Is Gene Hackman the greatest actor of his time? His might not be the first name that comes to mind. We think first of Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, and Robert Duvall. But Hackman belongs right alongside them, and he may have even greater range (the detox sequence in The French Connection II matches anything his peers accomplished). Before he retired from acting a dozen years ago, Hackman did light comedy (Superman), played the hero (The Poseidon Adventure), the anti-hero (The French Connection), the villain (The Unforgiven), the detective (All the Right Moves), the heel (Get Shorty), the crook (No Way Out), the leading man (All Night Long) and the salt-of-the-earth coach (Hoosiers), and all of it with the sturdy credibility that marked Spencer Tracy’s long run as Hollywood’s everyman. He made more than his fair share of clunkers, but even in the lousy movies Hackman is always believable.
He retired the first time for a few years in the late ’70s before returning with a vengeance in the early ’80s. That’s when Robert Ward profiled him for American Film—written on location during the filming of Under Fire, co-starring Nick Nolte and Joanna Cassidy and one of the overlooked gems from that time. “I’m Not a Movie Star; I’m an Actor!” first appeared in the March 1983 issue of American Film and appears here with the author’s permission. It’s a fascinating look at one of finest actors, fighting out of mid-career slump, gearing up for another memorable string of performances.