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A ‘Rain Man’ for all seasons

There have always been great character actors, most often supporting players but occasionally shining in leading roles. Lon Chaney, Edward G. Robinson, a handful of others come to mind. But in post-television Holly-wood, character actors have come into their own as the stars of films, and not simply as helpful figures to swell a scene.

And of this new phenomenon of star character actors, Dustin Hoffman stands preeminent. He was one of the earli-est, achieving stardom with the title role in “The Graduate,” his first major film. He remains the most versatile, intense, dedicated, perfection-driven and honored (six nominations, two Oscars).

He has triumphed not least over the fact that when an actor has achieved stardom, it is hard not to perceive the actor at work instead of the character he is portraying. But Hoffman in his perfectionist zeal digs so deeply into the character that he is all but lost to sight.

Not really, of course. We go to see the movie because we know Dustin Hoffman is in it. But Hoffman, limping, un-shaven, wracked with coughing then bellowing his outraged frustrations at the world, has become Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy” so thoroughly that we imagine we know everything about Ratso there is to know, and he is who he is.

Hoffman has made the preposterous seem not so preposterous. In “Little Big Man,” heavily made up to look like the 121-year-old survivor of Custer’s last stand at the Little Big Horn, telling in a cracked voice what it was really like, Hoffman’s conviction somehow demanded we pay attention not to the actor acting but to what the actor was saying about the genocidal fate of the Indians (as the survivor would have called them).

“I can’t remember a time when there were so many good actors working,” Hoffman said as long ago as 1975. He had come to the Cannes festival that year to help promote “Lenny,” because Lenny Bruce was not well known in Europe. He had grown a goatee for the role, and it spread vinelike along his jawline to his ears, as Lenny’s did. He also had spent hours listening to comics in smoky nightclubs. That May in Cannes, he already had been hanging around the newsroom of the Washington Post for weeks, getting ready to play Carl Bernstein in “All the President’s Men.”

“You have the dream of being the pure artist,” Hoffman said then. “Maybe it’s an unachievable condition, but that’s my fantasy.” He already was uncompromisingly selective, and already a perfectionist..

Which is Hoffman’s finest screen performance is a matter of lively debate. Twenty-five years later, Ratso, dying on a bus en route to some impossible dream of salvation in Miami, is still unforgettable. But hardly less so is Ray-mond, the autistic savant of “Rain Man,” with his fantastic gift for mathematical calculations and his rigid devotion to routine, including the watching of Judge Wapner on “The People’s Court.” The real-life savant was named Peter, and Peter’s brother gave Hoffman a fine review. “It’s not my brother,” he said, “but it is. The audience loves him as we love Peter.”

Alec Guinness once said he couldn’t get a handle on the villainous schemer he was to play in “The Ladykillers” until he cut a set of front teeth from a piece of stiff celluloid (one of those “Occupied” signs airlines used to supply). The resulting sinister overbite, Guinness said, was all he needed to give him the character. Characters don’t come quite that simply for Hoffman. “I tend to be taught by the dailies,” he told me once a few years ago. He had in fact had hell’s own time with Raymond. Director Barry Levinson asked him to find the bits in the dailies he did like. With those in hand, they both knew how to proceed. Hoffman, a sports fan, compared it with making contact with the ball instead of swinging for the fences. Meantime, he says, “You’re full of fear and pain and self-loathing.”

Although he is indubitably a star, able to be selective about his roles, Hoffman remains the actor first and last, feeling that the actor can’t think of himself as a star with a specific image to sustain.

Late in his life, Hoffman remembers, someone asked Ralph Richardson if he had any unfulfilled goals. “I’d like to learn a little more about acting before it’s too late,” Richardson said. It’s a sentiment Dustin Hoffman shares, and it seems central to his achievements. You’re never there; you’re always discovering.

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