Some like it Hoff
Forty-five years after his big acting break, Dustin Hoffman has finally made the move into the director’s chair. “It’s the hardest thing I have ever done and I would be loath to do it again,” he tells DONALD CLARKE
WE ALL think we know Dustin Hoffman. It’s not just that the great actor has been on our cinema screens for more than four decades. In 1982, he made the mistake (possibly) of appearing in a film that seemed to offer us a portrait of the artist as he then behaved. Michael Dorsey, protagonist of Sidney Pollack’s imperishable Tootsie, is charming, irritating, fidgety and – most significantly – fanatical about his work. He won’t sit down when playing a tomato in a commercial because it’s not realistic.
By this stage in his career, Hoffman had established just that reputation. He was rumoured to argue incessantly with directors. No take was ever good enough. Tootsie seemed to confirm the impression.
“Tootsie was all my idea,” he chortles. “And my friend Murray Schisgal. We wrote the first draft. It was meant to be a satire on myself. Actors who saw the movie saw it on a different level. We studied with acting teachers like Stella Adler or Lee Strasberg and we saw acting as a craft like writing. You had to know what kind of tomato you were. A writer would know that.”
Did he really cause as much trouble for his associates as Dorsey did for his own colleagues? A key scene finds Michael’s agent, played by Pollack, solidly intoning the words “nobody will hire you”.
“Hey, I had to convince Sidney to play the part,” he says. “I said: ‘We are having these arguments every day. Let’s put them on film’.”
Hoffman looks impressively unchanged. The hair is grey. The face is creased. But he still comes across as an only slightly less hyper-charged version of the young man who energised American cinema in such movies as The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy and All the President’s Men.
More encouraging still, not a scent of the rumoured stroppiness comes through. Now 75, Hoffman could hardly be warmer or more helpful. Talking at Gatling-gun pace, he powers his way through the entire career without pausing for breath. He laughs at his own mistakes. He drags up embarrassing moments. He’s either an extremely nice fellow, a very good actor or . . . Well, he’s obviously both of those things.
We’ve been brought together to consider his delayed debut as feature director. The amiable Quartet stars Maggie Smith, Billy Connolly, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins as squabbling residents of a retirement home for classical musicians. I had heard that he had held off directing for so long out of a strange loyalty to his late father. The old man had always wanted to be a film director, but never quite managed it.
“Yes. I would say that’s right. But it was never conscious on my part. I didn’t want to invade his territory. After years of therapy, that did finally come to me. It might have hurt his feelings if I’d done I when he was still alive.”
Hoffman goes on to explain that his dad travelled to Los Angeles from Chicago during the Great Depression. He dug ditches and then somehow got a job in the props department at Columbia Pictures. An aspiration to direct never flourished and he ended up selling furniture.
Hoffman had no great ambitions to act as a child. Later, while at college, he stumbled into the business largely by accident.
“People often ask: do you come from a dysfunctional family?’ I say: I have never met a family thats functional. I had some notion of being a doctor. Then, in junior college, somebody recommended that I take some acting classes. ‘It’s like gym,’ they said. ‘You get three credits and nobody fails.’ I didn’t think I was any good. But it was the first thing I’d studied where the time passed. It flew by.”