One of the most often-told stories in American film acting occurred on the set of “Marathon Man” in 1976, when Dustin Hoffman purposely deprived himself of sleep to appear disheveled, exhausted and edgy for a scene in which he would be tortured in a dentist’s chair by Laurence Olivier.
In the many variations of this story, which have cropped up in news reports, reference works and biographies, the great Olivier, the paragon of the precision of the British stage tradition, was stunned by the bit of madness in Hoffman’s method to attain a sense of reality. “My dear boy,” the perplexed Olivier was to have asked, “why don’t you just act?”
Which was precisely what the dear boy was doing. “These were two of the most splendid actors from two entirely different schools,” remembers the film’s director, John Schlesinger. “Dustin was always looking to improvise, to find new ways to do things, and Olivier, of course, was very old-school and unwilling to do that.”
Hoffman has always been a huge proponent of faith to character, authenticity to scene and doing anything possible to make the movie as believable as possible.
“He will go to very great lengths to make it as authentic as possible,” recalls Jon Voight, who co-starred as Joe Buck to Hoffman’s Ratso Rizzo in Schlesinger’s Academy Award-winning “Midnight Cowboy” (1969). “His desire for authenticity is a continual indicator of his method of work. He will think and think and then ask, ‘Why would this character want to go up an elevator?’ and meanwhile the director has already set up the shot.”
Others who have worked with Hoffman also testify to his painstaking pursuit of verisimilitude. Meryl Streep, who starred with him in the multi-Oscar-winning film “Kramer vs. Kramer” speaks highly of his uncanny ability to transform himself into a wide range of characters.
“Dustin has the rare and unusual (these days) of being a repertory actor,” notes Streep. “He is able to embody a lot of different characters, and that versatility leads his fans, me included, to expect we’d be able to see him more often. But we don’t see enough of him. He’s too picky!”
Ned Beatty, who played a Florida district attorney in the benchmark production “All the President’s Men” (1976), recalls the sequence in that film when Hoffman’s Washington Post reporter, Carl Bernstein, was trying to wrangle information from him.
“There was a very strongly held position by the producers and by Dustin and the director, Alan Pakula, that they wanted to tell the truth,” Beatty recalls. “We started to work over the scene and discovered that the screenwriters had combined two people together for my character. One was a state’s attorney and the other was a detective who worked for the district attorney, a politician and a supercop. The two guys were very different.
“Dustin picked up on it immediately. We spent one whole day in discussions to do a rewrite and make the scene honest. I was very taken by that.”
Hoffman’s reputation as a stickler and a capacity for technical virtuosity combined with a certain boyish impetuosity helped propel him to superstardom in his second film. “The Graduate” (1967) was overloaded with themes and notions that spoke to America’s youth culture like no other film before it. And suddenly this little guy with the boomerang smile, prominent beak and well of brewing organic emotions became a national poster boy for every young misfit who saw echoes of himself in Benjamin Braddock, an everyguy of his age facing dull adults, stupid parents, the mysteries of sex and love and the daunting future.
“He opened it up for a lot of people who weren’t exactly handsome,” says M. Emmet Walsh, the reedy-voiced character actor who had small parts in “Midnight Cowboy” and “Little Big Man” (1970) and was later cast as the pa-role officer, Earl Frank, by Hoffman in “Straight Time” (1978). “Before he hooked up with Mrs. Robinson, a lot of what might be called unusual looking people were never thought of as lead actors.”
Hoffman was the first exponent of his generation of American star acting that had no use for silver-screen looks, valuing instead depth of meaning, passion and communication. After he pioneered the way through “The Gradu-ate” and “Midnight Cowboy,” such plain-mugged future Oscar winners as Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro would become prominent forces, and Hoffman pals Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall also would climb from character parts to Oscar’s stage.
“He wasn’t interested in vanity or looking good,” Voight recalls. “He made me realize that you could use little things to help out a performance. On ‘Midnight Cowboy,’ he had a set of teeth made. To help get the limp looking real, he made sure part of the shoe was worn away. Dusty was after truth.”
Hoffman would win Academy Awards for best actor for the weary, custody-battling father in “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979) and the autistic brother of Tom Cruise in “Rain Man” (1988). He also received nominations for “The Graduate,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Lenny” (1974) and “Tootsie” (1982).
Hoffman enthusiasts have asked over the years what, then, should he have received for his performances as Jack Crabbe, the Westerner with the picaresque adventures in “Little Big Man,” the professor pushed to the breaking point in Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” (1971), the bespectacled Louis Dega in “Papillon” (1974), his nervy with a lot of nerve Bernstein?
Of Hoffman’s two dozen movies, a staggering half of them are among the more prominent pictures of their years and are mostly driven by the energy and conviction of his characters. The actor came to prominence during the nova-like explosion of the anti-hero in film culture. But where such action-prone figures as Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin and others waged their rebellions in the action genres, Hoffman established the complex iconography of an often vulnerable yet resolute everyman who relied on his wits and passion for his weapons.
It might be said that the gender-bender layers of “Tootsie,” in which Hoffman played an actor playing an actress to get a part in a soap opera in which the actress plays a nationally famous character, was taking subversion to new ends. Hoffman has won accolades for a remarkable gamut of movie characterizations and collected more hardware for his efforts than the two Oscars. He has always been the darling of critics groups as well as audiences and not just a few co-stars.
“Dustin is one of the most generous people I’ve ever worked with,” says Valerie Perrine, who co-starred as Honey Bruce opposite Hoffman’s incarnation of comic Lenny Bruce in director Bob Fosse’s “Lenny.” “That movie was one of my first ones, and I began to think that all actors must be this wonderful and caring. I didn’t know anyone in New York, and he made sure I had a ride to the set. He ate dinner with me a lot. He was as concerned with me as he was with himself.
“I was in bed for the telephone scene, and I had been crying and crying and crying, and I was all cried out. I said, ‘Dustin, I don’t think I can cry again.’ Just when they said, ‘Roll ’em,’ he gave me a pinch, and that started to get me going again. He knew exactly what to do. I consider Dustin one of my best lessons in life. You don’t need to be formally trained to work with Dustin. Between him and Bob Fosse, how could I go wrong?”
But for some just-do-it actors, Hoffman has been known to fret and rethink scenes again and again to try to get them right. For every Ned Beatty, impressed by the exactitude in Hoffman, there’s another like Olivier, who wants to get on with it.
“When Dustin cast me in ‘Straight Time,’ it was very, very important to my career,” Walsh says. “I got good reviews, people noticed me, my price doubled. I will always be eternally grateful to him. But Dustin is a bit tortured by acting. He won’t just jump in and do it. And that can drain your enthusiasm. There are guys who walk up to the cliff and ” Eee-owww!” they jump. Dustin spends a lot of time wandering around up on the cliff.”
Charlie Korsmo was 12 and 13 years old during Steven Spielberg’s seven-month shoot on “Hook” (1991). “He’s kind of a perfectionist,” says Korsmo, now a student at M.I.T. “We did a lot of takes. A lot of people who are like that can be jerks to work with, but not him. He’s not one of those method actors who you read about who storms around the set.”