Expect the Unexpected

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Inside Dustin Hoffman

Dustin Hoffman and Francois Girard at the Quick Center at Fairfield University. —Kate Eisemann photo

Dustin Hoffman and Francois Girard at the Quick Center at Fairfield University. —Kate Eisemann photo

One of America’s most successful actors, admits he often feels like a failure.

“Life is a failure, but we keep on trying,” Dustin Hoffman recently told a packed audience at the Quick Center at Fairfield University. The audience was abuzz with university students, faculty members, and Fairfield residents who won free tickets through a lottery drawing to the event, “An Award-Winning Conversation with Dustin Hoffman and Francois Girard.”

Mr. Hoffman was in town to start production on his new film, Boychoir. The film is being directed by Francois Girard, who wrote and directed The Red Violin, which Mr. Hoffman called one of his favorite films of all time. Parts of the film are being filmed on the school’s campus this month.

I was asked to cover the event for my company’s 16 newspapers, and despite the freezing rain and 90-minute drive, I went happily. Part of my story has been lifted for this blog.

The “conversation,” was moderated by Philip Eliasoph, professor of visual and performing arts at Fairfield University. But it quickly devolved into an entertaining evening of show business storytelling by Mr. Hoffman, and could have been subtitled “Acting 101.”

Dustin Hoffman with Anne Bancroft in The Graduate.

Dustin Hoffman with Anne Bancroft in The Graduate

Mr. Hoffman explained that he was “a failure growing up,” and was kicked out of a junior college in his freshman year. However, he did one thing there that gave his life a new direction. He decided to take an acting class, because other students told him it would be an easy three-credit course. “It’s like gym, no one flunks, so I took it,” he said.

The class clicked and he caught the acting bug. In 1958, he moved to New York and was roommates with fellow actors Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall. He worked theater jobs, waited tables, and was on unemployment when he got his big break in 1967, cast by director Mike Nichols as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Other actors who had been considered for the role were Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, and Charles Grodin.

“I thought I was terrible in the audition for The Graduate. In the book, Benjamin Braddock, is tall, blond, blue-eyed, athletic…” Mr. Hoffman said with a smile, holding his hands up to indicate he was not any of those things.

He said his “purest moment” in acting came in his next film, the Oscar-winning Midnight Cowboy, where he played Ratso Rizzo, a crippled New York street con. “I am much more like Ratso Rizzo in real life than I am Benjamin Braddock,” he said.

He explained that his famous line in the film, “Hey, I’m walking here,” was an ad lib, which came about because the film was low budget and was filmed in New York with real people on the street. In one scene, he and co-star Jon Voight were directed to walk across a street and finish their dialogue as the light turned green. The timing was tricky and they shot several unsuccessful takes when finally, everything came together. But just as they were crossing the street, a taxi came flying by, honking its horn, and nearly hitting Mr. Hoffman. “In my brain, I was saying, ‘Hey, we’re making a film here!’ but I translated it to my character and said ‘Hey, I’m walking here!”

He advised theater students in the crowd to be themselves in their parts. “The idea of acting, is not to act. The more relaxed you are the better you are, it should happen effortlessly,” he said.

Dustin Hoffman as Max Dembo in Straight Time.

Dustin Hoffman as Max Dembo in Straight Time

He said he tries to compel an audience by being as courageous with himself as he can. “It’s all about choices. There’s a poet in all of us and there’s an arrogant person in all of us. You have to work to be a human being. You have to work to develop empathy. You have to work and expose yourself to those things that are most painful to us,” he said.

He admitted to having trouble “becoming” the character Max Dembo, a lifelong thief, in the film Straight Time. So he asked Edward Bunker, a career criminal, who had written the book the film was based on, if he could offer him any advice. “Eddie told me that when he meets someone he only thinks of two things — what is close by that I can kill you with, and what can I rob from you. That’s all I needed,” Mr. Hoffman said.

During a serious moment in the conversation, Mr. Hoffman paid tribute to the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died recently from a heroin overdose. Mr. Hoffman said he met Philip Seymour Hoffman just once (the two are not related). Both actors had starred in productions of Death of a Salesman on Broadway.

Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel.

Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel

“I feel so bad about what happened to him. I think he didn’t feel, deep down, he deserved his talent.” Mr. Hoffman said. “Substance abuse is an illness. It’s a need to self-medicate. Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, they don’t get the help they need and they self-medicate,” he said, choked up.

During a Q &A that followed with the audience, Mr. Hoffman was asked what actors from Hollywood’s “Golden Age” he most admired.

He said he loved Marlene Dietrich’s subtle performance in Blue Angel, and was a big fan of Spencer Tracey. He also credited Marlon Brando for “tilting the axis” for his generation of actors. For modern actors, he said he is a huge fan of Lena Dunham, star of the TV show Girls. “Thank God for Lena Dunham for playing an unconventional woman,” he said.

One of America’s most prolific actors, with two Academy awards and six Golden Globes under his belt, Mr. Hoffman said he doesn’t watch his old films because he is too critical of himself. “It’s painful, you want to move on, it makes you feel like you’re dead,” he said.

"Hey, I'm walking here!" One of the best film lines ever was an ad lib by Dustin Hoffman.

“Hey, I’m walking here!” One of the best film lines ever was an ad lib by Dustin Hoffman.

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