CBS News Dustin Hoffman, Still Crazy John Blackstone
Dec. 21, 2008(CBS) The gifted actor Dustin Hoffman has made success on the screen seem easy. It’s hard to believe such a brilliant performer had a hard time breaking into the movies in the first place. John Blackstone has a Sunday Profile:
It’s with some pride that Dustin Hoffman shows off the new theater at Santa Monica College in his hometown of Los Angeles.
So, his job was raising money for this?
“Well, I was the bait,” he said.
He admits to being a bit surprised when he got the call from the college he dropped out of more than 50 years ago.
“I was the only celebrity person they could find in the Santa Monica roster,” he told Blackstone. “So, they said, ‘You’re an alumni.’ I said, ‘No, I got kicked out, I think, almost before I got through the first year.’
“And they said, ‘You’re an alumni,'” Hoffman laughed.
At 71, Hoffman has now been a star for more than 40 years. In his latest movie, “Last Chance Harvey,” he plays Harvey Shine, a man whom life has disappointed, and whose daughter nearly breaks his heart when she asks her stepfather to walk her down the aisle.
It’s a part, Hoffman says, that was written specifically for him. And though, in real life, Hoffman walked his own daughter Jenna down the aisle, he and his character, Harvey Shine, have at least one disappointment in common.
“I originally wanted to be a jazz pianist,” he said. “I still want to be a jazz pianist.”
And when Harvey Shine woos Kate Walker (played by Emma Thompson) at the piano, Hoffman is playing his own composition, “Shoot the Breeze.”
“The song is a song I wrote when I was in my 20s, when my first girlfriend left me for our acting teacher,” he laughed. “”The lyrics were written later, by Bette Midler.”
Hoffman says the biggest thrill was performing the song with Sting, at a benefit earlier this year.
“It’s an extraordinary feeling to have a great artist singing your stuff,” he said.
Hoffman knows a second career in music remains unlikely, but that doesn’t stop him from hoping.
“If I got tapped on the shoulder by God, or whomever, and said, ‘You know, I’ll make you a jazz pianist from now on, but you can’t act anymore,’ I would take that in a second.”
Ironically, it was failing at music that led him to where he is today.
“When I was flunking out of Santa Monica College, someone said, ‘Take acting.’ And I said, ‘Why?’ And they said, ‘You don’t get flunked in acting. It’s like gym.’ And what I discovered was something that I had never felt before.”
He left L.A. and headed for Broadway, where he was a struggling stage actor for more than a decade. Struggling alongside him was Gene Hackman, who is still a good friend.
“New York beckoned us because we thought, ‘We can work Off-Broadway,'” said Hoffman. “‘And if not Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway. And if not Off-Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Off.’ And that’s what we did.”
Frequently, though, he didn’t work at all.
“You get these rejections over and over and over again, which all actors get, year after year after year after year. You don’t know if you’re good, because it hasn’t been validated. And it’s an extremely painful and frightening experience, because you don’t know whether you’re conning yourself or not.”
His break came in 1967 with “The Graduate,” his first film. He was 29 when director Mike Nichols cast him as the confused 21-year-old, Benjamin Braddock.
“I learned years later that after they cut it, they started showing it at screening rooms, you know, producer’s houses and things like that. And invariably, people would say, ‘What a shame. Great movie, but he miscast the lead.’ Constantly!”
“And they thought it was gonna be a disaster.”
They were wrong, of course. “The Graduate” was a huge hit. Hoffman was nominated for an Academy Award – an overnight success after years of effort.
“I remember being unhappy that so many of the things that were written about me after ‘The Graduate,’ it was as if I hadn’t been studying the craft for over ten years. It was that Nichols had found this funny lookin’, passive, goofy guy. That was a part I did in ‘The Graduate,’ that was not me.”
“And so when ‘Midnight Cowboy’ came along, there was a bit of that I’ll show them, you know. I’ll show them that I’m an actor.”
In “Midnight Cowboy” as the grimy street hustler Ratso Rizzo (“I’m walkin’ here!”), Hoffman earned his second Oscar nomination â€¦ and recognition that indeed he could act.
Then the challenging roles just kept coming.
In 1980 he won his first Academy Award for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” a story of divorce. He knew exactly what his character was experiencing; his own first marriage was breaking up, but not cleanly.
“You don’t stop loving each other like that. You just stop, for whatever reasons, being able to share the same space. It’s for whatever all the different reasons. You cannot live together anymore. But the love is there. And that’s the killer part.”
In 1982’s Tootsie, the story of an out-of-work actor who gets a job by pretending to be a woman, he had no experience as a female – but plenty of experience apparently as a difficult actor pursuing perfection, a reputation Hoffman and “Tootsie”‘s director Sidney Pollock had some fun with.
Just as in the movie, Hoffman dressed as a woman and went to the Russian Tea Room before filming started to make sure he could play the role convincingly.
“Jon Voight was there,” Hoffman recalled. “I had done ‘Midnight Cowboy’ with him. And I went over to him and got down, sat on my knees ’cause he was sitting there. And I played the character, telling him what a great actor I thought he was, and I was an actress. And he said thank you. I did it. He didn’t know!”
“So, did you tell Jon Voight at some point?” Blackstone asked.
“Yes, yes. And actors hate to be fooled: ‘You got me! I hate that!'”
His preparation to portray an autistic savant in “Rain Man” was equally thorough. His interaction with Tom Cruise was guided by the relationship of real-life brothers Peter and Kevin Guthrie.
“Kevin was, is, as handsome as Tom Cruise, and he was a football star at Princeton and he had an autistic brother named Peter.”
Hoffman often called Kevin to ask exactly what Peter would say.
“Would he say, ‘No, I want to drive the car?’ And Kevin would say over the phone, ‘No, no, no. Peter would say, “I’m an excellent driver.”‘
“I would say 90 percent of my dialogue in that movie came from Kevin telling me what Peter would say.”
But for all the stories Dustin Hoffman has told as an actor, the real life story of how he came to meet his wife is perhaps one of the most romantic.
It began when he was 27 years old, still a mostly-out-of-work actor, playing the piano at the home of a family friend, Blanche, when her young granddaughter Lisa, showed up.
“And Lisa, at ten years old, was telling me that she was taking ballet lessons. And I said, ‘Go on. Put on your ballet costume. I’ll play the piano and you’ll do a little dancing,’ which she did.
“Years pass. I go back to New York. I get married. I get divorced, or getting divorced. I come back to Los Angeles to do a film.”
And once again he meets Lisa – now all grown up.
“She’s just graduated college now,” he recalled. “She’s gonna start law school. She’s 22. And we fall in love.”
When they tell Lisa’s grandmother, Blanche, they’re getting married, she recalls the day they first met.
“And Blanche says, ‘Lisa, do you remember that day when you were a kid and dancing years and years and years ago, and Dusty was playing the piano?’ – Now, I have to be able to tell the story without crying – she says, ‘And then after, he got up and walked away. I said, “Lisa, he’s a cute kid, isn’t he?” You remember what you said, Lisa?’ And Lisa said, ‘What?’ She says, “Yes, and I hope he waits for me, ’cause when I grow up, I’m gonna marry him.”‘”
“The camera’s on him, I can wipe!” Hoffman laughed.
They have been married 28 years, and have four children, plus two from Hoffman’s first marriage.
At Santa Monica College, the theater he raised money to build bears the name of a major donor, developer Eli Broad.
“They wanted to name the theater after me. I said, ‘No, no, no, you don’t do that.'”
But inside a facility has been named in Hoffman’s honor – a very particular facility, at his request.
“There’s not an actor in the world that would not want a toilet named after him as long as the toilet is backstage,” he said. “Because one of the problems we have as an actor is, you’re always in the wings and suddenly you gotta go. And then, you see, you gotta go all the way downstairs, all across â€¦ So I said, if you build this theater, please give us a bathroom.
So the Eli Broad Theater houses the Dustin Hoffman Toilet.
With his name up in lights for more than four decades, Hoffman is still looking forward to his next role:
“I’m still crazy, as Paul Simon said, after all these years.”