cover-up to say it is a craft. And I think a lot of it breaks down to craft-like things: learning your lines, hitting your marks, having respect for your costume and your makeup. But then if you can carry that another step and make a bit of poetry out of the way you read a line, or the way you relate to somebody, maybe it transcends the craft into art." One of the keys to Hackman's longevity lies in his approach. Mostly, it's about what he does not do. "I stay out of everything except what I do as an actor. I never make suggestions about casting. Never. I feel that if I want to make a statement, I have to do it as an actor. I can't do it as a producer or as a director. And I try not to make too many suggestions, either. I think one of the dangerous things that happens in this business is that when you become successful, you have too much to say about what you're going to do on a film or who you're going to surround yourself with. I don't think you can be that objective about what it is you do as an actor to be able to cast the film and hire the director and produce the product, as some people do."

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