The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Starving together, starring together

New Orleans, Oct. 23: Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. There’s a lot of history there. Four Academy Awards and a combined 12 nominations cast a glow over their careers.

But on a deeper level are memories of friendship, from being starving-artist roommates in a hovel in New York’s Greenwich Village, to reaching icon status in Hollywood’s last golden age, to finally working together in Runaway Jury, which opened in the US on Friday.

Their warm regard for each other bursts through in heartfelt jabs and funny recollections during a recent interview here.

“It’s a freak accident we became stars,” Hoffman says. “It’s a freak accident that we’ve been able to have a career. There’s a part of us that always feels like we’re frauds, that we stink.”

Hackman, 73, and Hoffman, 66, shared early setbacks. But their successes happened apart.

Runaway Jury, an adaptation of a John Grisham book, is the first time the two actors have ever appeared together in a movie.

Hoffman plays a gentleman Southern lawyer who goes after the gun lobby in a civil case involving a murdered office worker. Hackman plays an aggressive jury consultant who acts more like a jury rigger.

When Jury director Gary Fleder was told that the two had never done a movie together, he ordered a scene written to feature them in a verbal showdown in the men’s room of the courthouse.

Anticipating their acting duel, neither slept well the night before. “We did the first take and we were terrible,” Hoffman says. “Yet we embraced each other, because we got through it. It was intimidating.”

Jitters keep Hackman going, he says. “That’s part of the reason that I’m still in the business. There’s something at stake, you’re not just showing up, you’re not a day player, you’re not just trying to make a living.”

Hackman points out that they did team up in Of Mice and Men (Hackman as the dumb giant Lenny and Hoffman as George) at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California, in the early 1960s while they were unknowns.

And they will co-star in an upcoming film with Robert Duvall, Bit Players, about three men whose small town in the West is devastated by a Wall Street swindler. The men devise a scheme to get even.

While in Pasadena, Hoffman and Hackman shared the role of Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew.

“I had to wear his tights,” Hackman says. “I played in the first act and then Dustin came out and played the same character in the second act. It must have startled people.”

Fate, or perhaps director Mike Nichols, played a heavy hand in denying them a chance to work together in The Graduate, Hoffman’s first starring role and the first of seven Oscar nominations. He won for 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer and 1988’s Rain Man.

Hackman won the part of Mr. Robinson but sensed he was not right for it. A few weeks into rehearsals, he relayed his anxiety to Hoffman during a bathroom break.

Hoffman recalls: “Gene looks over at me as he’s taking a leak, saying, ‘I’m going to get fired,’ and I said, ‘What are you talking about'’ He said, ‘I’m getting fired today, I can feel it,’ and he did, which opened his career up because Warren Beatty said, ‘He’s not doing The Graduate and put him in Bonnie and Clyde’.”

The latter gave Hackman the first of five Oscar nominations. He won best actor for 1971’s The French Connection and best supporting actor for 1992’s Unforgiven.

Hackman and Hoffman are baffled by what has kept them apart on-screen all these years.

Although, at this point, Hoffman concedes the coveted 20 to 35-year-old audience demographic is probably not dying to see them. Even in their prime, their fame came as a surprise after a line of square-jawed matinee heroes ruled Hollywood.

“This was coming off of the day with Tab Hunter, Rock Hudson and Troy Donahue, good-looking guys, while we were character types, meaning we’re ugly,” Hoffman says.

“If God had come down and said, ‘I’ll give you a part in an off-off Broadway show for the rest of your life,’ we would have signed in a New York minute.”

So what enabled them to reach the heights they did' “A decline in culture,” Hoffman cracks, busting up the room.

Hoffman’s first role in Hackman’s life was a real one, as the house guest who would never leave. He, Hackman and Duvall were a trio of Kerouac-reading, change-the-world thespians who were working odd jobs in New York City in the early ’60s (after Hackman and Hoffman left the West Coast) to support themselves.

They were roommates off and on, and the mix also included Hackman’s wife. Hoffman, perpetually unemployed, slept on the floor of their Greenwich Village apartment. “He was the worst,” Hackman remembers with a smile. “We had to hose the rooms down and sweep them out.”

The problem was, the living room, kitchen, bathtub and toilet were all in one room. “I would have to take a bath while they were eating breakfast,” Hoffman says.

“There was also a toilet next to the bath, and all Gene’s thinking about is that when I had to have my morning bathroom, I didn’t care whether they were making eggs or not. He’s held that against me for 40 years.”

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