In 2004, Vanity Fair published an article titled BEFORE THEY WERE KINGS. It was a 6 page piece about Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, chronicling their careers from infancy to ultimate Hollywood success.
BEFORE THEY WERE KINGS
Living on talent and odd jobs in 60s New York, Gene Hackman. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall knew what mattered: getting the break (and the girls). The stars talk to Richard Meryman about the friendship that kept them going.
The story 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 surf-boards.” He immediately latched on to 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 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 ditch digger to Columbia Pictures prop man 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 Hoffman “sometimes the 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, begin to laugh, and the tension erased. 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.
Before They Were Kings: Part Two
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 til Dad gets home.” He explains, “He always went too far. Laid it on pretty heavy.” Like Hoffman, 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 coal bin, he built a cardboard house – “a place to hide. My own spot.”
His other sanctuary was the movie theater, where Jimmy Cagney, Errol Flynn, and Edward G Robinson were his favorites. Hackman says, “I loved the idea that somebody could convince me that they were a sea captain without being phony. I’d grown up shy – not unusual for actors. They want to show they’re more than that – people of import, substance. I think because I was shy I felt insecure, and acting seemed like a way of maybe getting around that. Getting to be somebody.” When Gene was 13, his father abandoned the family for years with just a wave of the hand to his son playing in the street. “It was a real adios,” says Hackman. “It was so precise. Maybe that’s why I became an actor. I doubt I would have become so sensitive to human behavior if that hadn’t happened to me as a child – if I hadn’t realized how much one small gesture can mean.”
His Mother moved in with his grandmother, who considered him a weak character. At 16, he served a night in jail for stealing candy and soda, and, on an impulse permanently escaped his life. He lied about his age and enlisted in the Marines, serving four and a half years in China, Japan and Hawaii. He rose to corporal but was busted for fighting. He also got a taste of show business as an announcer on Armed Forces Radio. After a serious motorcycle accident he was mustered out, and in 1951 he settled in New York, living at the YMCA and hoping to become an actor. In order t receive about $150 a month from the G.I. Bill as a wounded veteran; he had to go to school. The G.I. Bill refused to pay for acting classes; regulation required schooling that would lead to a job. However, the bill qualified “painter” as a profession and paid Hackman’s tuition at the Art Student’s league – drawing had always been a hobby – and then at the nearby school of radio technique.
In 1953, still afraid to commit totally to acting, Hackman tried television production, in Florida, and then back to Danville. He returned to New York in 1955. The next year he married his girlfriend, a bank secretary named Faye Maltese, and together they headed for California and the Pasadena Playhouse.
His quick dismissal from the playhouse only served to galvanize his determination. Thinking, I’ll show them, he boarded a bus with Faye back to New York. He managed to get an unpaid internship in summer stock at a theater in Bellport, Long Island, building sets, scavenging for props, setting up lights. In a two-week production of Arthur Miller’s “A View from the Bridge,” there happened to be one uncast role, Marco, a strong, silent Italian workman. The director, Ulu Grosbard, from the Yale School of Drama, filled it with Hackman, whom he came to know as “A complex guy; Very intelligent; a generosity of spirit; socially charming; a lot going on in him; a certain sense of being tormented with past ghosts and things. That’s part of what he brings to his work.” Grosbard was the first theater person to encourage Hackman. Backstage after one performance he told him, “Gene, you have got to keep at it.” Hackman, his voice trailing off in recollected awe, exclaims, “He actually said that, and, God it was just like…”
Robert Duvall was the lead in that “A View from the Bridge, playing, at 26, Eddie Carbone, a sullen Sicilian longshoreman in his 40’s from Red Hook, Brooklyn, with accent to match. “In the first rehearsal,” says Hackman, “Bobby already had this kind of physical thing that he was doing – like an animal – kind of glided across the stage. I was really impressed.” Grosbard still recalls in wonder, “You see a transformation happen that you can’t put your finger on, except it’s unmistakable. What does he draw on to do that?”
Duvall was born in San Diego in 1931. His father, Howard, a naval officer who rose to rear admiral, resettled his family in a series of cities and ended up in Annapolis, Maryland. Adjusting to numerous schools, Robert, though smallish, found status as an athlete. In his loving, committed Christian Science family, everybody was a singer or performer. Howard, whom Robert sometimes referred to as the admiral, ran a tight ship. Discipline was “a good whack” and a “go to your room” says Robert’s brother, William. But because of Howard’s long absences on duty, their East Texas mother – extroverted, musical, a former drama major – was in charge. William Duvall describes Bobby as “a problem child in some areas; he didn’t always conform to the usual mother-father rules of the house. He had the rebel in him.”
Duvall was fundamentally at loose ends until, like his friend Dustin, he recognized his talent, probably inherited from his mother. A Duvall-family legend has four year old Bobby convulsing a table of cowboys at his uncles Idaho ranch by imitating and old sheepherder wolfing down his meal. Later, in front of a mirror, Robert would comb his hair like Lawrence Olivier and “do my own corny version of his Hamlet. I remember that. Yeah.” A conventional career was utterly alien. Remembering his days at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, Duval says “You don’t know where to go, what’s gonna happen. You feel lost. It was like, ‘What’s next? In my life? The next day?’”
Like Hoffman, he kept from flunking by becoming a drama major. Playing an adult in Arthur Miller’s ALL MY SONS, he spoke the final, emotional speech – “They were ALL my sons” – and felt spontaneous tears wetting his cheeks. He remembers, “I was like totally at peace. And I thought, Oh, wow, maybe I have something here.” His extremely critical acting coach assured him, “You can’t do much more with acting than that.” In 1955, after two years in the army, he moved to New York and was accepted at the Neighborhood Playhouse, presided over by the fearsome acting teacher Sanford Meisner.
The trio was completed in 1958, when Hoffman arrived in New York with $50 in his pocket and an invitation to sleep on the Hackman’s kitchen floor for a few days. To Hoffman, the city loomed cold and lonely and terrifying – “I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.” He clung to the two room apartment for three weeks, until Gene and Faye, with no privacy, had had enough. Finally Hackman placed Hoffman with Bobby Duvall in a sixth floor, three bedroom walk up apartment at 109th street and Broadway. Hoffman says “The feeling was that Bobby was the new Brando. I felt he was the one, and probably I wasn’t. In a sense I was their little brother – you know, ‘My friend Dustbone, he’s very talented.’ Gene was older and married, so I was the tagalong.”
Hoffman was joining a world of actors starting out, steeled against rejection, energized by hope and freedom. Hackman says, “There was a kind of feeling of Jack Kerouac at that time – ON THE ROAD – kids just wanted to have a good time and kind of experience things. It didn’t have anything to do with being successful – just wanting to try this thing and see if it worked.” Duvall remembers parties at Hackman’s apartment, with Faye, who was Italian, cooking pots of spaghetti for crowds of actors. One night after dinner, they all lay down on the floor, went to sleep, and woke up for dessert. “Yeah,” says Duvall, “those were good years, not knowing what the future was about. All these friends. Very important. Dreaming. That was fun.”
Duvall’s apartment was, to a degree, a youth hostel for a flow of actors and opera singers who stay a few nights or weeks, sleeping on the sofas. The rooms teemed with music – young singers, records of Broadway musicals such as WEST SIDE STORIES, and Hoffman, playing the piano. Duvall, a fine country-and-western singer, impersonated Hank Williams. At parties with candles in Chianti bottles and pizza, actors entertained with skits. Hoffman and Duvall improvised a routine called “Roger’s Rangers: The Toughest Unit in All the Services.” Duvall was the commander, Hoffman played the three rangers who at 70 degrees below zero have just run 10 miles on the ice, barefoot, with no clothes on, and now stand naked at attention after cold water has been poured over them. The commander walks down the line of soldiers and hits one across the jaw. Hoffman recalls, “Bobby would say ‘Did you feel that, soldier?’ I’d say ‘No Sir.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because I’m a member of Roger’s Rangers, sir.’ ‘Very good.’ The commander moves down the line, boom in the belly, boom on the jaw. Same routine. The third ranger is standing at attention with a huge erection. The commander pulls out his sword and, boom, cuts off his penis. Bobby says, ‘Did you feel that, soldier?’ I say, ‘No sir.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Because it belongs to the man in back of me, sir’ Bobby loved that stuff.”
Hoffman, Hackman, and Duvall have always been propelled by an uninhibited willingness to dare. An actor in their circle, Elliot Gould, considered Duvall “very tough, very independent, great integrity,” and vividly remembers their first meeting. Hoffman brought Duvall around to Gould’s apartment and rang the buzzer. Peering out the peephole, Gould remembers, “I saw what looked like the back end of two very bald horses with out tails. They were the butts of Dustin and Duvall. I thought, OK, that’s fine. They’re saying hello, in their way. Interesting. I’m sure we all look fundamentally the same from that angle. They were both a coupe of ASSHOLES.” Years later, on the set of THE GODFATHER, Duvall, off-camera, mooned Brando during a take. “Hey,” says Duvall, remembering the incident, “You have fun. It’s harmless.”
“Bobby maybe was the most outrageous, uncensored,” says Hoffman. “Do anything on impulse.” Once, as they ate together in a diner, Duvall spotted two Puerto Rican girls walking by. Dragging Hoffman with him, he caught up to them. “Hey, talk English. My name is Bobby Duvall; here’s my friend Dusty Hoffman. We’re actors.” They ignored him. Desperate, he came out with a unique pickup line:” We live right around the corner. You want to come up to our apartment? We have new linoleum in the kitchen.”
For the unmarried Duvall and Hoffman, girls were central to their free-rein theater world. Hoffman admits, “We were obsessed with sex.” Duvall concurs: “It was like what a friend from England said about being an actor- ‘Bob, it’s the greatest leg opener in the world, isn’t it?” Acting classes were a gold mine. “There were always a few models,” says Hoffman. “One comes up to you and says ‘Hi,’ like you’ve never looked at her, while for six months, you’ve been imagining her in bed with you. And she says, ‘I’d like to do a scene with you,’ and WHOA, she picks a love scene, and you’re rehearsing and it’s ‘YES!’ That happened to me and to Bobby. Much as were adherents to our craft, we looked for classes with women.
In the early 60’s, after Hoffman had lived with a succession of girls and friends – even slept in a dance studio where he taught acting – he and Duvall shared an apartment on West 22nd Street. “I’d get lucky,” and have a girl sleep over, and we’d be in the shower the next morning, and Bobby’d take his clothes off and just jump in the fucking shower – ‘Hey, I’m Bobby Duvall. I’m his roommate. I’m an actor. What do YOU do?” Duvall counters: “Let me tell you what went on before. I came down and he had the girl up on the table, standing there naked, and he’s standing there like he’s a painter.” (Duvall measures in the air with an imaginary pencil.)
In 1963, Hoffman was rooming with an opera tenor named Maurice Stern, who had discovered a Laundromat where beautiful ballerinas worked. Any girl who would load his laundry, and touch his dirty underwear, he figured, liked him. If after a week he had not scored, he would move on to the next candidate. Stern particularly liked Anne Byrne, a 19 year old dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet Company who was studying in New York at the Ballet Theater. Stern wanted Hoffman to check her out. “Now, don’t do that sensitive shit,” he warned him. “You know what I’m talking about – you play that one song you’ve ever written and you get that Jimmy Dean look.” Stern took Byrne to a club called The Improvisation, where Hoffman played the piano for fun. “My heart pounded,” says Hoffman. “She was my fantasy girl. The unattainable.” His date, Phyllis, went to the bathroom, and Stern went to make a phone call. After a long pause, Hoffman said, “So, you’re a dancer,” She nodded and said “So you’re an actor.” No other words were spoken, but soon, he did do Jimmy Dean. Stern finished out the prescribed week without success, and Hoffman took over. On his motorcycle, they went to the beach and to art museums, and they read poetry together (Hoffman once organized a Sunday-evening poetry group).
When Anne Byrne returned to Philadelphia, he told Duvall, “I will marry her,” and the two men bet $100. After she returned from Philadelphia in 1969, he did. Hoffman adds, “Bobby’s never paid me.”
New York in the late 1950’s and 1960’s was a simpler, cheaper world. Hoffman’s share of the apartment he lived in was $10 a month. Hackman paid $22 a month for his East 20’s cold water flat. Nevertheless, he says, “in those days it was a question of which of us was most broke right then, and the other two would help him out.” The three supported themselves with survival-level jobs. Hoffman was a typist for the Yellow Pages, along with some 80 girls. He strung Hawaiian leis, checked coats at the Longacre Theater, helped move the Time Inc morgue to the company’s new building. “I’d do any job anywhere,” he says. “I had no shame.” Hackman, who was a relief man at Whelan Drugstores, says the customers “treated you like crapola.” Once, while he was employed as a doorman at a building in Times Square, on of his former Marine officers walked by and muttered “Hackman, you’re a sorry son of a bitch.” He sold women’s shoes at Saks 34th Street to annoyingly fussy women, but, he says “I managed to steal enough so I could retire from that.” For a few dollars, he would slip shoes to actress friends. Earning a princely $10 an hour, Hackman moved furniture for the Padded Wagon in Greenwich Village, hauling refrigerators into walk-up apartments, and he has no memory of being tired. He included Hoffman on one job and handed him a carton of books to carry up six floors. “I lasted about an hour,” says Hoffman. Once, Hackman and another actor were moving a valuable art collection, including a Picasso lithograph. The other actor went up to check the apartment and returned with a broom, which he tossed into the truck. “It went right through the Picasso,” says Hackman, “Like a spear. The owner was standing there, and he just about shit his pants.”
Duvall, who occasionally went job-hunting with Hackman, moved boxes at the Gertz department store and delivered messages for a dollar an hour. He pushed clothing racks in the garment district for a day and never went back. After three days he quit washing dishes at the Mary Elizabeth restaurant and, embarrassed, sent Hackman to pick up his paycheck. He got a night job at the post office in the Broadway district and quit after six months. He says he decided, I don’t want to be here 20 years from now. Returning from the post office early one morning, Duvall woke up Hoffman, who relates the scene: “‘Dustbone,’ he says, ‘you’re gonna here this. AGES OF MAN. I saw John Geilgud. He was drunk. They were dragging him out of the theater. I swear to God. It was freezing. The steam coming out of the manholes. Nobody on the street. He must have been in there all night, and they’re hailing a cab. Fuckin Geilgud! Just before he gets in, he puts his arms out to the empty street and he yells out, “Does anyone want to fuck an actress?”’ Duvall was like he had witnessed the Second Coming.”
The trio relished regaling one another with what they had seen and heard, sometimes by accident, on the street. They would demonstrate the walks they had witnessed that day. Duvall reported hearing a woman passerby say, “No Harry, it’s not the egg foo young; it’s the whole last six months.” Hoffman assembled an entire cast of characters from his job as an attendant at the New York Psychiatric Institute. Duvall would say, “Do the cop, Dustbone,” referring to a violent ex-cop who had had a frontal lobotomy and would stand with his legs apart, “Hey, Mr. Hoffman, my wife is coming today. She’s a real Dutch cleanser.” Hackman would spend parts of days alone on seedy, anything may happen 42nd Street, going to the cheap movie theaters that doubled as flophouses. He came away with oral dramas he had heard in the darkness, such as the man who yelled in a heavy New York accent, “You’re SORRY! You piss all over my wife and you say you’re SORRY?”
Unlike Hoffman, who could be serious and moody, then extroverted and explosively funny, Hackman and Duvall harbored an interior privacy. Something of a loner, Hackman would go for weeks without seeing his friends. Describing himself, Duvall says, “I liked meeting people, but you always had your own visions of the future, so you cut yourself off from being wholeheartedly social.”
All three young men were hyper perceptive and compulsively preoccupied with studying human activity. “As an actor,” says Hackman, “you become so alive in terms of being aware of other people and their behavior. In the early days it became – what’s the French word?- a RAISON D’ETRE. I’d get up in the morning, wanting to go, you know, out in the streets and just watch. It’s obsessive. That’s why actors are nuts. They’re different because their interests are different.” Duvall says, “You just see the way a guy walks; you’re looking for it, but you’re not looking for it. Something will grab you.” Hoffman adds, “Someday… if it’s in a community theater in Oshkosh and I’m 50 fucking years old, I will use it there.
Mitigating boredom, they turned their subsistence jobs into seminars on humanity. Working as a counterman at Howard Johnson’s, Hackman wondered, “What kind of improvisation could I do with this person?” He says “There was always somebody who was a pain in the ass. There was a crippled guy who cam in every day, and it was interesting because he knew he was difficult and he enjoyed being difficult. He’d leave a quarter or 15 cents tip and always say, ‘Gene, to the bank. To the BANK!’” Hoffman used a waiter job in a French restaurant to practice his French accent. If somebody spoke French to him, he would say that he needed to practice his English. During a newspaper strike, dressed as Paul Revere and wearing a sandwich board advertising the retail store Modell’s, he shouted out the news in Times Square. “That was acting!” he says.
Hoffman liked to provoke. He made a behavioral laboratory out of his job in Macy’s toy department, where Hackman would sometimes visit. Hoffman remembers, “We had a thing where we would outdare each other to see who was going to be more outlandish.” One day Hackman brought in his 18-month-old son, Christopher, and the two friends decided to test the Christmas crowd shopping in a glazed-eyed trance. Hackman put Christopher on the counter, and Hackman hawked him as a walking, talking doll, with real hair, $16.95. A woman said, “I’ll take it,” then touched real flesh and shrieked.
Hoffman, demonstrating hockey games, has his eye on Elaine, a sexy salesgirl selling tape recorders. He hatched a plan to impress her. While customers watched in shock, a badly dressed Hackman came on to her as a brain-damaged creep. The pint-sized Hoffman interceded, pushing Hackman out of the way and hustling Elaine down the escalator. Wearing a dopey grin, elbowing through the Christmas crowds like a big bear, Hackman followed them into the cafeteria, grunting, “UH, UH, UH.” Everyone stopped eating and watched as Hoffman shoved Hackman and yelled, “get your ass outta here big fella, and stop bothering this girl.” Saying, “Ok, Ok, take it easy,” and followed by Hoffman, Hackman backed into the men’s room, where they pounded on the walls and yelled and splashed water on themselves, then emerged disheveled, with Hackman holding his eye and Hoffman shouting, “Now just get out of here.” Next, says Hoffman, “Gene did the most brilliant thing I’ve ever seen.” Groaning, he staggered up the down escalator, getting nowhere. Elaine began to cry, screaming at Hoffman, “How could you do that? That man is sick!” Taking pity, Hackman came back and tried to explain, but Elaine ran off sobbing. Hoffman says, “You have to understand we were frustrated actors out of work, and there we had an audience. This was a solid one-acter. It held.”
Stocking their hoard of behaviors was one thing, but the chance to use them on stage was quite another. “No one starts at the top in the theater, and the bottom is a very ugly place,” says Hackman. Describing the ritual of auditioning for roles, he says, “You’d be on a bare stage reading with the stage manager, and there’d be two or three fuckers sitting in the 15th row of a dark theater, and you couldn’t see them. And then there would be this voice – ‘thank you very much’ – and you’d just leave. Or they’d say, ‘Uh, could you read the part of Jim in the third act,’ and I’d say, ‘OK,’ and you’d have to cold read for them. Or they’d say, ‘Uh, could you hang out for half an hour. We’d like to put you with someone else.’ And you’d go through this process – and already you’re thinking, since they didn’t send me away right off, maybe, just maybe… And in the end they would say, ‘Uh, very nice, really very nice… well…um… we’ll let you know.’ And you’d never here anything.”
Sometimes there were open calls, where no appointment was needed and hopefuls showed up by the hundreds. “It was madness, says Hackman. “A cattle call, they called it. A lot of people would get physical about where they were in line, and who had to go to work, so let me in front of you so I can get the hell out.” Gene Kelly once held an open call for a musical he directed. After Hackman stood in line and sang for a part, Kelly came to the edge of the stage and told him, “Nice try. Musicals are hard.”
Hoffman says, “The actor who go the part was always a piece of shit.” Those were the ones who immediately gave a full-out performance, which never became deeper and richer. Duvall called them salesmen. “The producers and directors,” says Hoffman, “are scared, see?” They want to see what you’re going to be opening night.” In radical contrast, the trio’s acting philosophy dictated giving very little at first – suppressing the acting of the character, waiting for the portrayal to arrive internally, instinctively. In addition, their lack of leading man looks made them hard to categorize. “I was trouble,” says Hoffman. His size and physiognomy made him seem un-castable. Duvall once called him Barbara Streisand in drag. Friends from that era, meeting the movie-star Hoffman, have said, “You were the last one I expected to make it.”
The three reacted differently to rejections. For Hackman “it was more psychological warfare, because I wasn’t going to let those fuckers get me down. I insisted with myself that I would continue to do whatever it took to get a job. It was like me against them, and in some way, unfortunately, I still feel that way. But I think that if you’re really interested in acting there is a part of you that relishes the struggle. It’s a narcotic in the way that you are trained to do this work and nobody will let you do it, so you’re a little bit nuts. You lie to people, you cheat, you do whatever it takes to get an audition, get a job.” He and Duvall occasionally made rounds together, and when agents refused to see them they slipped their photographs and meager resumes under the office doors. “We both knew we would never get a job,” says Hackman. “I gave a casting person a resume that was bullshit. I had no resume. He looked at it and said, ‘I see you played in such and such two years ago. That’s interesting. I was in that play and I don’t remember you.’”
To Hoffman, rejections meant that he had no talent. When he was told “You’re not right for the part,” he would sometimes yell, “You’re right!” and flee. When a mumbling stage manager was flat in his line readings, Hoffman was known to fling the script pages into the air and walk out. What particularly enraged him were casting directors who chose to read the lines looking down at the script instead of watching him. When Hoffman returned home after two, three, four failed auditions, he sometimes stalked around the apartment chanting, “I’m a great fucking actor. I’m a great fucking actor and nobody knows it!”
Despite the praise he received from teachers and the status he held in his circle, Duvall suffered from self doubts. After one of his first off-off Broadway performances, in George Bernard Shaw’s MRS WARRENS PROFESSION, he received a lethal review in the NEW YORK POST. The paper reported that the revolting romantic lead was “made even less palatable by Robert Duvall, whose spine tends toward a figure S, whose diction is flannel coated, and whose simpering expressions are moronic.” Reading it on a bus, he felt so sick that he had to get off. Duvall fled home to his parents in Virginia for three months, returning to the wars only because Ulu Grosbard kept reassuring him. Duvall says, “Thank goodness I had a good friend like Ulu, who still had, you know, faith, in what maybe I could do.”
Looking back, Duvall can say, “Each day is different. There’s a general frustration, but you’ve got to weather that and go on. You gather with guys like Dusty. We used to go to Cromwell’s drugstore on Rockefeller Plaza, make lots of jokes – gets you through the day. Downey’s steak house at night. That fills the day with a certain camaraderie, which is good.” One night Hoffman told Duvall, “We’ve got to talk about something besides women and acting.”
Television roles were rarely discussed. Tennessee Williams and Chekhov and Ibsen were infinitesimally dissected. Brando stories were swapped. Those sidewalk colloquies among the three sometimes devolved into battles over whose acting teacher and technique was right. The trio hewed to different versions of Stanislavski’s holy writ, which required reliving emotions and re-experiencing the five senses onstage. Hoffman describes Duvall exploding, “Bullshit! What do you man, you sit there for an hour trying to feel hot or feel cold!” Hoffman explains, “We were almost like religious fanatics. Our craft was the most important part of us.”
Truth was their grail. As Duvall puts it, “To live truthfully in an imaginary set of circumstances, that’s what it’s all about. And do that, you now, in a somewhat effortless way.” Hackman learned to do it under George Morrison, still active today as president of the New Actors Workshop. At that time he headed the Premise, an improve troupe that performed in a tiny theater on Bleecker Street. The shy and introverted Hackman did comedy improvisations there. Morrison says, “He fell out of his shell, and learned to be funny, learned timing, delivery, voice.” Hackman says, “When I’m working on a character, I never get to the point where I don’t believe it’s still me. I think there’s everything in me. I think it’s possible that I could be anybody. When you think that way, all things are possible for you.” The disappointments, the rejections, the mental jobs, says Hackman, “create a resolve in you that no matter what kind of part you’re given, you can do anything. Give me the challenge. I can do it. The scarier the better.”
Ever since those beginning years, the three have always been risk takers in their choices of roles and characterizations. Hoffman’s first wife, now Anne Byrne Kronenfeld, is today a talent manager and believes that they “are among the last of a generation. You don’t see actors today go to the edge of a cliff and say ‘OK, I’m going to jump, and maybe I’ll fly and maybe I won’t.’ They’ve done that.” Hoffman describes the experience of flying: “If I tried to define what it means to be most alive, it’s when that cloud of mortality disappears. It’s when you’re in a place of timelessness. You’re free, really free. When that happens in life, there’s not a moment when you’re not completely in the moment. There’s nothing else we want, is there? Our work gives us a chance to have that.”
They are all able to project two opposing feelings simultaneously. One is vulnerability. Duvall and Hackman can draw on their shy kindness. Hoffman, believes Anne Byrne Kronenfeld, “touches the audience with his ability to find the appealing contradictions, even the humor, in the most unsavory characters. That reaches out to the audience.” Sometimes the class clown in him resurfaces. Performing with Ula Grosbard’s wife, Rose Gregorio, who played a whore with a blond wig covering her dark hair, Hoffman suddenly snatched the wig off. She remembers, “We broke up onstage, and the audience just went bananas. We made it part of the scene.”
The second undercurrent in the trio is a simmering, suppressed anger; an unpredictability. Duvall, the specialist in macho men sensitive at the center, explains “You should find some aspect of vulnerability in yourself. And the anger sits there. A sense of danger. What’s next?” Sometimes it is an explosion of rage. In 1965, Duvall again played Eddie Carbone in A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, this time at the Sheridan Square Playhouse, a 199-seat, three-quarter-round theater with tables, close to, and level with the stage. One night Duvall noticed a man asleep several tables away during a scene that required him to threaten Jon Voight with a wine bottle. Duvall smashed the bottle on the nearest table, splattering glass, and woke the man up. Sometimes Duvall would simply spot somebody he thought didn’t like him and use the anger to feed his acting. According to Hoffman, even after Duvall’s curtain calls, as he walked offstage, he would lean over to the person and yell, “Fuck You!”
Hackman confesses that he could have modified some of his mean-guy roles, but “what interests me is to get that edge, get to that anger… A good thing about acting is that you’re allowed to be who you are. It’s OK if you’ve got some aspects of you that are dangerous.” After a movie or a dinner with Hoffman, Hackman would sometimes stand on a street corner and say, “I gotta go.” Hoffman explains what that meant: “He had to get in a fight. He’d go to some bar.” Hackman adds, “There’s a kind of catharsis about it. I don’t want to get hit, but I don’t like to take any shit.”
In Hoffman the rage is more hidden, but it can erupt if he feels that his fiercely held acting processes and judgments are being violated, especially by directors who seem to now nothing about acting. They are the ones who grow impatient if the actors gradually explore their characters, who want to impose their own ideas, who do not want to join the actors in jumping off that precipice – “What? Your wife just died and you want to start laughing?” The anger, Hoffman explains, “comes from your toes. It’s a wonderful feeling.” He adds, “Hackman doesn’t talk. He just picks the person up and throws them out the window.” Duvall says, “It’s hard to be diplomatic when you’re using yourself, your own temperament, to give what the character calls for.” When one film director told him to pause and smile, Duvall walked off the set.
With only the help of such mentors as George Morrison and Ulu Grosbard at first, they subsisted on television work, Off Broadway roles, movie bit parts. Then flukes of fate brought breakthroughs. Auditioning for Morrison's ANY WEDNESDAY in 1962, Hackman was the only candidate who made everybody laugh. He was cast opposite the late Sandy Dennis, but she refused to do the play with him. She had just broken up with a man she had been living with, and he looked like Hackman. Just before the opening, the actor who had been cast, withdrew. When Sandy Dennis was told that Hackman would do the part after all, she wept, saying "I can't do it. I can't do it." She was cajoled to go ahead, and the play was a hit. The next year, Hackman had a small role in the movie LILITH, with Warren Beatty. Then Mike Nichols cast him as Mr's Robinson husband in THE GRADUATE, but fired him after a few days of rehearsals. Thus he was free when Beatty wanted him as BUCK BARROW in BONNIE AND CLYDE, a role that won him an Academy Award nomination.
In 1955, the playwright Horton Foote happened to see Duvall play a weepy drunk in a Neighborhood Playhouse production. A few years later he saw him again on a TV show, playing a man falsely accused of child molestation. Impressed by the two performannces, Foote suggested him for the fear-inspiring but gentle Boo Radley in the 1962 film TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, for which he wrote the screenplay. That breakthrough was cemented in 1965 by an Obie for the second portrayal of Eddie Carbone in A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE.
For years, Hoffman scraped along, teaching acting, working as a stage manager and an assistant director. He got a first break in the 1964 season at the tiny repertory Theater Company of Boston, where he succeeded in getting Duvall cast with him in WAITING FOR GODOT, which went to New York for one night and was seen by Ulu Grosbard. Hoffman's next break was in Morrison's 1965 HARRY, NOON AND NIGHT, which led that year to Grosbard's THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES when the original Broadway cast went on tour. After the first rehearsal, Hoffman spilled burning oil on his arm, and the wound became infected. He almost died. But that accident kicked off his future stardom. It meant he was available in 1966 to play a 40-year-old Russina clerk Off Broadway in THE JOURNEY OF THE FIFTH HORSE, which won him an Obie for Best Actor. It also brought him to the attention of the producer Theodore Mann, who cast him as a Cockney factory worker in the farce EH? The performance led to his being called the next year to Los Angeles to screen-test for Benjamin Braddock in THE GRADUATE. To do it, he turned down an audition for the film THE PRODUCERS. Mel Brooks called him and said "You'll be back." Hoffman arrived at the screen test sleepless and paranoid. He mangled Mike Nichols directions and enraged Katherine Ross in a love scene by grabbing her buttocks and yanking her close. As he was leaving, he apologized to her and Nichols. A New York subway token fell out of his coat, and one of the crew handed it to him, saying "Here kid, you're gonna need this." But Hoffman's confused panic was exactly what Nichols wanted.
Summing it up, Hoffman says "If we had been at a party with a bunch of unemployed actors and somebody had said, 'See those three? They're going to be Hollywood stars,' the whole place would have erupted, and we would have been part of the laughter. Those years were all during the Beat Generation. Our affectation was anti-establishment. 'Making it," meant staying pure, not selling out. 'Making it,' meant doing the work. We're not different today. If somehting happened and it was over and suddenly we had to work in a community theater, we're there. And I'm telling you, we would love every minute of it." Robert Duvall has his own wistful coda: "It was a supportive kind of thing then, you know, sharing idealism. What could be. And once they were successful, you never saw anybody. It's very strange that way. Very strange." But fate may again step in. Universal Pictures is developing a script to star all three of these old friends in the near future.