Dustin Hoffman's 42-year stage and screen career is legendary. From his edgy breakthrough performance in The Graduate, which paved the way for ethnic-looking actors in male leading roles, to his comic portrayal of both Michael Dorsey and Dorothy Michaels in Tootsie, Hoffman's impact on American cinema is almost unequaled. These thoughts are from an informal interview/talk Hoffman gave that I was fortunate to have attended.
On becoming an actor
I never thought about being an actor when I was growing up. My parents put a piano in front of me and decided I was going to be a concert pianist. In those days, if you were black, you wanted to own a Cadillac and if you were Jewish, you wanted your son to be a concert pianist. So acting wasn't even a thought in my head. I only took an acting course in college because I was a terrible student and was told that no one fails acting—it was like gym class.
On landing his first starring role
In those days, you had to be tall, Aryan, blonde with blue eyes to get a leading part. These were values that the Jewish studio heads wanted. They created a kind of Christian, gentile reality. So for The Graduate, originally they wanted Robert Redford for the part of Benjamin Braddock, the WASP from New England as it's written in the Charles Webb novel. When they asked me, I didn't think I could play a role like that. Guys who were short and ethnic-looking, like me, didn't play roles like that. But then [director Mike] Nichols said to me, "Did you read the book?" and I said, "Yes." And he said, "Did you think it was funny?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "Well, maybe [Benjamin Braddock] is Jewish on the inside." And that's how he talked me into doing a test for it.
On his movie Ishtar
What the movie says is: Isn't it more important to spend your life doing what you're passionate about, albeit second-rate, than to be first-rate and successful at something that you don't care about. Even though it's a flawed movie, I still love it.
On culture in Los Angeles
There is a lot of culture here in Los Angeles; you just have to kind of look for it. The one thing that Los Angeles lacks is the ability and spontaneity to walk out the door and not know where you're going and not care. Here, you have to know where you're going because if you walk, you'll get stopped by a cop.
On gratuitous violence in Hollywood
I will not pick up a gun on camera unless the scene absolutely calls for it. I remember hearing President Clinton speak at CAA (Creative Artists Agency), and he said the kids who are affected by violence in films don't have families. It's very romantic for them, he said, because the gangs are their families. So violence gives them a sense of identity, whereas for us it's just entertainment. And everyone at CAA applauded and I said to my wife that I'd like to tell the President: "Mr. President, I want you to know when you're finished speaking and all these people go back to their offices, they're not going to change their behavior one iota because it's money to them." So I do feel very strongly about this.
On volunteering and philanthropy
I don't think I'm a good example because I made a choice to spend all my time being an artist and raising my family. When I hear how other people are so active with causes, my first thought always is: I hope their kids are getting it first. I mean, I have six kids and that's a lot of work. Maybe now is the time I'll start to get involved because the kids are out of the house. But it's hard for me because I'd like to know where the money is going. You hear that money raised for Tsunami relief never reached the people. I've given to individuals at times, but I'm very quiet about whatever I do. And when people ask of my time, I do it if I can because it is gratifying. I should probably do it more often.
photo courtesy PLATON/CPI