Gene Hackman: On Top of His Game

At 70, the consummate actor shows no signs of slowing.
| By Alysse Minkoff | From 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.

"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."

While it sounds fairly practical and a good way to avoid unnecessary stress, Hackman is all too aware of the egos whose artistic growth have been thwarted by their own hubris, often to the detriment of creating a good product. "It's about power. Everybody loves power. But I think that you have to direct your power to where it's most valuable. And to me, your power as an actor is most valuable when you're in the scene, not when you're over telling the director the way you want a scene run or casting the film. I think that if you're a leading man and you have that kind of career, maybe that's OK if that's what you want to do with your life. I was never afflicted with that, probably because I was never a leading man. I had the opportunity to do character things that were fulfilling to me, so it's easy for me to say that's the way to go. I think maybe after French Connection I might have had enough juice to finagle a very big commercial career for myself. I don't think it would have lasted, though."

"Gene makes us look at ourselves. He can give you a well-rounded character; he'll give you the dark side. He always finds, and he completely understands and is interested in, the complexity of the darkness as well as the other parts of the character. What I love about Gene is you get these shades everywhere." --Roger Spottiswoode, director, Under Fire (1983) While many of Hackman's characters always seem to be playing with the light and dark sides of their psyches, creating the clear-cut heavy doesn't appeal to him. "I don't think I can play just an out-and-out villain," he says, resolutely. "I wouldn't know how to do that, because what's interesting to me is to do behavior and human kinds of things to make somebody a fully fleshed-out character. And in doing that, you end up not having a character be sympathetic, but having an audience empathize with who you are playing. "A character like Frank Ramsey in Crimson Tide is fun for me to do. He's not a villain, but he's kind of a by-the-book guy and it's fun to portray somebody like that. I suppose I probably have enough of that in me to be able to play that character. I loved working on that film. It was very intense, really concentrated work. Not only because it was claustrophobic but also the nature of the script was that Denzel [Washington] and I dominated most of the dialogue in the film."

Musing about the changes he has seen over the past 40 years in the business, he offers, "The cliché answer is to say that we're inundated with technology and all that, but the acting hasn't changed. Regardless if you're in a space movie or whatever and there's a lot of technical things going on around you, you still have the basic problem of making contact with the other actors, making the moment work, fulfilling the author's intent, satisfying yourself in terms of who you are as a person or as an actor. So those things never change."

But as giant conglomerates continue to swallow up film studios and stock prices become more important than quality filmmaking, there is one sensibility that he doesn't share. "I think that there is kind of a creeping peril that is hanging over the business. It's a 'green peril' that has to do with money, that has to do with schedules and the bottom line. Not that it wasn't always true, but it seems to be much more prevalent now that there's so much more money involved. It's hard for me to deal with the 'business' part of acting because somehow or another I feel I shouldn't have to. I don't like working with people who are constantly talking about money and the bottom line. But there's nothing more satisfying to me than making a scene work and knowing just that little thing that clicks in front of you." That sense of story and character also led him to undertake a nontheatrical project--a novel. Not surprisingly, the beauty was in the process of creation. Co-authored with noted marine archaeologist Dan Lenihan, the novel, Wake of the Perdido Star, was published in 1999. "The story came first," says Hackman.

"We were sitting here in this café talking about what we like to read and why those stories weren't written anymore, and we found out why: because they're hard to write and people just aren't interested in them anymore. Though we did sell 50,000 copies, so I guess it wasn't that they weren't interested; it just wasn't a runaway best-seller. We would each write eight or nine pages and come in here and exchange pages and have lunch and talk generally and maybe read over some of it. And then we would call each other and say, 'How about this or that?' And then the last 50 or 60 pages we mapped out because we felt it was very important to pull it all together." Laughing about his own baggage in writing a novel, Hackman admits, "The hardest thing to me was the editing. I've relied on my instincts so much as an actor that there was so much resistance to change some of the things I had written, and that was hard. But after a while I decided to let the chips fall where they may; bad reviews weren't going to kill me."

Hackman costarred with Keanu Reeves in this summer's comedy The Replacements, as coach of a team of National Football League strikebreakers. This fall, Hackman will costar in Under Suspicion with Morgan Freeman. A labor of love, the movie took Hackman nearly two decades to make. "I had the project 18 years ago and I sent it to everybody I knew and nobody wanted to do it. I had worked with Morgan Freeman on Unforgiven and ran into him about a year later and told him about the project and sent him the French version of the film. And he liked the film a lot and I told him I'd play either role. I'd leave the decision up to him." In the tense psychological drama, Hackman plays Henry Hearst, a wealthy pathological liar who is being questioned by a detective who is an old friend (played by Freeman) in connection with the rape and murder of two prepubescent girls.

"What was compelling about the character is that we all fall into our own clichés and our own ideas of who people are," Hackman says. "And that we commit these crimes of the mind against them without really knowing if they're guilty of certain things. What I love about the script was the idea that we have these perceptions about people based on our own needs, our own idea of what is fair in life. And life just isn't fair, you know. We many times find that we've done all the right things and still get screwed. And many times anger drives us to all kinds of decisions in life that are not always fulfilling."

Hackman is still unsure about the overall impact of the film. "I wanted to see if I could play that multilayered kind of sophisticate. I never really got to where I liked my work in this film, probably because we shot the film in seven weeks under pretty tough conditions, and somehow I feel we just never got to it. I felt pretty good in some scenes, but I'm not sure if the film works or not." Costar Freeman agrees. "[Under Suspicion] really does create a dialogue and that's a good thing, I know. But in something like this, you really don't know if you really got to the tap root of the story, if you've really served it to its best." At an age when many of his contemporaries are long retired, Hackman still revels in his work, often making several pictures a year. "You know, it's wacky, I've been doing this for so many years, but it's something I'm stuck with. What's kind of scary is now I see that I may not have so many opportunities left to do good work. I've done 70 films, and let's say I work another five years or so..."

His voice trails off as if he can't comprehend the gravity of his words, then he continues. "If you enjoy it the way I enjoy it, then you'd understand what I'm saying. I used to be able to go in and kind of not really work on a part and do it out of pure instinct. But I feel like maybe I can do more now. I think I'm more specific. More direct. I just feel that I care more now. Or I am more aware of how much it means to me."

"At my age," he adds, "you have to love it or you can't do it. It makes me alive. I never feel as alive as when I'm acting." It is that passion for his work that puts the laughter in his resonant voice, the vitality in his 6-foot-2 frame and a twinkle in his bright blue eyes. For whatever it's worth, he sure doesn't look 70. Although the "age thing" creeps into his conversation, Hackman appears to have made an uneasy truce with the milestone and most of its ramifications. "Physically, I don't feel 70. It's just a number," he says. "But it's a number that is a wake-up call. You know that you don't have too many more decades." Pausing for a moment, he takes care not to sound too earnest.

"And that makes it harder because I care more now than I used to, because you start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I don't know how many more of these they're gonna let me do. And I have to admit that there's something compelling to have this idea that you've maybe worked on and take that in and have 90 people standing around waiting for you to do something. It's seductive. I like putting myself in the position where I have to come up with something. Because there's still a sense of, 'When are they gonna catch on?' I've always felt that. That's why when I have to watch part of a film I've done, I think, 'Holy shit. I'm getting paid to do that? Why would somebody do that?'"

Hackman has toyed with retirement. But life without the challenges of an acting career just isn't something he's particularly good at. "I keep saying that I want to retire, and the business is very stressful and long hours and all that, but I've tried it before and it just doesn't work," he says. "So when I talk about retirement, it has to do with if I can get out of bed in the morning. It's in very simple terms of the physicality of the work and being drained in some ways after a film. One of the things that happens is when you come off a tough film, four or five months of really working your butt off with nights and long hours, you're finished. You could quite easily walk away from the business because you're drained. I suppose it's like being pregnant. You get over it. And then you want to go back and do it again."

A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, Alysse Minkoff lives in Beverly Hills, California.

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