Dustin Hoffman: ‘I was an outsider. I came to New York and I was cleaning toilets’

Even after The Graduate made him a superstar, he always saw himself as a ‘funny looking semitic guy’ on the fringes of fame. Five decades on he talks about racism and the movies, how Tootsie made him a feminist and why he wishes he was Jack Nicholson

Last Sunday evening, Dustin Hoffman wasn’t at the Oscars but watching the New York Knicks play Miami Heat at basketball. His friend Spike Lee happened to be there too, pointedly dressed in a tuxedo. Laughing, Hoffman asked him as he passed: “Are we making a statement?”

Lee, of course, was boycotting the event in protest at the lack of nominees of colour. While sympathetic to the cause, Hoffman was simply enjoying a night out. Though he has won two Academy Awards for best actor – for Kramer vs Kramer in 1980 and Rain Man in 1989 – the Oscars are not his idea of fun.

“I wasn’t invited, I wasn’t nominated and I would never go just to go,” he says. “It’s one of the worst shows in town if you’re there. Because they break for commercials, the show just goes on and on. The Baftas are wonderful; you sit in a theatre, there’s champagne, you can get drunk and you just watch the show, Leonard Fry [sic] or whatever from beginning to end. So I was very happy to be at the Knicks game.”

Hoffman often professes himself riven with insecurities and convinced that every job will be his last. “You don’t erase the first 10 years of your life, it stays with you, it’s imprinted … you didn’t work!” he says. “Selfishly, I feel, well, I just got in under the gun.” However, he has nothing to prove. With a catalogue of era-defining movies including The Graduate, Lenny, All the President’s Men, Straw Dogs and Tootsie, he’s one of the pre-eminent film stars of the last 50 years. While it’s doubtful that Kung Fu Panda 3, the film he’s promoting today in New York, will join The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy in the National Film Registry, it’s still a perfectly charming kids’ movie, enhanced by Hoffman’s infinitely expressive growl.

Did he enjoy making it? “I can’t bear it,” he laughs, genial and twinkly, sitting on a sofa in the lounge of a hotel, and wondering whether the tree outside is, in fact, a sculpture by Ai Weiwei, whose show at the Royal Academy in London he recently enjoyed. “There was five years between 2 and 3 and it’s: ‘Oh God, they’re doing another one.’” Hoffman would much have preferred to be voice-acting in a room with his co-stars, including Jack Black and Angelina Jolie, but instead was sitting in a booth on his own with the director. “It was like my first day of acting class for the next four months.”

Now 78, Hoffman often harks back to his roots. People like him – short, Jewish, a bit odd-looking – weren’t supposed to be film stars when he was growing up. “In a sense, that lack of diversity was around then – in my day, if you didn’t look like Tab Hunter or Troy Donahue …” Born in Los Angeles but feeling like a New Yorker (his classmates would ask if he came from New York when he’d never even been there), Hoffman finally arrived in the city aged 20 to get his acting career off the ground. “There was a good deal of antisemitism in Los Angeles, and I thought of New York as being somehow more assimilated,” he says.

Hoffman in his breakthrough hit, the Graduate.
Hoffman in his breakthrough hit, the Graduate. Photograph: SNAP/REX

Hoffman knew he was in the right place as soon as he got off the bus and saw someone urinating against a car in broad daylight. “I thought: yes, I’m not in a plastic environment any more,” he says. But the 10 years that followed were hard. It took five attempts before he was accepted into Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, and as he tried to get his acting career off the ground – alongside friends and flatmates Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman – Hoffman did a range of odd jobs including working in a psychiatric hospital, sales assistant in Macy’s toy department and weaver of Hawaiian garlands.

Hoffman says that acting has always been riven with inequality. “There were two papers, Backstage and Showbiz, you got to try to get a job. It would list the parts available, and they would say: ‘Leading men, leading women, leading juveniles, leading ingénues; character leading men, character ingénues, character juveniles” – that was the funny-looking semitic guy. That meant you weren’t good-looking, and good-looking meant white Anglo-Saxon protestant.”

So Hoffman abandoned any hopes of glamour (though as acting purists, he, Hackman and Duvall disdained the idea anyway) and played acclaimed stage roles including a paranoid Russian clerk in The Journey of the Fifth Horse, a drone-style factor worker in Eh? and in the off-Broadway show Harry, Noon and Night, “a German Nazi homosexual with a hump and a limp. I read that and said ‘That’s the part for me!’”

Hoffman in Marathon Man.
Hoffman in Marathon Man. Photograph: Allstar/PARAMOUNT

Yet, despite all his predictions, in his phrase he “plummeted to stardom” aged 30 when Mike Nichols cast him in The Graduate. “Nichols chose to give this short, funny-looking Jewish guy the role usually reserved for a tall, handsome protestant,” says Hoffman, who still seems amazed by the memory. The film seemed to sum up the uncertainties of America’s youth as the country plunged deeper into Vietnam and its huge success caused a paradigm shift – no longer did leading men have to look like Robert Redford.

Hoffman agrees that The Graduate’s success is a salutary reminder to the film industry of today that it takes bold creative decisions to bust apart conventional wisdom and make films that reflect real people’s lives. However, he’s sceptical about the movies’ ability to tackle racism. “I don’t think that’s ever going to go away,” he says. “I think there’s always going to be some kind of bigotry or some kind of racism. There has to be, because people can’t feel that they have any hero qualities unless there’s someone beneath them.” He laughs.

Does that account for the rise of Donald Trump?

“It’s not that he’s there, it’s that he has a following that’s more disturbing,” says Hoffman. “He fell in at this moment when the majority of the Republican electorate feel, as they say, betrayed by their own party. He’s not that original – we’ve seen people throughout our lifetime that are Donald Trumps. He does have a charisma, but so does the guy selling you a watch on the corner and telling you that it’s a Rolex.”

The Graduate’s success put Hoffman in turmoil. “Yes, it was different to be walking down Fifth Avenue with a girl with beautiful breasts come up to you and say, ‘Sign me’ – that did not happen before,” he chuckles. Never the most relaxed of characters, he decided to give up film. “The truth of it is that I got a lot of crappy parts offered to me and I didn’t want to make movies any more; I wanted to go back to the theatre.” He waited a year before taking his next film role – Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, a seedy if avuncular conman diametrically opposed to Benjamin Braddock, youthful paramour of Mrs Robinson – and much more, he says, like the real Dustin Hoffman.

“I was closer to Ratso Rizzo when I was going to school – that’s what I felt like. I was an outsider, on the periphery looking in. And when I came to New York I did all those odd jobs, and if you’re cleaning toilets for a living you’re not that far from being Ratso so it wasn’t that difficult a part.”

It was, of course, another classic, setting up Hoffman for a career of incredible versatility, though insecurity seems to gnaw at him even today. “I have never been, I guess, a signature actor,” he frets. “Certain actors have a really dominant personality – we go to see Jack Nicholson and I don’t think anyone ever went to see me, they went to see me doing a part. I always wanted to be a signature actor! I’d love to be Jack Nicholson.”

Over the 70s and 80s Hoffman became famous for his exacting standards, which sometimes put him on a collision course with directors, while his method acting on Marathon Man – staying up all night to get into the mindset of a student on the run from a Nazi – supposedly prompted co-star Laurence Olivier to enquire: “Why don’t you try acting, dear boy?”

Hoffman with Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy.
Hoffman with Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy. Photograph: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis

Hoffman says the anecdote has been misinterpreted – he and Olivier were great friends. “It was told with great irony, because as his wife Joan Plowright said, [playing Hamlet] he jumped off the third storey to kill one of the guys that Hamlet kills, and any moment he could have broken his neck! He was always looking to do something that hadn’t been done before, so he said it with a bit of wry amusement.”

Hoffman still cares deeply about his work, and worries that film may go the way of the printed newspapers he celebrated in All the President’s Men. “There’s a temporariness if they’re not Star Wars or things of that ilk. What do they call all those TV formats now? Streaming? That’s where we’re going. We’re on the way out.”

He doesn’t even seem soothed by the fact that his classics are in the National Library of Congress. “You’ll have to go there to see it, though! I’ve made a couple of films recently that haven’t been able to get distribution or that have really had a hard time. One, The Program, Stephen Frears directed it about Lance Armstrong and, my God, that’s been finished for over a year and they’re having trouble getting distribution – and it’s a well-done film. It’s tough.”

Having worked in Hollywood for such a long time, Hoffman is well-placed to say whether or not progress has been made towards equality. “There’s a lack of diversity in women vis-a-vis men – it’s always been that way on the set,” he says. “Now you still shoot 35mm film, mostly I’m aware of the fact that the lowliest camera assistant is usually a woman and her job, ironically, is usually to carry the magazines of film, which are very heavy. It seems always to go to the woman – she’s given the worst job.”

At the other end of the scale, he says, few female actors have been given a fighting chance if they’re not conventionally beautiful. “That’s taken a long time,” says Hoffman, citing Lena Dunham and Rebel Wilson. “It has taken this long to have leading women who are not … the cover of a magazine.”

Then there’s the dearth of female directors, which Hoffman says is simply down to sexism – though he points out Kung Fu Panda 3 was co-directed by a woman, Jennifer Yuh.

He remembers the 1973 documentary Visions of Eight, filmed at the Olympics in Munich the year before, in which eight directors took a subject each. One was a woman, Mai Zetterling, who concentrated on weightlifters. “She was asked: ‘What did you know about weightlifting?’ and she said, ‘Nothing, but I know something about passion.’ And I’ve never forgotten that. And they were first-rate directors and her [segment] was by far the most interesting. The next question is how many talented women didn’t get the chance to direct because of their gender. Probably quite a few, and the question is why?”

Hoffman in Tootsie … voted by actors the best of all time.
Hoffman in Tootsie … voted by actors the best of all time. Photograph: Allstar/COLUMBIA

Hoffman says his feminist consciousness was raised by Tootsie, in which he played an actor who is forced to adopt a new identity as a woman to get a role on a soap: being ignored as an average-looking woman, he said, made him realise how many women he’d also give short shrift because they didn’t match up to society’s ideal standards of beauty. “You realise you’ve been told a lie and you have accepted the lie and you have lived the lie, and that changed me.” The film was also recently voted by actors the best of all time. Actors, says Hoffman, “saw it on a level that the rest of the public didn’t” – one that reveals the true horror of auditioning.

It’s at this point that a publicist chimes in to tell us that we need to wrap up the interview. “He’s in the middle of a question for God’s sake!” says Hoffman, mock-outraged. “How crude and rude – and you’re a woman! You should have more sensitivity than to interrupt.”

So who’s the best actor of all time? Hoffman doesn’t believe in the concept, but he believes in best performances. “The first one that comes to mind – he just got an Oscar, I heard – Mark Rylance. His Jerusalem, my God. I said: ‘What is that?’ When you see something that transforms everything that you’ve been doing for a living … I mean, you’re an actor but that goes beyond. He was doing something larger.” Equally stunning, says Hoffman, was Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet. “He was unkempt, he was heavy, he played him like a real loser, which I think Shakespeare wrote, and I thought he had an essence. Then it came to ‘To be or not to be’ and he came to the lip of the stage and he said: ‘To be …’”

Hoffman gets up, and just for me performs Russell Beale performing Hamlet. “And he held it until there wasn’t a person in the audience that was breathing and it was as if he had collected everyone to the very essence of what he was saying. ‘… or not to be.’ And I thought, ‘Woah.’ I got goosebumps. He still kept the iambic pentameter but it just got inside something that no-one else had done before. Great acting, I do love it.” And, he says, despite niggles – a torn rotator cuff, back injuries and waning ability to remember people’s names, he’ll be doing it for as long as he’s able.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is out in the UK on Friday.


Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

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