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Tootsie Drops His Guard

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Curly-haired Jacob Hoffman, 22 months, toddles into his father’s midtown Manhattan office and takes a long moment to eyeball his old man. No wonder. Dustin Hoffman is wearing pants today instead of a dress. Wigs, false eyelashes and heels were also part of Hoffman’s standard garb during the making of Tootsie, the phenomenally successful comedy in which Hoffman plays an unemployed actor who impersonates a woman to win a part on a TV soap. “His daddy has worn skirts since Jake was eight weeks old,” observes Hoffman’s wife, Lisa. “Luckily,” cracks Dustin, “we can afford therapy for him later.”

And how! Tootsie may have put Hoffman through a daily three-hour makeup ordeal that helped drive the film over-schedule and over-budget (it came in at a Gandhi-scale $21 million), but it’s paying off. A staple of nearly every year-end 10 Best list, Tootsie is a full-out comedy smash, grossing $39.8 million in its first 17 days. Hoffman’s salary, an estimated $4.5 million, plus his share in the profits (his company, Punch Productions, produced the film), may make him the highest-paid actor ever.

Will Redford, Reynolds and Eastwood have to go haute couture to compete? If so, it will be sweet revenge for Hoffman. Unlike the poster boys, his physiognomy is prosaic, his height (5’6″) less than that—among the superstars, only E.T. is shorter. But in the dazzling range and variety of his roles—the seduced scholar in The Graduate, the pimp in Midnight Cowboy, the 121-year-old Indian fighter in Little Big Man, the rebel comic in Lenny, the reporter Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men and the single father in Kramer vs. Kramer (which won him a 1979 Best Actor Oscar)—Hoffman stands taller than any of them.

Hoffman calls himself “a character actor,” but the term doesn’t allow for his impish charm or sexual magnetism. At 45, he still has the loopy grin and boyish appeal of his starring debut in The Graduate in 1967. He was 30 at the time, and had already won four awards for his off-Broadway work. On Manhattan streets, women now pursue Hoffman to pounce as well as praise, and Dustin is frankly delighted. “I’m a flirt,” he says. “I also have a lot of chauvinism, a lot of womanizing in my past. It’s hard for me to find a woman unattractive, unless she’s angry or down on herself.”

Indeed, for Hoffman, who grew up skinny, with acne, a big nose and fears of not being smart, social or athletic enough (“I was never looked at”), acting opened up a whole world of women. “I felt attractive for the first time,” he recalls. “Before that I was never able to be aggressive with a woman.”

His 1980 marriage to Lisa Gottsegen, now 28, limited the extent of his activities, but not the fun of playing the game. With women, Hoffman is an inveterate tease. He’ll tell a total stranger that he imagines she looks like “Goya’s Naked Maja without her clothes,” or another that the secret of a good marriage is “leaving the bathroom door open.” On the phone with Blanche Salter, Lisa’s 75-year-old grandmother, he asks: “Do you still have the fourth best body in your jogging class?” Later, addressing a luncheon for New York Women in Film, he scans the room and deadpans, “This is a perfect place to get laid.”

Such dangerously insouciant behavior is a Hoffman hallmark, and he usually gets away with it. As a result, many expected his role in Tootsie to be a campy hoot, not unlike Robert Preston’s drag routine in Victor/Victoria. Far from it. Hoffman bristles at the very mention of the word drag. “It’s not a kind thing you’re saying about women when you do it,” he argues. He is serious about women, especially about playing one. And why not? He’s been heading in that direction ever since Kramer. “I was a bad father who tried to be a good mother,” he says of it. The performance, he admits, was cut from the “fabric” of his own life. During filming, he separated from his first wife, Anne Byrne, now 38, and had to form a new bond with their two daughters, Karina, 16 (by Byrne’s first marriage), and Jenna, 12 (his own).

Soon after Kramer, Hoffman asked his playwright buddy Murray (Twice Around the Park) Schisgal to develop a script about how a man would feel if he changed gender. What became Tootsie (written by Schisgal, Larry Gelbart and six uncredited writers, with Bill Murray improvising much of his dialogue) was first called Shirley, because Hoffman always felt he had a Shirley inside him. His friend and Kramer co-star Meryl Streep backs him up. “Dustin is still glad he’s got his manhood,” she says, “but what he really wants to do is give birth.” Hoffman agrees. Present and thrilled at the delivery of both Jenna and Jake, he says he still considered himself “a stagehand. I feel cheated never being able to know what it’s like to get pregnant, carry a child and breast-feed.”

So the rechristened Tootsie was born out of his frustrations. “One of the things you can do as an actor,” he reports, “is compensate for the things you can’t do in life.” He had no trouble playing actor Michael Dorsey, who drives directors crazy with his perfectionism. He had himself as a model. Tootsie director Sydney Pollack (who plays Hoffman’s angry agent in the film) has described their standard method of communication on the set as “screaming.” But as Dorothy Michaels, the middle-aged actress who becomes a feminist role model to millions as a hospital administrator on a soap opera, Hoffman had to look outside himself. He didn’t have to look far. Lillian Hoffman, Dustin’s late mother, was perfect. “She’s the heart of Tootsie,” Dustin says proudly. “Dorothy has her strength, her vulnerability, her vitality and sexual humor. My mother had the spirit of a chorus girl. At 72, she was still playing two sets of tennis a day; she had legs like Ann Miller’s.” Dustin says he’s played his mother before onscreen, “but always disguised. In Midnight Cowboy, Ratso was partly my mother, the way he took care of Jon Voight’s Joe Buck—’How’d you like some chicken soup, Joe?’—that was my mother taking care of me.”

Dustin told his mother he was going to play her in Tootsie, and she awaited the film eagerly. Sadly, she never enjoyed her son’s tribute. During pre-production, Mrs. Hoffman suffered a heart attack, then a fatal stroke. “My mother died just over a year ago,” says Dustin. “It feels closer. But I told her I was going to do her, and I did.”

As Tootsie began filming, Hoffman worked like a man possessed. His brother Ronald, 51, who lives in Washington, believed that Dustin’s total immersion in the role was a way of dealing with his loss. “Ron suggested I was keeping my mother alive while I was playing her,” says Dustin, whose father, Harry, 75, a retired prop man, lives in La Costa, Calif. “All I know is that no character affected me so emotionally before.”

Hoffman was painstaking about every detail. Makeup tests to turn him into a convincing woman took over a year. “I had it in my contract,” Dustin explains, “that I didn’t have to do the picture if the makeup wasn’t right.” A blond wig was rejected as “cheap” and brown was substituted, costumes were designed by Ruth Morley to hide his bulging Adam’s apple, body hair was shaved, facial pores shrunk with hot-and-cold treatments, fake teeth substituted and face lifts (skin pullers fastened to the scalp) were applied by makeup artist Allen Weisinger.

For Dorothy’s Southern accent, Dustin called on his actress friend Polly (Flo) Holliday. Every day for two weeks, Alabama-born Polly would arrive at Dustin’s Manhattan duplex on Central Park West (he often jogs there) and begin talkin’ Dixie with him. Once they did a scene for an audience of one (Meryl Streep). The play was A Streetcar Named Desire, and Dustin played Blanche to Polly’s Stella. “He got so good so quick,” praises Holliday.

Hoffman wasn’t convinced until he tested his femininity on the real world. In an elevator, he had a friend introduce him dressed as Dorothy to José Ferrer. Dustin/Dorothy then proceeded to make an indecent proposal. “Who is that broad?” blurted the aghast Ferrer. Dustin was delighted. He also fooled daughter Jenna’s schoolteacher, whom he’s known for two years. Bolting from the set in full makeup, Hoffman arrived at the school recreation area during lunch hour. “Daddy, please get out of here,” begged the embarrassed Jenna. But Dustin persisted: “Just introduce me as your Aunt Dorothy from Arkansas.” Jenna complied. “That teacher treated me differently from before,” Hoffman reports. “There is a kind of sisterhood among women. I never got that before. Women are wary with men.”

If Tootsie deepened Hoffman’s regard for women, it lowered his estimation of his own sex. When he accosted his friend Voight at Manhattan’s elegant Russian Tea Room, Dustin reports that “Voight just looked through me. I was a 4, and he just wasn’t interested. That happened a lot with men, looking over my shoulder to find a prettier woman.” Hoffman insists that the rejection hurt. “Men are shits,” he says. He pointedly does not exclude himself. “It hit me when I realized that I wouldn’t take myself out or go to bed with me. Years ago I tried to go after the girls from Playboy and ignored the Dorothys of the world, who are brighter, funnier, because they didn’t fulfill a physical requirement. What a waste.”

One of Hoffman’s biggest disappointments was that he couldn’t, with all of Hollywood’s makeup expertise, make Dorothy beautiful. “She deserved it,” he says. “Once I saw that I was never going to be pretty, it was painful to me. Then I realized she was probably too old to have kids and I started to cry. I couldn’t control it.”

Of Dorothy, Dustin says, “I miss her,” revealing that he has kept all her clothes (the brown silk dress is his favorite) in four huge wardrobe trunks in his L.A. office. Lisa wants some, so does Grandma Blanche, and Jane Fonda’s been calling about a charity auction. But Dustin’s still holding. Lisa’s not worried. “Why should I be?” she asks. “So far he’s not trying them on.”

But has playing a woman made Hoffman a better man? “My wife thinks so,” he says. “Lisa says that now when I take the wrong turn on the freeway or spill something, I just shrug it off like Dorothy instead of banging on things and cursing as I usually do. Lisa says Dorothy has made me more tolerant.”

Lisa has known Dustin since her childhood. Her grandparents lived next door to Hoffman’s parents in Los Angeles. Brother Ron once dated Lisa’s mother. Both L.A.-born, Jewish and family-oriented, Dustin and Lisa seemed a perfect match, except for one snag—Dustin was 17 years her senior. Dustin says his first clear memory of Lisa was on a visit home around 1965; he was 27, she was 10. At a party at the Gottsegen home, Dustin visited the ailing Lisa in her bedroom. “I entertained her,” Dustin recalls. “Her brother, who was 8 then, was there, and the three of us sat around telling jokes.”

To Lisa, talking to Dustin and listening to him play the piano was far from a simple lark. That night she confided something to her grandmother Blanche that Blanche revealed to Dustin for the first time on his wedding day to Lisa. “The way Blanche tells it,” says Dustin, “Lisa walked over to her that night and said: ‘I hope he waits for me, because whether he knows it or not, I’m going to marry him someday.’ ”

By then Dustin had already dropped out of Santa Monica College, where he studied piano, and spent two years in acting classes at Pasadena Playhouse. He had also moved to New York, where he took odd jobs as waiter, dishwasher and mental institution orderly to pay for his rent and acting lessons. In 1969, after The Graduate, Dustin married Anne Byrne, a sophisticated, 5’9″ ballerina he called his “shiksa goddess.” Their 11-year marriage endured until what Hoffman termed “territorial imperatives” intervened. Anne tired of being solely a wife and mother and started an acting career (Manhattan, A Night Full of Rain).

By 1978 the Hoffmans had separated, though Dustin says, “We kept quiet about it.” Hoffman began spending more time at his L.A. home, where he resumed his acquaintance with Lisa, a student at San Fernando Valley College of Law. Soon he was attending classes with her. Six days after Dustin’s divorce from Anne, they were married.

Though Lisa graduated in 1979, she has no plans to work. “All along I guess I knew I wouldn’t be practicing law,” she admits. “I knew I was going to end up with Dusty, that my life would be traveling around with him.”

Now seven months pregnant with their second child, she is as much a homebody as her husband. “She likes making babies,” says Dustin proudly. “Her aunt has five children, and she’s one of Lisa’s favorite people.” Lisa says she gets along fine with Dustin’s daughters, who live with their mother in New York but visit frequently at the Hoffman homes in Manhattan, L.A. and Roxbury, Conn., where Dustin and Lisa were married. If their marriage succeeds, it’s not because Dustin’s career is primary but because, as Lisa says, “We work hard at it.”

How? “Lisa was on the set of Tootsie every day, and Jake came for lunch,” Dustin explains. “And if I have problems, I don’t keep them to myself, I bring them home.” Lisa will be by his side early this year when Hoffman’s multimillion-dollar suit against Warner Bros, (for denying him creative control over his films Agatha and Straight Time) comes to court.

Hoffman is increasingly sensitive about his “Mr. Difficult” image. He is offended that some directors might not work with him because of his insistence on rehearsal time and frequent script revisions. “They’d rather protect themselves than do good work,” he snaps. “I feel sorry for them.” He has turned down a reported $10 million to do The Man Who Loved Women because director Blake (Victor/Victoria) Edwards wouldn’t let him “share the paintbrush” on the script. Burt Reynolds will do it instead, as written. Hoffman says he is working with Schisgal on a new film about a painter, and perhaps he’ll try some Shakespeare onstage this year. Improbable, yes, but as Tootsie proved, that’s a dangerous word to use around Dustin Hoffman.