Before They Were Kings

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Scrounging for any kind of role in 60s New York, chasing girls, lending money to whichever of them was the most broke, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Duvall shared the risks, the rejections, and a fascination with the human drama. As they remember, stardom was unlikely—and irrelevant.

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Forty years ago no one—least of all the three men themselves—would have believed that out of the thousands of struggling actors in New York they would turn out to be Academy Award—winning superstars. But it happened. They did.

Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Duvall were good friends in the 1950s and 60s, when they were working menial jobs and scrounging for any sort of roles. All three survived the classic whipsaw between hope and rejection to become part of that rare breed—character actors on Hollywood’s A-list. In last year’s Runaway Jury,the movie Hackman, 74, and Hoffman, 66, made together, the nimbus surrounding them is redolent of their protean film pasts—Hoffman as an actor impersonating a bossy woman (Tootsie), a crippled street scum (Midnight Cowboy), an autistic outpatient (Rain Man), and Hackman as a raging drug cop (The French Connection), a paranoid wiretapper (The Conversation), a nutty criminal mastermind (Superman). In Secondhand Lions, Robert Duvall, 73, played a grizzled, grumpy recluse still tough enough to beat up four young men at once, but again the screen reverberated with his past heroics as a wacko, war-loving colonel (Apocalypse Now), an efficient Mafia consigliere (The Godfather), and a washed-up fugitive preacher (The Apostle).

So why did these three, who floundered into acting, find their perfect fit and obsessive passion in the profession? The answer begins in 1957 at the Pasadena Playhouse, in California. Gene Hackman—27 years old, a married ex-Marine from Danville, Illinois, rough-hewn, six feet two inches tall, a self-described “big lummox kind of person”—found himself surrounded by tanned young “walking surfboards.” He immediately latched onto a fellow misfit, 19-year-old, five-foot-six-inch Dustin Hoffman, who was burdened with a huge nose and a bad complexion and wore tattered Levi’s and a sheepskin vest over bare skin. Hackman recalls, “There was something about him that—like he had a secret. You just knew he was going to do something.” An inspirational instructor, Barney Brown, sensed the same karma. He assured Dustin, “You are going to wind up being a theater person the rest of your life,” and persuaded him to go to New York against the wishes of his parents. “When Barney died,” says Hoffman, “I felt my ideal father had died.”

All three grew up in peripatetic families where fathers and discipline loomed large. Hoffman’s stickler Russian Jewish father, Harry, lifted himself through sheer hard work from ditchdigger to Columbia Pictures propman to set designer to founder of the Harry Hoffman furniture company, which went broke. His uneven fortunes moved the family into six Los Angeles neighborhoods, and Dustin had to find his place in six new schools. Short and acne-riddled, he was mocked as “Dustbin.” “I felt ugly,” he says. “I was all nose.” He tried never to walk away from a girl in profile. When at last a pretty girl did pay a little attention to him, a boy stole up behind him and jerked down his pants, taunting, “Hit me, little Dusty.”

But his innate acting gifts saved him—sort of. He became the class clown and discovered the rush delivered by a laughing audience—though, he says, “people used to say, ‘Oh, he’s a real comedian,’ which was like saying, ‘He’s a loser.’” At home, says Dustin, “sometimes that house was as thick with tension as any house could be.” At dinners for several days following a family fight, his father, mother, grandmother, and handsome high-achieving brother would sit absolutely silent. Suddenly eight-year-old Dustin would repeat the dialogue of the fight, taking all the parts. The family would look up and begin to laugh, and the tension eased. Hoffman muses, “I had never thought about acting. It was a great feeling to break the collective anger in the room. I mattered. I had an identity in the house.”

At Santa Monica City College, Hoffman studied medicine and music. To avoid flunking out, he took an acting course for a sure three credits and found that acting was “the first subject I ever felt I could concentrate on.” After a brief period at the Los Angeles Academy of Music, he enrolled in the Pasadena Playhouse, where he and his friend Gene Hackman agreed that they detested everyone else. Gene resisted the teachers’ approach to acting, and at the end of the first semester he received a grade of 1.4—the lowest grade ever given up to that point had been 3.0—and was dismissed.

Hackman was born in San Bernardino, California, in 1930. His puritanical father worked on newspaper presses and restlessly moved the family to four states before settling in the backwater, corn-belt town of Danville, Illinois. Gene dreaded hearing his mother say, “Wait till Dad gets home.” He explains, “He always went too far. Laid it on pretty heavy.” Like Dustin, Hackman went to a series of schools, but unlike his friend he turned inward. In high school he never dated or went to a dance. At home in the basement, next to the coalbin, he built a cardboard house—“a place to hide. My own spot.”

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