Just before the credits appear—Lenny, “Starring Dustin Hoffman,” “Directed by Bob Fosse”—the screen is dead white as a spotlight smokily silhouettes the tense, denim-clad figure of Dustin Hoffman as Lenny Bruce, his Satan-bearded face tight to the mike.
Recently, in the dusk of a disused New York theater—its art nouveau twinings of vines and leaves and rabbit heads blackened with grime, walls scabrous with flaking plaster—another shaft of floodlight has been outlining a new incarnation of Dustin Hoffman. This one optimistically wears a sweatshirt with “Catch a Rising Star” on the back. He stands on a runway extending out among the seats, his fingers nervously twisting and crumpling a bit of Scotch tape. Suddenly he lopes forward onto the stage, says, “Try for this feeling,” and begins to hop on his tiptoes, piping, “I was a nurse in the first world war.”
None of the actors around him smiles. This is very serious. At age 37, Dustin Hoffman is fulfilling a career-long dream. He is directing a play opening this month on Broadway, Murray Schisgal’s comedy All Over Town, and drawing on the astounding library of detail which has helped make Hoffman one of America’s most gifted and successful character actors. In his career, which began in 1961, he has played a far-out homosexual, a lovable Cockney boilerman, a prissy Russian, an insecure adolescent, a Broadway bum, a crazy painter, a rock composer, a swinging bachelor, a violent ex-teacher, an Italian bank clerk and a half-blind French counterfeiter. Dramatist Arthur Miller once said of him, “Dustin can play with many fingers on the instrument. And he plays contradictions, not just straight lines.”
Now, as a director, moving among the cast for private little conferences, he puts his arm across an actor’s shoulders and says, “Don’t lose that paranoia. It’s like when you were a kid jumping off the bed, saying, ‘I didn’t do anything!’ ” He demonstrates a fussy French walk, then goes into the wings to say to another actor, “Do it like the TV announcers who get a big kick out of reporting that 185 people fell down in a plane.” He advises the ingenue and her boyfriend, “Play it like those couples visiting from the Midwest in matching outfits, his and hers.” He illustrates just the right degree of agonized crotch-pain after a horseback ride, and tells another cast member, “It’s as though you can suddenly see through all these women’s clothes—X-ray vision—and it is terrific, it’s rejuvenating.” Experimenting during a break, he says, “Try this pipe. Clench it—John Mitchell at the trial, un-revealing no matter what’s going on in his stomach. Now concentrate entirely on making the words travel down the stem and out the bowl. Everything else will happen automatically for you.”
“Dustin is obsessed with the behavior of people, looking behind their eyes,” says playwright Schisgal, one of Hoffman’s closest friends. His play is a farce which has fun with things Americans take seriously, from religion, to the Army, to psychiatry, to social work, to adultery. Hoffman has lived in New York since 1958, primarily because he finds its streets the ultimate gallery of human types and sudden dramas. One aspect of fame he likes is that it gives him a kind of license to explore and provoke total strangers, then watch their reactions. “Are you happy?” he asks a startled admirer. “Do you like sex?” he says to another. He said to one fan who was bothering him, “You have a beautiful bosom,” and delightedly watched her flee, looking down at herself.
Hoffman grew up in Los Angeles where, he says, “There was always that quest for the perfect tan.” His father was an assistant set decorator at Columbia Pictures who became a furniture designer. An intensely ambitious, competitive man, he moved the family six times in 12 years to better or worse neighborhoods depending on the state of his fortunes. As a boy, Hoffman was the friendless class clown answering to such nicknames as “Dustbin.” He was mortally self-conscious over his acne, braces and enormous nose—his actor friend Bob Duvall once called him “Barbra Streisand in drag”—and he suffered heartaching failure with girls. In high school there was the traumatic time when, Hoffman remembers, “we all wore Levi’s so low they were only held up by will. I was talking to this girl, the first one who’d ever come up and started talking to me, and she was pretty and I was in love. Then this guy named Perry—he had a mole on his neck—came over and pulled my Levi’s down. Then he got down on his knees and said, ‘Hit me, little Dusty.’
“In my room as a kid,” Hoffman continues, “I used to create an atmosphere of the ring. I’d play a fighter and get knocked to the floor and then come back and win.”
In an acting class at Santa Monica College, “something clicked inside.” Few actors have ever wanted more to be somebody, worked harder to accomplish it and failed so consistently as Hoffman in his desperate early years in New York. Trying to get roles, Hoffman was in a strange paroxysm of mixed terror, anger and artistic righteousness. Insisting on success on his own terms, he would report for auditions but refuse to produce anything he considered “instant slickness.” If criticized, he would throw tantrums, hurling the script into the air in a flutter of pages, and race away. He got jobs in the theater, but not as an actor. He directed community drama groups in Connecticut, in North Dakota, in New Jersey, at a Lower East Side settlement house.
To subsist and pay for acting classes with Lee Strasberg, he worked at anything—typing entries for the Yellow Pages, helping Time Inc. move its editorial library to its new building in 1960. He kept his weekly budget in Mason jars—one for food, one for rent, one for transportation, etc. If he ran out of money in one jar, he would not borrow from another jar, but from such friends as Gene Hackman, then working as a furniture mover.
Hoffman tried to turn every job into an acting exercise—like adopting foreign accents when he was a waiter in some greasy spoon. Unable to act before audiences in theaters, he and his frustrated, angry friends would practice on the public. Hoffman was selling toys at Christmastime in Macy’s when Gene Hackman stopped by and sat his baby boy on the counter. Hoffman promptly sold him for $16.95. When a girl from his school in California visited him, Hoffman told her he was an artist. He played the role so perfectly that before long he had her posing on a table in the nude while he backed away measuring for perspective with his thumb. One reason Bob Fosse picked Hoffman to play Lenny Bruce was that at age 37 “Dustin had that impishness”—still. Hoffman used so much of himself in the characterization, that it approaches a self-portrait. He was terrified at portraying a real person only eight years dead. Always obsessed with preparation, Hoffman spent months interviewing every Lenny Bruce friend he could find. He identified powerfully with Lenny’s quirky imagination—which once led Bruce to advertise an appearance with a 30-foot poster of Hitler doing the Nazi salute. It read, “Opening Thursday Night, Adolf Hitler.” The fine print underneath the picture was: “With Lenny Bruce.”
In Bruce, Hoffman recognized much of himself: the provocateur, the introverted cutup with the “feel of being onto something,” the watcher, the man of cold anger that suddenly turns to warmth, who recognized that taking away Bruce’s work was taking away his life. “Lenny was very seductive,” says Hoffman. “He negotiated for himself and had this winning way.”
Elizabeth Wilson, who played Hoffman’s mother in The Graduate, which made him an instant star, feels his success comes from “a quality that reaches out to the audience, a quality stronger than in any other leading American actor. It is a great sense of love that he feels for people, and a sense of needing to be loved. A vulnerability. There is a genuine sweetness about Dustin.”
He also has a sudden, rather bawdy, out-of-kilter wit. During auditions for the play, Murray Schisgal, a bald, bearded man with sad, hooded eyes, said of an actor, “He’s terrific! He’s terrific!” “You’re getting very horny,” cut in Hoffman. “Next you’ll be wanting a dwarf in here.”
Dustin Hoffman has tremendous energy—as did Lenny Bruce—and, in fact, considers it the most important creative ingredient. Hoffman sleeps only five or six hours, then hits the floor at 6:30 a.m. with a bound—and immediately weighs himself (135 pounds consistently). He lives in an East Side town house he and his wife, Anne, bought after their Greenwich Village apartment was wrecked when Weathermen bombs blew up the house next door. Hoffman is immensely proud of Anne, a reed-thin ballet dancer, who at 5’9″ is three inches taller than her husband. She has been with the Philadelphia and the New York City ballet companies. They have two girls, ages 8 and 4, the older one by Anne’s first marriage.
While his family sleeps, Hoffman loves the sense of early, lone accomplishment as he feeds the two dogs and two cats, makes coffee, reads the paper, a script, a book, pots the avocado pits he saves—”It’s really an extension of one’s own feeling of being a mother.” The office he maintains on Madison Avenue is a green avocado jungle.
“There aren’t a whole lot of things I feel terrific about,” says Hoffman, “but that morning time is one of them.” Those are solitary hours when he is free of his observer’s detachment from life. He also gets release from “a bit of hysteria amongst friends”—who are few and mostly from prestardom days. And there are his passions for tennis, antiques and toy clowns.
A part of Hoffman’s predicament is that, obsessed with acting, he nevertheless regards it as “a minor-league art form”—unlike the work of such idols as Jacques Lipchitz, Picasso, Alexander Calder or Chaplin, whose lives he has researched in detail. One lure of directing is the hope that with all the reins in his hands, he can feel himself at last a true artist, a real doer. “There’s the cliché,” he says, “that as an actor you can pretend to be the opera singer, the boxer—but don’t kid yourself. Don’t ever think it’s the same thing.
“Lenny was up against a wall,” says Hoffman, “and I’ve felt up against a wall now for a while. I feel I haven’t been putting it together the way I want in my work.” Hoffman is driven by a perfectionist’s sense of failure, the feeling that only rarely as an actor does he “express a human truth.” Now, reworking All over Town after mixed reviews in its Washington tryout, he has similar agonies as a director. “I started from the fact,” he says, “that we didn’t have a chance, and then fought for my life everyday.”
When a rare moment meets Hoffman’s expectations he describes it as a tremendous rush of excitement—the exhilaration of daring humiliation, but succeeding in taking flight. “I like to challenge that mystery,” says Hoffman, “of why one runner wins by a tenth of a second. What is that transcending, primal thing that enables you to push yourself beyond, beyond, beyond—further than what is possible? That is what I try for somehow in my work.” Then, as though a little embarrassed by his own seriousness, he adds, “But that doesn’t mean life can’t be fun. Treat it as a game. Treat it as a game.”