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Small is big...
...for Dustin Hoffman

Hollywood has never been renowned for celebrating age and experience over youth and beauty. However, men in movies, we generally assume, are granted a longer shelf-life than most women. Like siring children, leading men can seemingly continue to head up a cast well into their craggy, pensionable years.

It’s a shock, then, to hear, from the mouth of Dustin Hoffman, a true Hollywood heavyweight, with two Oscars, five Golden Globes and three Baftas under his belt, that this is far from the case. “How many leads are written for someone who is 74 years old?” he asks. “Three-dimensional, interesting, leading characters — they don’t write those roles for people in my age bracket.”

The star of iconic films including The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Marathon Man, Tootsie, Kramer vs Kramer and Rain Man, inquires, wryly: “How many years am I facing now when the most interesting roles will be animated?” (His recent hits include Kung-Fu Panda and Kung-Fu Panda 2.)

Happily for Hoffman, the full-time voice-over career can wait, thanks to Luck, HBO’s new high-rolling horse racing drama. The much anticipated series boasts a stable of big hitters, including Nick Nolte, David Milch, the show’s creator and the brains behind Hill Street Blues, and executive producer Michael Mann, the director of Heat, who also directed the pilot.

TV > FILM

This transfer of some of film’s greatest talents to the small screen — Martin Scorsese directing HBO’s Boardwalk Empire; the likes of Al Pacino, Julianne Moore, and now Hoffman taking on TV roles — is part of a process that is seeing television eclipsing film as the home of quality drama.

The likes of The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men have set a trend that looks likely to continue. At this year’s Golden Globes, best film drama went to the slight comedy The Descendants, whereas best TV drama was the post 9/11 conspiracy series Homeland.

Hoffman gives a lucid explanation of why this is happening: “You cannot get a shot of doing your best work in the studio system. There’s committees. There’s meetings. They’re on the set. They get involved in a kind of quasi — at least I think it is — creative way, but they buck heads with people that they shouldn’t be bucking heads with. And with HBO, once they give a ‘go’, there is no committee. These guys are allowed to try to do their best work, and they then give it to us. And I think that for some years now, the first rate writers have all been going to television, not films.”

‘YOU DON’T F*** WITH HIM’

We meet in a Beverly Hills hotel, where, dapper in a dark blue suit, he settles down on the sofa, sipping on a large, tomato juice-based drink filled with foliage. Is it a Virgin Mary, I inquire, or something more potent? “Oh, a Virgin Mary,” he grins, “Or am I just happy to see you?” Tanned, lean and healthy looking with a thick thatch of silvery hair, he has certainly lost none of his twinkle. He is just back from Buckinghamshire, where he has been behind the camera — his directorial debut, indeed — for a new BBC film, Quartet, starring a couple of our own acting greats, Dame Maggie Smith and Albert Finney.

In Luck, Hoffman plays Chester “Ace” Bernstein, a quietly powerful, wealthy and well-connected man, recently released from serving three years in prison. “I think he is a man who has lived as honourable a life as he could, in an alternative universe,” Hoffman says of Ace. “Maybe not in the Mafia himself, but as someone who has dealt with the Mob, he has tried to live a life where he is a man of his word.” Hoffman nibbles on a celery stick from his glass. “And you don’t f*** with him,” he adds.

Luck sets numerous plates spinning from the start: Nolte is a grizzled horse trainer carrying high hopes for his young stallion; two ambitious young jockeys are vying for position; and a quartet of degenerate gamblers have unexpectedly won a life-changing sum. The disparate characters are all brought together beside the historic Santa Anita racetrack in southern California.

Hoffman was unfamiliar with the world of daily doubles, pick sixes, purses and stipes before filming. “I still don’t really know much about it all,” he shrugs. Neither had he communed much with horses. “I have a very short stride when I walk,” he explains. “It’s very hard for me to get my legs around a horse.”

TRICKY TO WORK WITH

Hoffman grew up in Los Angeles, where his father worked as a set decorator at Columbia Pictures. After high school, Hoffman enrolled to study medicine, but dropped out after a year to join the Pasadena Playhouse. Between sporadic small roles, for six years Hoffman supported himself by working in restaurant cloakrooms and for the Yellow Pages. But then in 1967 Mike Nichols cast him as the directionless Benjamin Braddock, opposite Ann Bancroft in The Graduate. Hoffman was 30 and in only his second film role: it won him an Oscar nomination.

In more than four decades at the top since, Hoffman has developed a reputation for being — how to say it? — collaborative. An actor who likes to make suggestions to directors. “Are you being diplomatic? You don’t have to be,” he smiles. Okay, he has a reputation for being tricky to work with. “You can just say it: ‘a pr**k’,” he announces with a laugh. “If I say, ‘I have an idea,’ and there’s this cloud that comes over the director’s face, then I know he’s not a collaborator.”

In Luck, he found a band of like-minded brothers. “When you’re lucky enough to work with heavyweight talent, there’s no problem, because they’re not afraid of a suggestion,” he says.

Hoffman is married to Lisa, his second wife, with whom he has two daughters, two sons and two grandchildren. Aside from the lack of satisfying movie roles for men of a certain age, he credits Lisa with persuading him to take to the small screen.

“I’m not a big television watcher,” he admits. “But I asked my wife, and she said, ‘Well, you know, get with the times.’ So I’ve signed a contract that I’m done when I’m 80.” He’s kidding, of course, but a second series has already been given the green light. So, with a little more Luck, who knows?

HOFFMAN’S BEST

the graduate
Hoffman’s breakthrough film had him playing a purposeless young man who is seduced by an older woman. The Graduate won Hoffman, then 30, his first Oscar nomination.

midnight cowboy
Hoffman played a conman who colludes with a naive cowboy to survive on the streets of New York City. This earned him his second Oscar nomination.

kramer vs kramer
Hoffman earned plaudits for his turn as a just-divorced father of one who has to not only take care of his son, but also fight for his custody in court. Kramer vs Kramer gave Hoffman his first Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

TOOTSIE
Hoffman slipped into the role of an unemployed actor who disguises himself as a woman to land a role in a soap opera. Nominated for a Best Actor Oscar. Still inspires rip-offs.

rAIN MAN
Hoffman won a second Oscar for his turn of an autistic savant in this Barry Levinson film
co-starring Tom Cruise.

Jane Mulkerrins
(The Daily Telegraph)

How would you rate Dustin Hoffman as an actor on a scale of 10? Tell t2@abp.in