ALL THE TOP HELMERS’ MAN

Directors praise Dustin Hoffman's versatility and perfectionism

When Dustin Hoffman emerged from his disastrous audition for Mike Nichols’ 1967 landmark film, “The Graduate,” he was so rattled, he dropped his subway token. An empathetic crew member picked it up. “Here kid, you’re gonna need this,” he said, flipping Hoffman the wayward token.

Despite the patent appearance of failure and the fact that the role of Benjamin in “The Graduate” was originally pegged for a blond WASPy type — read Robert Redford — Hoffman got the part. It made him a star, and he’s been one ever since, picking up two Oscars along the way, and creating one memorable character after another. “Dustin has elevated the character actor to leading man,” says Barry Levinson, who guided Hoffman to his second Oscar for “Rain Man” (the first was for “Kramer vs. Kramer”).

Indeed, most actors would be overjoyed to have one or two signature roles over a lifetime. Hoffman accomplished that in his first two starring efforts, “The Graduate” and “Midnight Cowboy.” Lines like “Mrs. Robinson, I think you’re trying to seduce me,” “I’m walkin’ here” and, later, “I’m an excellent driver” are part of our vernacular.

This year the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. honors him with its highest accolade, the Cecil B. DeMille Award, acknowledging a lifetime of work. As he joked when he received a similar nod last year at the Venice Film Festi-val, “I hate getting this award for life achievement,” Hoffman mused. “I’d rather it be for half a life.”

And he might get his wish. Hoffman, who turns 60 this year, has lately accelerated his work schedule with back-to-back projects. He was in two films this year, “American Buffalo” and a co-starring role in Barry Levinson’s “Sleepers.” On tap are two more films for Levinson and a recently completed one, “Mad City,” for Costa-Gavras. He is semi-attached to any number of other projects, which should keep him in front of the cameras through the millennium. At this rate they may have to invent a second-lifetime achievement award.

But let’s get back to “The Graduate.” What happened? “When I screen-tested Dustin for ‘The Graduate,’ it was clear that he was about three times better when the film came back from Technicolor than he was on the stage floor,” Nichols recalls. “He is a natural film actor, conspiring with Technicolor to do some magic in the film bath.”

Having struggled for more than a decade (he was 30 when he played college-age Benjamin) and scoring in one of the most popular films of its day, would have sent most actors into overtime, trying to play catch-up. But Hoffman waited two years before committing to another starring role. It was a role that was as different and challenging as the virginal innocent in “The Graduate.” Ratso Rizzo in the John Schlesinger-directed “Midnight Cowboy” was the opposite of a glamour part, and actually much closer to the work Hoffman had been doing on stage in such plays as Murray Schisgal’s “Eh?” (which is where Nichols saw him) or his Obie-winning “Journey of the Fifth Horse” and “Harry, Noon and Night,” both by Ronald Ribman.

“I knew he was an extraordinary actor from ‘The Graduate,”’ Schlesinger says. “But I never realized what a great character actor he was. In fact, that’s how he got the part. He was wearing a dirty raincoat, and the two of us went out to a restaurant near 42nd Street. He pointed out the head waiter, whom he described as Ratso if he had become a success. We spent a long time on 42nd street, in pool halls and bars. He blended in so well, I knew he’d be perfect for the part.”

It was during “Midnight Cowboy” that Hoffman began to earn his reputation as a methodical, improvisatory actor. Director Arthur Penn, who steered him through “Little Big Man,” once said, “He can’t distinguish between a pim-ple and a tumor. Everything involves his total attention. He has the kind of meticulousness that doesn’t settle for, ‘OK, let’s get it in the can.’ ”

This “constant pursuit of a character,” as Levinson describes it, has been recorded both favorably and unfavorably, depending on the director. Even Schlesinger, who relished Hoffman’s exploratory work on “Midnight Cowboy,” found himself in a somewhat less salubrious situation on their subsequent pairing, “Marathon Man.” Hoffman’s relationship with co-star Sir Laurence Olivier is the stuff of legend, thanks to William Goldman’s piquant account of it in “Adventures in the Screen Trade.” After witnessing Hoffman’s inquisitive working style, Olivier dryly sug-gested that he just try acting the emotion for which he was searching.

“They (Hoffman and Olivier) came from different backgrounds,” explains Schlesinger. “Larry was concerned with the difficulty of learning his lines, while Dustin wanted to improvise.”

Still, the results of such microscopic attention have undoubtedly enriched many of his better films. His and Jon Voight’s improvisations for “Midnight Cowboy” were recorded on audiocassette, and the film’s screenwriter, Waldo Salt, then reshaped the scenes with some of the new “discoveries,” according to Schlesinger.

It is also public knowledge that both “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “Tootsie,” two roles as different from each other as from Hoffman’s other work, benefited from his perfectionism. Levinson explains: “The struggle for him is still the same as it was the day he got his first role. He has the energy and the need to do good work. He’s always willing to test the borders. He’s always looking for something else. A few moments’ work can end up influencing the movie. It stimulates the entire filmmaking process.”

Hoffman is humble enough to acknowledge serendipity as an accomplice. In particular, one of his most famous ut-terances, “I’m walkin’ here” from “Midnight Cowboy,” was not in the script at all. A pushy cab driver was trying to horn his way through the film site. Fortunately the cameras were rolling, and Schlesinger left it in the final movie.

But luck clearly has little to do with a career of such breadth and range. “He’s clearly not a personality actor,” says Schlesinger, “and it’s obviously his success at such a wide variety of roles that has kept him a star all these years.”

If the swing from “The Graduate” to “Midnight Cowboy” to “Kramer vs. Kramer” to “Tootsie” to “Rain Man” is not evidence enough for Schlesinger’s assertion, add his scabrous Lenny Bruce in Bob Fosse’s “Lenny,” his intrepid Carl Bernstein in “All the President’s Men,” his effete Captain Hook in Steven Spielberg’s “Hook,” and his heart-wrenching Willy Loman in the stage and television versions of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.”

Nichols, the man who first boosted Hoffman to stardom, deserves the final word here. The core of Hoffman’s inspi-ration, he says, is humor. “Like all first-rate film actors, Dustin is very funny,” says Nichols. “All his serious and character work is grounded in his great sense of humor. When he began, he was startling and true. And he has only grown since then.”

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