BEST OF THE BEST
The Stacks: Think You Know Gene Hackman? Think Again
Whether playing the leading man’s pal or brother, or even the leading man, he’s familiar in an easygoing, old shoe way. This is called acting. He’s very good at it.
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.
Character actor Frank Pesce has a problem. He is supposed to be standing in the rain with this menacing look on his face, pointing a rod at Gene Hackman. He is playing the gunman who backs up surly Mickey Rourke, crazy Joe Spinell, and hatchet-faced Ed Lauter in Nicolas Roeg’s new film, Eureka. He’s got to get the facial muscles grimacing, the hips placed just so, and he has to be rocking a little on the balls of his feet, like Cagney. He’s got to look as though he’s ready to blast holes in Hackman the second Rourke gives him the word. The only problem is his hand. Not the one with the gun in it, that’s fine, but the other hand, the one that feels like a dead weight hanging down there at his hip. I mean, it just doesn’t feel right, seems like a seal flipper flapping in the wind. This guy has been sent by the mob to convince Hackman that he has to sell part of his island paradise to make a casino, and he looks like Twyla Tharp out there. Pesce shakes his head, throws up his hands before Roeg, and they stop the scene. Then he walks back up the old, warped boardwalk toward the rain machines, Gene Hackman trailing close behind.
“Gene,” Pesce says, looking less than malevolent, “I just don’t know what to do with my free arm. I mean, like, it’s dangling out there, man, like some kind of polio victim.”
Hackman nods his huge, bearlike head, runs his large hands through his thinning hair: “OK, why don’t you relax first. Just take a deep breath and relax. And then maybe you try this. See if this works.” Hackman holds the gun out like Pesce, but with his left hand he suddenly starts fingering his lapel. Then the fingers slide down to the first button and he’s rubbing it back and forth and saying Pesce’s lines.
“Or you try it this way,” Hackman says. He starts rubbing the side of his leg a little nervously, and as he does he moves his tongue over his lips.
Pesce smiles, and nods his head: “Yeah, yeah, thanks, man.”
Roeg calls for the actors, and they try the scene again. Pesce and Rourke walk toward Hackman, followed by Spinell. This time there is something happening with their walk; all of them look terrifyingly jaunty, as if they just can’t wait to bust a few holes in the star.
Pesce takes out his gun. The jaw is moving, the hand is running up and down the lapels, the foot is tapping. He looks as if he’d like to kill somebody. And it was Hackman who made the scene work.
I am sitting on a submerged mushroom stool at a swimming-pool bar in Falmouth, Jamaica, where Eureka is being shot. Joe Spinell orders his eighth zombie of the afternoon and wriggles his painted toenails in the sun. A group of German tourists is cavorting frenetically nearby. Spinell waves at them.
Just then, Gene Hackman comes walking down the promenade from the Rose Hall Hotel. He is dressed in a blue T-shirt, Levi’s, and sneakers. He looks familiar; the Germans stop splashing in the pool and stare at him. You can see it in their eyes: Who is this guy? Is he somebody? But, ah, no, it’s nothing, just a big football coach from the United States. The tourists turn back to their conversation. Hackman joins us at the pool, smiling.
“Hey, Crazy Joe,” Hackman says. “How many pictures have you been in lately?”
“All the pictures,” Spinell yells. “I been in all the pictures, baby. Everybody will recognize the ‘Maniac.’ I am the superstar of horror.”
Spinell wanders off to badger some guys from the crew, and Hackman orders a Perrier. He is a big man, as I expected, but there’s something here I wasn’t looking for. He’s got this quiet, almost shy quality about him.
His voice and demeanor suggest a man who is tired, and a little worried, as if he has failed to live up to his best image of himself. He speaks with a certain deference not usually associated with stardom.
“They don’t really recognize me any more,” he says, watching the tourists basking in the sun. “It’s such a pleasure. I mean it.”
“It doesn’t bother you?”
“No, I can’t tell you how relaxed I am about it. It feels good.”
This is the kind of palaver journalists are forever hearing from movie stars. “Hey, sweety, I’m not a star. I’m just one of the boys. Why, I only hang out with dirt farmers. Seriously, on my day off, I pick lettuce. I’m nobody, nothing….” But in Hackman’s case, it seems more than the usual take-me-seriously, I’m-an-artist riff.
“I like to be thought of as an actor,” he explains. “It could be conceived as some kind of cop-out, I guess. But I’m afraid that if I start to become a star, I’ll lose contact with the normal guys I play best.”
He is undeniably an actor. Bonnie and Clyde. I Never Sang for My Father. The French Connection. The Conversation. Night Moves. Showing a surprising aptitude for comedy, he virtually saved Superman and Superman II. Even his cameo in Reds, in the presence of fine actors like Beatty, Nicholson, and Keaton, stood out dramatically. Hackman can create so many different kinds of characters that he makes most actors appear to be playing charades. When he’s on the screen and he’s on, he’s magnetic. He’s right up there among the very finest, on a level with De Niro, Duvall, Pacino, Hoffman.
During the scene in Eureka that he helped Frank Pesce bring to life, Hackman had only three lines or so, but he managed to convey the sense that he could stand up to his tormentors with courage while knowing that his number was up. I tried to break down what he’d done—the voice, which was soft and yet terrifyingly large; the way he leaned forward, pushing his face into Mickey Rourke’s.
Everyone seems to agree that Hackman is a great actor, but everyone has a different explanation of how he does it. “He’s a physical actor, like me,” says Nick Nolte, Hackman’s co-star in the upcoming Under Fire. According to Joanna Cassidy, who also stars in Under Fire, “Gene works cerebrally while I work much more from my emotions. He studies for a part and comes in prepared, knowing how he’ll do it.”
“He is a very visceral person and a very visceral actor,” says Arthur Penn, who directed Hackman in Bonnie and Clyde and Night Moves. “He has a first-rate mind, but he doesn’t work intellectually without working intuitively as well.”
If he’s so good, why has this man’s career stalled as often as it has soared? He’s won an Academy Award and received two additional nominations, but he’s also lent his name to perhaps some of the worst films made since the camera was invented. In the late seventies, he stopped working altogether. Now, after a painful, introspective, two-and-a-half year retreat, he has returned to acting with a vengeance. In 1981 he came back in a comedy called All Night Long, co-starring Barbra Streisand. This year, he’ll star in three major films: MGM/ UA’s Eureka, which opens this month; Orion’s Under Fire, a story of American journalists covering the Nicaraguan revolution, to be released this fall; and Universal’s Misunderstood, a father-son drama co-starring E.T.’s best friend, Henry Thomas, also scheduled for autumn.
In one sense, Hackman’s story is the classic cliché of the poor boy who makes good and has a hard time handling success. The son of a newspaper press operator, he grew up in Danville, Illinois, where life was the usual working-class suburban zip. “We always had enough to eat, but we lived with my grandmother. I don’t remember us owning a home—we always rented. We moved a lot. I went to five high schools. We didn’t have roots, as they say. So I guess that’s why, when I got old enough, when I was 16, and my dad had left, I just felt I had to get out.”
Not long after his parents’ divorce, Hackman signed up with the Marine Corps—“I was literally in high school in the middle of the week and in Parris Island, South Carolina, by the end of the week.” His five-year stint with those few good men took him, in the late ’40s, to Tsingtao, China, where one night the unit’s radio operator was injured and Hackman volunteered to take his place. In a way, that was the beginning of his show biz career. After his discharge from the service, he switched from radio to television and crossed the United States working as assistant manager at a variety of television stations. Then he settled in California for a while and enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse to study acting. He and another student, both older than the rest of the kids, were considered least likely to succeed. The other student was Dustin Hoffman.
In the mid-’50s, Hackman went to New York to break in to acting for real. For a time he took odd jobs—as a truck driver, shoe salesman, doorman, and soda jerk. “One day I was working as a doorman at the Howard Johnson’s on Times Square, and my old sergeant came by, and looked at me. He didn’t even stop, but under his breath he said, ‘Hackman, I always knew you were a bum,’ and kept right on walking.”
After 15 years of juggling day jobs with summer theater and off-Broadway parts, he made the big time. In 1967, Arthur Penn cast Hackman as Buck Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde. “Warren Beatty suggested Gene for the part,” Penn recalls. “He had worked with him on Lilith, and I had seen Gene in a play in the Berkshires with Estelle Parsons and knew they’d be great together.” Matched with the galvanic team of Beatty and Dunaway, Hackman held his own—and then some. The response to his work was immediate and electrifying. One minute, he was a nobody; the next, people knew his name and wanted him in their pictures.
Then in 1971 The French Connection catapulted Hackman to the top of the Hollywood heap, winning him an Academy Award for best actor. As New York police detective Popeye Doyle, he was mesmerizing. He moved quickly across the screen; his voice snapped with authority; he created a kind of half-crazed, almost psychotic good guy. The public responded as though Hackman were Popeye Doyle. The actor’s endless preparation for the role had paid off.
“I watched Eddie Egan [the New York cop on whom the role was based], and I tried to do the physical stuff. There’s a certain New York street guy, you know, the way he walks, the way he talks, the way he bounces. It was very, very tough for me. People think I’m like that, but nothing could be further from the truth. I was amazed at the violence in those men’s lives. It would scare the hell out of me.”
Even as the big breaks were finally bringing Hackman the recognition he’d longed for, he began to play his version of Hollywood roulette. He developed a bad habit of following up hits with clinkers. After Bonnie and Clyde, he worked on pictures like Doctors’ Wives and Marooned. After French Connection, he played in fine films like Scarecrow, The Conversation, and Night Moves (cult hits but box-office busts), as well as in dogs like Lucky Lady, March or Die, and The Domino Principle.
An actor of less talent would have wound up in the aluminum-siding business for making pictures like these. Lucky Lady, for example, was the ultimate “deal” picture—people rush around taking meetings, and pretty soon the deal is so intoxicating that the script seems like small potatoes. Who wants to actually write something when you can be eating at Ma Maison?
Lucky Lady, however, was aces compared to the next two films. Domino Principle was a “postcard picture” (a film that gets made because someone wants to go to an island). The main point of Domino Principle was that it gave everyone a chance to get back to the Big City with that deep tan that causes envy and high shrink bills among the pale people. The only problem with the postcard picture is that people actually have to see the damned thing. And when that happens, guys like Gene Hackman start to look bad. However, if you are Gene Hackman, you get to stagger on to another film. In this case, March or Die, which professional reticence forbids me from analyzing too closely. Let’s just say that a studio executive once told me it should be retitled Watch and Die.
Resting on the dock at Falmouth between takes on Eureka, Hackman watches the sludge water float to shore, smiles a little, and shakes his head. I’ve just asked him why he signed on for so many bad films. “I had gotten very depressed after Scarecrow and Conversation failed to make money, and I was drinking. Not that I was an alcoholic, but I was at the point where I was having two vodka and tonics to start the night just to quench my thirst. Then a couple more later. And I started to say, ‘Hell, I’ll do movies that will definitely make money and then I’ll have plenty of dough.’ It was real establishment thinking and of course it didn’t work. It doesn’t work for anybody, really. Not any more. Back when the studios ran the business and owned the theaters, they could put stars in anything they wanted. People were interested in seeing a movie if Gable was in it just because he was in it. That’s no longer true. So I took pictures to play it safe, and they turned out to be very dangerous pictures for me to make.” He squints at the sun, then looks down at his feet.
(Indeed, one can sympathize with Hackman’s frustration at his choice of material. “Tracy and Bogart appeared in lots of terrible films.” says Roger Spottiswoode. the director of Under Fire. “And nobody remembers that. In those days, the studios made two hundred films a year; now it’s down to forty or fifty, so actors’ choices are much more limited. It’s not a matter of choosing poorly; it’s a matter of wanting to work. Gene is a real working actor.” Arthur Penn adds, “It’s a tough life being an American movie actor. An actor doesn’t have control over the quality of a film he’s working on. You may take a picture because you like the director or you like some of the other actors you’ll be working with, but so many people are involved in the finished product that it’s hard to tell how a film will turn out when you agree to appear in it.”)
“Is it true that during this period you turned down Apocalypse Now, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Network?” I ask Hackman, who’s still staring down at the dock, starting to get annoyed with this rehashing of the past.
“Well, I’d rather not say,” he begins, tensing a bit. “Not to protect myself, but to protect others’ feelings. I will talk about Francis Coppola. He did approach me about Apocalypse and wanted me to play a part in it—which one I don’t want to say. But Francis has a way of asking you to work on the come [just for points], which I didn’t think I should do. But I have all the respect in the world for him. I think maybe he’s the best director there is.”
The word is that the role Coppola offered Hackman was Duvall’s (“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”—remember?). A few years later Robert Redford offered him the part of the father in Ordinary People before offering it to Donald Sutherland. “I didn’t turn down that role,” Hackman says, bristling. “We just couldn’t make a deal. I would have loved to have done that film, but I wanted some points, and they were willing to give me points but not enough to make the picture feasible. It was just one of those deals that fell apart.”
As much as Hackman’s career has resembled a puzzle in which all of the pieces don’t quite fit, his personal life also has some loose ends. In the autumn of 1977, Hackman picked up his check for the Superman films, called his agent, Sue Mengers, and told her he was retiring. He holed up with his wife, Fay, and their three children at their weekend home in Monterey. He sold the Beverly Hills mansion, for a reported $2.8 million, planning to move into more modest digs. He traveled, raced cars, played tennis, took up flying. All the while, his intention was to gather energy, to return to work after a year’s rest, to find quality roles again. Scripts kept coming in, but nothing excited him. After 18 months of mid-life crisis, he was ready to act again, but his absence had not made hearts grow fonder. In Hollywood, if you don’t work, people forget you. Directors and casting agents seemed to be asking, “Gene who?”
“I didn’t really accomplish anything during those years,” he says. “There were things I thought I wanted to do, but I was a mess. I wound up lying around. When I decided to go back to work, there wasn’t anything for me to do. It took me a while to find something.”
In 1980, Hackman came out of his early retirement to shoot a peculiar little comedy with Barbra Streisand called All Night Long. The film received mixed reviews, but most critics hailed Hackman’s part in it. If nothing else, All Night Long got him working again. Now, it seems, he’s trying to make up for lost time. Within weeks of wrapping his work on Eureka, he moved on to shooting Under Fire in Oaxaca, Mexico.
The peso has just been devalued, and President José Lopez Portillo is in Oaxaca today, trying to scare up some support for his new economic program. Catherine Moore, the publicist for Under Fire, and Matthew Naythons, the Time photojournalist who’s acting as technical consultant for the picture, are pushing their way through the crowd of Mexican men in cowboy hats and Levi’s and women carrying babies and banners who line the streets to see Portillo’s limousine glide by.
Eventually, he’ll come and Naythons will rush forward to get his shots. The rest of us will see only El Presidente’s Rolex and his diamond ring as he waves his hand above us. “We ought to get Nick and Gene out here for some publicity stills,” Naythons says. Moore rushes off to find a phone to call them, but the stars are nowhere to be found, and it’s just another opportunity missed.
Later, there’s a night shoot; the scene involves a confrontation between Nolte and Hackman. Nolte plays a photographer on assignment to cover the Nicaraguan revolution who develops a sympathy for the cause of the Sandinistas. Hackman, the seasoned foreign correspondent, views the conflict in broader, historical terms. And they’re both in love with the same woman.
A number of Mexican boys dropping their devalued pesos into the coin slots of video games with names like Asterodes stop to stare at the crew members carrying a plaster-of-Paris statue of Somoza to the square where the scene will be shot. Nolte, in a polo shirt and baggy pants, grins at them, but they don’t seem to know who he is and are more impressed by the Sony Walkman he carries. By the time the cameras begin to whir, a couple of hundred local men (no women, it’s after dark} have gathered around the square to watch. They may not know Nolte or Hackman, but they know movies.
Director Spottiswoode and producer Jonathan Taplin have been quite successful in gaining the assistance of the local government, and it seems as if everyone in town is either watching the film being made or helping to make it. The local police play Nicaraguan Guardia in the film, and even the Mexican National Guard has lent tanks and jeeps for the battle scenes. All over town, graffiti about Rafael, Under Fire’s mythical guerrilla hero, blends in with graffiti supporting real-life political causes. But, despite appearances, Spottiswoode says, “it’s not really a political film. It’s a romance, an action-adventure.” Missing may have made money last year, but nobody’s about to promote Under Fire as a pro-Sandinista movie.
Nolte is restless. He’s listening to Jerry Lee Lewis sing “Great Balls of Fire” on the Walkman, unplugging himself occasionally to tell jokes. Hackman is restless, too, but he’s back in his trailer, drinking orange juice and waiting to be called to work. “You have to wait forever in this business,” he complains. “I’m in jail at this point. If I had to be here for eight weeks, I’d probably be tearing up the walls by now. You know, you can divert yourself by having a lot of people around, or you can just do it the way I do—kind of agonize through it.”
“Sure, I’ve made a lot of money,” he continues. “But no matter how many Winnebagos they give you, you have to put up with a lot of crap in this business.”
Now, I think Hackman is a great guy—he’s talented, he’s charming, he’s perceptive, he’s bright—and I’m trying to sympathize with his problems, but his points on The Poseidon Adventure alone have made him a millionaire. “A lot of people would think you’ve got it easy,” I can’t help mumbling.
“Yeah,” he says, stretching his legs across the trailer and slouching down a little further in his seat. “It’s funny that having been poor, you do all the classic poor things. You get nine of everything. I’ve had all the airplanes, all the cars, all the houses, and now I’ve worked my way up to a house on a 22-acre estate with three floors, twenty rooms, an elevator, and nine bathrooms—it’s a palace. And now I just want to get out. I just want a little Spanish-style house and pickup truck or something.”
Hackman is being called. He leaps out of the van and heads for the square. An hour later, they’re still shooting a scene in which Hackman, Nolte, and Joanna Cassidy ride down the street in a cab, pass through police barriers, and finally emerge from the taxi to start walking toward the Somoza statue. “Cut,” Spottiswoode yells. Hackman and Nolte settle down in canvas chairs beside each other. Nolte’s looking all around; he calls a hairdresser over to fluff and spray his hair. Hackman’s bent over, head held in his hands. “I don’t want to be doing this when I’m 80,” he says to Nolte.
Later on, when I ask Hackman about that remark, he tells me a story. “About three or four weeks ago, I was doing some looping on Eureka. I found myself in the looping room all by myself with people in a sound booth behind me. I’m in this room, all by myself, and I see my image go up—this was a sequence where I discover this gold in Canada. And I’m yelling and jumping up and down, laughing and screaming and hollering. So I’m 52 years old and I’m jumping up and down like I was a clown. What a way to make a living!”
Hackman pauses. He grins and the sparkle returns to his eyes. “It does seem silly at times, but I do love the acting part of it. Maybe I’ll go back to the theater for a while. You know I’d love to do Iceman or Long Day’s Journey or Salesman. But I’m too young for that yet. Give me ten more years.”
“What about aging?” I say. “Does it bother you to be getting older?”
“Yeah, it’s tough. I’ve worked hard to get script approval, and director approval, but I can see where later on that all could change. You know you have to protect yourself in this business. But that’s nothing new. You have to protect yourself all the way down the line. From Hollywood, from the whole star syndrome. You have to try and protect your family life, too. It’s very difficult to have a personal life in this business. I’ve been away so often on location. Pictures aren’t shot in Hollywood any more; I’ve only done two there in all the films I’ve done. That affects your wife and it affects your children. I think a celebrity’s kids have a hell of a tough life.”
The work that has kept him away from home has also kept him from dwelling on things that hurt. Last August, Norman Garey, Hackman’s lawyer and perhaps his best friend, inexplicably committed suicide. “It wouldn’t be good for me to lie about for the next year or so,” Hackman says with a long, quiet sigh. “For a number of reasons, I’m going to have to work hard. It’s something I know how to do, and it’s something I can rely on.”
So at two o’clock this morning, the chill air aggravating his cough, he must run through the statue scene once more. He’s got to summon up a lot of anger, yell, look shocked, take a punch at Nolte. He does it all with a freshness that totally belies the fact that he’s gone through this scene a dozen times in the last several hours. He looks natural and confident. It’s a wrap.
“Which is your consummate performance?” I ask Hackman as we get ready to ride back to our hotels.
“There aren’t any,” he says. “There are a few moments in Scarecrow, and in Conversation, and the withdrawal scene in French Connection II, but I’ve never come away from seeing one of my pictures without thinking I could have given more. I’ve yet to give it all.”
“Why, though?” I ask. “Why don’t you give your all?”
“It would mean committing myself to it too much. It’s fear, I think. I’m afraid to commit that much. It’s something I’m working on. Something I’ve got to look forward to. Maybe in the end that’s one of the things which keeps me in the game.”
Gene Hackman can play killers, cops, fathers. sons, lovers, and lunatics with equal skill. He can devote as much energy and effort to working on a clinker as on a great film. He can despise all the Hollywood hoopla while making a fortune in Los Angeles real estate. He can tell you, after working in almost forty films in half as many years. that he’s never really committed himself to a role he’s played.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe there’s something to the mystery about this man that gives him the power to fuel his performances. And maybe it’s the holding back, all these years, that has almost derailed him so many times but has also kept him going.
I am back on the Eureka set, sitting in Mickey Rourke’s chair in the Jamaican moonlight. All around me technicians are connecting wires, hammering, sawing, yelling instructions at one another. But I’m not hearing them. Instead, I’m reading the script to Eureka. And as I read it I’m getting a very strange sensation. It’s as though I’ve heard the entire story before, disguised in some other form.
Listen: Eureka is about a man named Jack McCann. He is a huge man, and he has been prospecting for gold all his life. He’s never had any luck, but he finally has a vision. In the Yukon he sees a burning tree, and beneath the tree he finds gold. All the gold he could ever have dreamed of. More than that.
He takes the gold and goes far away to a Caribbean island. Once there, he marries a woman of high breeding, has a daughter, and is clearly the most powerful, feared, and respected man on the island. Then, through a number of wrong moves, he ends up losing it all.
As I finish the script I look across the yard and see Gene Hackman staring out into the night. Just this afternoon I had asked Hackman why he chose to do the story and he said, “I don’t know, really. There’s something about it that just drew me in.”