Dustin Drives Down Memory Lane

Actor Dustin Hoffman Discusses His Life And Art With Steve Kroft

It's not easy to think of another actor who has made more great movies, or made more movies great.

And as Correspondent Steve Kroft sat in his screening room a few weeks ago, making him look at clips, actor Dustin Hoffman said it was like going through a family album.

"I don't know about you. But when you go back and look at early photographs of yourself or your family, and your kids are grown, it's sweet stuff and it's painful stuff. Isn't it," says Hoffman. "Where did it go? Where did it go? And that's a similar feeling."

It's a career no one could have predicted when Hoffman left his hometown of Los Angeles 46 years ago, and went to New York to become an actor. He was scrawny, with a big nose, and not in immediate demand -- and it didn't seem to bother him.

"I was prepared for failure. In a sense, I was seeking failure. Because failure meant you weren't selling out in those days," says Hoffman. "Since then, I've had a lot of therapy, and I think I was making sure that I did not want to succeed in this life. I did not want to."

Hoffman shared apartments with a couple of other struggling actors: Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall.

"If God had reached down and said, 'Sign on the dotted line, and you guys will never be out of work. You'll only have supporting parts Off-Broadway for the rest of your life,' we would have signed like that," says Hoffman. "All you want is to be employed. You wanna practice your craft every day."

He took acting classes, bought his clothes at the Salvation Army and dined out on a steady diet of rejection. Trailing a crowd of admirers, he showed Kroft where he had his first gig on Broadway, working in the kitchen at a Howard Johnson. He lasted a week. Why did he get fired? "I didn't fit in," he says, laughing.

Not fitting in has been a dominant theme in Hoffman's life. In fact, it has always been part of his appeal. And despite the adversity, he was not about to give up. "You cannot be in this because you think you're gonna make a living at it," says Hoffman. "You can only be in this. It's the only way you choose to survive."

It took Hoffman 10 years, but he finally built a reputation performing off-Broadway, winning awards and good notices -- one of which caught the eye of director Mike Nichols, who was casting a new movie in 1967.

"I mean, I was a freak accident to get 'The Graduate,'" says Hoffman.

The role of Benjamin Braddock was written for someone tall, blond, and athletic. But Nichols saw something in the obscure, total unknown, and cast him against type as a neurotic, bumbling basket case, who is seduced by one of his mother's friends.

Hoffman had no idea of what was about to happen to him. All he remembers is going to a sneak preview and seeing himself on film for the first time. "Apparently what I did, without realizing it, is I had a panic attack," says Hoffman. "My teeth started to chatter, so that people could hear it. ... It was a terrifying experience for me. It wasn't fun."

He waited for everyone to leave the theater, but in the lobby, he ran into a famous gossip columnist. "She points her cane at me. It's right out of Dickens. She's holding on the rail, and she says, 'You're Dustin Hoffman, aren't you,'" says Hoffman. "I said, 'Yeah.' She says, 'You were in that movie?' I said, 'Yes.' And she says, 'Your life will never be the same.'"

Was she right? "I guess," says Hoffman. "Yeah."

He earned his first Academy Award nomination for "The Graduate," but made only $17,000, and was back on the unemployment line by the time Life magazine came around to do a feature.

Women were also lining up outside his apartment, and he had to get a new telephone number. "I wasn't very happy," recalls Hoffman. "My plan wasn't working out."

He said he turned down a lot of offers immediately for films, and didn't work for a year – until "Midnight Cowboy" came along. It was a dark film, and it was a supporting role. Everyone told him not to do it. And what's more, the director, John Schlesinger, didn't want him playing the tubercular, homeless, Ratzo Rizzo.

But Hoffman prevailed. "What fuels me then and what fuels me now is, 'Oh, you don't think I'm any good? 'You don't think I can do that '" says Hoffman. "Revenge. There ain't nothing wrong with it."

He once said, "Movies are like life, everything depends on a few decisions you make at the very beginning." And Hoffman had set his course, making a career playing outsiders, underdogs, and anti-heroes.

In 1979, he brought his own personal anguish to the screen, winning his first Academy Award for "Kramer vs. Kramer," as his first marriage was breaking up.

"I was supposed to burn my hand, and I was supposed to say, 'Goddamn it,'" says Hoffman. "And I said, 'Goddamn her.' That was the moment. That came to me. Because that's the truth. Goddamn her. Because that's what each party does. They can't look at themselves in terms of the failure of it. It's the other one."

Gene Hackman, Hoffman's old roommate, has known him for more than 40 years, through thick and thin.

What does he think it is that has made Hoffman so successful over the years? "He's a great character actor. If you look at the difference between 'Rain Man' and 'Tootsie,' who can do that," asks Hackman. "You know, there's nobody that can do that. He's an amazing actor. Always truthful, always honest and willing to take a big chance."

And, Hackman says, Hoffman is unwilling to compromise as an actor. "He really is the best of the kind of really tough actors," says Hackman. "I mean tough-minded – gets what he wants."

It's a trait that Hoffman says he picked up during the early days in New York. "We belonged to the small tribe of that. That was one of the great gifts of being an actor," says Hoffman. "You could walk. NO one could take your freedom away."

And Hoffman says he walked a lot. So how did he get away with that as a young actor, and not be permanently labeled as difficult? "Well, that was 'Tootsie,' wasn't it,'" says Hoffman.

In fact, the character Hoffman plays in "Tootsie" is said to be a parody of himself.

"I'm the artist," says Hoffman. "I know actors who say, 'I'm putty for the director,'" says Hoffman. "I'm there to fulfill the director's vision. And I say it depends."

For all of his success, Hoffman doesn't rest easy. He's still dogged by his early insecurities, and still worries that each movie might be his last. And he says he still worries about failure every minute of his life, even though he has one of the most successful careers in the history of Hollywood.

Who does he think is the most successful director in the last few years? "Spielberg," says Hoffman. "You know what Spielberg told me? On the first day of shooting, he throws up on his way to work."

Hoffman also dreads boredom. Kroft had been planning to go to his beach house in Malibu, so for the drive out, he decided to have some fun and surprise him with the same model of the Alfa Romeo he drove in "The Graduate."

"They called them 'The Graduate' afterwards," says Hoffman. "I haven't seen one like … Wow."

It took some time, but we managed to find and borrow a red 1967 Alfa Romeo Spider, identical to the one he drove in one of the most famous scenes in "The Graduate." Seeing the car immediately jogged a memory.

Hoffman had done his own driving, and while he was hurtling along the twisting roads of the coastal highway, the film crew in the helicopter kept screaming for him to go faster. "Instead of going 50 miles an hour, which I'm doing now, they kept telling me, 'Don't let a car pass you. You're in a hurry to stop the wedding,'" says Hoffman. "Well, there's a couple times where I almost, you know, bought the ranch."

He says he hasn't driven this car since he made the movie in 1967 – 37 years ago. "It does make me feel younger," says Hoffman. "I feel, you know, 62, 63."

Hoffman is 67, and he says in one sense, he feels it. "I can see the end of the tunnel. When you're 20, double that, I'm 40. And I can double that, I'm 80," says Hoffman. "I can see the end. That's all right. I would like to be courageous enough o take my audience along with me in an honest fashion."

And that means playing closer to his age, and taking more supporting parts, like his upcoming role in the much anticipated movie, "Meet the Fockers," in which he joins Barbra Streisand and Robert de Niro in the sequel to "Meet the Parents."

He's been married to his second wife for 24 years, has six children, and two dogs. It's not the life he dreamed of almost 50 years ago, steady work off-Broadway, in supporting roles. That didn't work out, but he seems OK with it.

Is there anything that he hasn't done that he wants to do? "Yes," says Hoffman, laughing. "Everything I haven't done."

One thing he hasn't done is direct. Right now, he is working on a film adaptation of Scott Turow's "Personal Injuries," which he plans to direct, produce and star in. So, he's not ready to leave the stage just yet, although he loves thinking ahead to what will be his final exit line.

"I hear things. They'll come to me, and I'll say, 'That's what I want on my tombstone. One is, 'I knew this was gonna happen.' That's a good one. And then I thought one up the other day that is now one of my favorites," says Hoffman. "I want on my tombstone to say, 'I'd like to thank my mother and father, because without them, I could never have gotten this far.'"