Still the Tough Guy

Gene Hackman holds up his hand to display the small scabs still evident on his knuckles three weeks after he was involved in a minor traffic accident in West Hollywood that escalated into a fistfight with two men in broad daylight.

"He brushed against me and I popped him," Hackman recalls, slapping his open palm with his fist to illustrate. "Then the other guy jumped on me. We had this ugly wrestling match on the ground. The police came.... I got a couple of good shots in. The guy had me around the neck. That's the ugly part. When you're down on the ground and you're [nearly] 72 years old ..."

Hackman pauses. "I was as responsible as they were," he says, looking as though he regrets the incident.

Whoever was at fault, the fight must have been a doozy. The actor--a former Marine--was kicked in the groin and flipped on his stomach. He remembers getting out of his car to apologize for "tapping" the other vehicle from behind and facing two young, "pretty good-sized" men who were being "really intimidating." But he said the only injuries he suffered were a few scratches on his forehead and a big black-and-blue mark on the back of his leg.

There was a moment, Hackman notes, when he could have backed off and the incident might have ended peacefully. So, why didn't he?

"I was mad," he says. "There were two of them and I felt threatened."

And when Gene Hackman gets mad, watch out. As any filmmaker who's worked with him during his 40-year career can attest, Hackman is not a guy to mess with.

With his nervous laugh, flinty persona, imposing physique and Everyman mug, Gene Hackman has come to embody the tough-guy image of the American male on screen, an icon with a hint of danger lurking somewhere behind those restless eyes.

"There's something very charismatic in him, even when he's being his worst," observed Wes Anderson, who directed Hackman in the new black comedy "The Royal Tenenbaums," which has generated considerable Oscar buzz around Hollywood for the veteran actor.

"There is something about him that gives him a kind of gravity that is pretty rare," Anderson added. "When they are playing a scene where there is sadness or something gentle, he can be especially sad and gentle. When they are playing a scene where they need to turn on the rage, he can be scary at the drop of a hat. That is the way he will attack a scene--with everything he's got."

At an age when acting careers are frequently ebbing, the 71-year-old Hackman remains as popular and busy as ever. He currently stars in three high-profile movies, each requiring a different, textured performance, yet each evoking the tough-guy persona he has perfected over his long career.

In David Mamet's "Heist," released last month, he plays the brilliant, no-nonsense leader of a gang of jewel thieves who's willing to spill blood to get revenge on a double-cross.

In first-time director John Moore's "Behind Enemy Lines," which also opened last month, he's the gruff but patriotic U.S. Navy admiral determined to defy orders and risk his career if that's what it takes to rescue an American flier whose plane has gone down in war-torn Bosnia.

And, in "The Royal Tenenbaums," which opened in limited release Friday in Los Angeles and New York, Hackman portrays Royal Tenenbaum, the eccentric, sharp-tongued patriarch of a family of geniuses who tries to con his way back into the good graces of his estranged wife (Anjelica Huston) and three grown children (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson) by pretending to have cancer.

Hackman's life, much like his screen roles, is one of contrasting images, from the product of a broken home whose happiness was ripped from him when his father up and left one day, to the grown man, an accomplished painter and late-blooming novelist who lives a life of refinement far from the madding crowd of Hollywood in art-friendly Santa Fe, N.M., with his second wife, Betsy, a classical pianist.

Although Hackman calls winning two Academy Awards "a great experience," he can't recall where he has put his golden statuettes. "We don't keep them out," he said. "Maybe they're packed somewhere. It's not that I'm not proud of them. We don't have anything in the house about show business--except I do have a poster of Errol Flynn."

A decade ago, a bout of angina sent him to the hospital for angioplasty surgery. It was a health problem so serious that doctors at the time told his wife he only had a few hours to live had he not received prompt care. But heart problems have not slowed him. There was a time when his passion was aerobatic flying and race cars. Now, he and Betsy sail to exotic locales to dive shipwrecks and coral reefs.

And despite his status as one of Hollywood's acting heavyweights, he has managed to keep his private life largely out of the public eye--except for his headline-grabbing street brawl--and rarely reveals himself in interviews. He lets his acting speak for itself.

Hackman's chameleon-like ability to depict a variety of sensibilities and moods--like the inspiring Indiana high school basketball coach in 1986's "Hoosiers," the brawling ex-con Max in the 1973 buddy road drama "Scarecrow," or the obsessed surveillance expert in Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 classic "The Conversation"--has not only endeared him to movie audiences from one generation to the next, but has turned him into an enduring American screen presence in the same mold as Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.

"I'd rank Hackman's performances that I've seen over the years with performances like Humphrey Bogart's in 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,' Steve McQueen's in 'Bullitt' and Spencer Tracy's in 'Bad Day at Black Rock,'" said William Friedkin, who directed Hackman's Oscar-winning performance in best picture winner "The French Connection" (1971).

Often, his characters are tough-as-nails, in-your-face types like Capt Ramsey, the old-school Navy officer in Tony Scott's 1995 submarine thriller "Crimson Tide"; or Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle, the short-tempered New York undercover cop in "The French Connection"; or the sadistic sheriff Little Bill Daggett, winning him a best supporting actor Oscar in Clint Eastwood's 1992 revisionist western "Unforgiven," which also won the Academy Award for best picture.

As a tenacious FBI agent hunting down the killers of three civil rights workers in Alan Parker's searing 1988 drama "Mississippi Burning," Hackman earned a second best actor nomination, while his performances as Depression-era gangster Buck Barrow in Arthur Penn's 1967 classic "Bonnie and Clyde" and as a grown man caring for his elderly father in Gilbert Cates' sensitive 1970 drama "I Never Sang for My Father" garnered him two more best supporting actor nominations.

But Hackman has proved equally adept at comic roles. There was the marginally respectable movie producer Harry Zimm in Barry Sonnenfeld's 1995 black comedy "Get Shorty," in which Hackman utters such lines as "I said I'd think about it. In this town, what does that mean? Nothing!" The uptight and conservative senator in Mike Nichols' 1996 comedy "The Birdcage." The rich tobacco tycoon who never stops smoking in this year's black comedy "Heartbreakers." And the over-the-top characterization of comic-book archvillain Lex Luthor in the "Superman" movies.

"I thought he was consistently good even if the picture he was in wasn't," says Eastwood, who also directed Hackman as a philandering president of the United States in the 1997 political thriller "Absolute Power." "He brought more to it than probably was there in the first place. When you work with him, you appreciate him even more."

With Little Bill Daggett, Eastwood noted, Hackman "is playing a guy who turns out to be a villain, yet he still had a comedic twist to it. He's a three-dimensional villain. You believed he had a point of view and wasn't just a guy sneering."

Warren Beatty suggested to Penn that he cast Hackman as Buck Barrow in "Bonnie and Clyde" after working with him in the 1964 film "Lilith." "There was a little two-minute scene that he had with me," Beatty recalled of "Lilith." "It's difficult to define that thing that makes acting fun. I felt with him it was just more fun, so that when I did 'Bonnie and Clyde,' I wanted Gene to be in it."

Scott, who directed Hackman in "Enemy of the State" (1998) as well as "Crimson Tide," said there are "a myriad of colors behind Gene's eyes and behind his face" that project off the screen. "You feel what is going on inside his head and behind his eyes."

Richard Donner, who directed him in "Superman," said, "If you asked me to define the word 'actor,' I'd just say Gene Hackman.... We all know he is one special actor, but he's also the kind of guy you want as your best friend. You want to hang out with him, pop a beer with him, laugh with him, cry with him. You want him to be your confidant."

Hackman almost didn't sign on to play Royal Tenenbaum when the role was broached by Anderson, the nerdy-looking young director of "Rushmore." "The script was difficult to read because it was so fragmented," Hackman recalled in his Midwestern twang familiar from so many movies, "and it isn't really until you see 10 or 15 minutes of the film before you begin understanding.... It wasn't totally clear to me that this was a great role, but after I read the script three or four times, I finally figured out how I could play it.

"My favorite moments in filmmaking have to do with directors who I think of as being [an] actor's director from the theater and that kind of thing where it has to do with behavior ... as opposed to something that is highly stylized where you are part of some idea rather than being the idea."

What appealed to him about the story, though, was how it says something about family.

"We all have that thing in us where we want to be loved by our family and do the right thing," Hackman said. "Many of us are weak and we can't do the right thing because we're just too selfish."

Did he see anything of himself in the role? "I think so," he replied. "I know myself well enough to know there are areas in me that are very selfish and insensitive. All of us have that. The job of an actor is to get to that. As an actor, I have to find ways to exploit all of that."

Anderson said Hackman seemed the most uncomfortable if the director had a preconceived idea for a particular scene.

"He doesn't really need a lot of direction," Anderson said. "He shows up and he's got a way of doing it that's usually right. He has very good taste in the way he approaches the scene. Some actors like to have a lot of interaction with a director and talk about what they are doing. That is not how Gene works."

Although two of his current films were made with younger directors, Hackman admits actors his age often find it easier working with a seasoned veteran.

"With an older director and maybe somebody you know and have worked with, you have a shorthand where you can work with him," he said. "With a young director, you don't have that. Everything has to be explained to me, or I have to explain it to him. Not that I'm directing it, but there are things that actors who've been around a long time, just by osmosis, pick up. Some of the shortcuts are readily apparent to older directors and not so with young ones. On the other hand, the young guys have fresh ideas."

Hackman said even some close-ups today are filmed with a long lens, meaning an actor can be 15 feet away from the camera lens.

"You tend to use that [intimacy with the camera lens] as an audience," he explained. "If the lens is way over on the other part of the room, it's a little different process."

He credited Anderson with doing a "wonderful job in terms of getting across his idea of what the film should be."

"That's difficult to do in film--having a concept and being able to carry it out and not being corrupted by actors or set designers or something--having a focused idea," Hackman said.

With his thick, plastic glasses, slicked-back hair and high-buttoned '60s-style suit that looks stylishly unfashionable, Royal Tenenbaum is a royal pain in the you-know-what. In one scene crackling with on-screen chemistry, Hackman meets up with Huston on the street and pleads with her to take him back.

"I need a favor," Royal tells her. "I want to spend some time with you and the children."

"Are you crazy?" she retorts.

"Wait a minute, dammit."

"Stop following me!"

"Look, I want my family back."

"Well, you can't have it. I'm sorry for you but it's too late."

Royal pauses. "Baby, I'm dying. Yeah, I'm sick as a dog. I'll be dead in six weeks. I'm dying."

When his wife begins falling to pieces at this horrible news, Royal can't stand to see her tears and decides to tell the truth.

"Hold on a second, now. Listen, I'm not dying, but I need some time. A month or so. I want us to ... "

Furious, she begins hitting him. "Are you crazy?" she screams.

" ... Baby, I am dying."

"Are you or aren't you?"

"What? Dying?" he replies awkwardly. "Yeah."

Hackman said he loved working with Huston. "That's not to say the rest of them weren't terrific actors," he added. "It's just chemistry, when you really enjoy the other person. [Co-star] Danny Glover was fun to work with like that."

Royal is so twisted that he once playfully shot his young son Chas in the hand with a pellet gun while playing in the yard and, after the 14-year-old boy became a whiz at business and finance, even stole bonds from the kid's safety deposit box. Then there was his annoying habit of always introducing his adopted daughter, Margot, to guests as his adopted child.

But Royal also has a heart. He gradually, in his bizarre way, reconnects with each of his grown children while trying to undercut a love affair blossoming between his wife and her accountant (Glover). Owen Wilson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Anderson and also co-stars with Hackman in "Behind Enemy Lines," rounds out the cast as a wacko family friend.

Hackman said Royal utters some insensitive lines in the movie that the actor believes he could have spoken to his own three kids, who are now all grown. "In all sincerity, I don't think I did," he said, "but I think there is a possibility that there is a part of me that is capable of that. I'm not finding that attractive at all, but I think that is probably true."

Hackman himself comes from a broken home. His childhood in Danville, Ill., was shattered one day when his father abandoned the family.

"I thought I had a happy childhood until about 12 when my dad left," Hackman said. "Then things were really tough. So, my mom and I moved around a lot. My mom worked as a waitress. I think she hung wallpaper. She was a seamstress. Bookkeeping."

Before he became a big star, Hackman's mother died when a burning cigarette ignited a fire. Eventually, he "buried the hatchet" with his father before he died.

At 16, he went off to join the Marine Corps and later became a radio announcer. But there were many other jobs. "I moved furniture, drove a truck in New York. I drove a cab briefly in New York. Soda jerk. I sold women's shoes. Polished furniture in the Chrysler Building. I sold candy door-to-door in L.A. I never had a profession other than acting. Just jobs."

Anderson said that Hackman was always his first choice to play Royal.

"I had seen 'The French Connection,' 'The Conversation,' 'Night Moves,' 'Get Shorty,' 'Mississippi Burning' and all these different movies he made," Anderson said. "Every time he appeared on the screen, he was the most exciting thing on the screen and you were dying to see more of him."

Anderson said he came up with Royal's distinctive attire by modeling the character's clothes after the late San Francisco trial attorney Melvin Belli. As for his glasses, Anderson said he chose the kind of oversized eyewear that producer Robert Evans and actor Michael Caine might have worn in the '70s.

"Wes thought I should look like that," Hackman said, chuckling. "He had those clothes tailored. The glasses and all the high buttons. [Royal] thought he had a sense of style. That was my take on it. And I love that. I love the idea that a character can be wrong and you can see that as an audience, you participate in that."

His knack for improvisational comedy even extends to publicizing the film. When he arrived at the penthouse suite of the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, he dutifully removed his shoes and sports jacket and climbed onto an ornate, canopy bed to pose for a photograph. With its lush, gold-colored fabric and matching drapery, the bed seemed an ideal backdrop to illustrate the faux-royalty inherent in "The Royal Tenenbaums."

The actor crossed his legs and rested his hands on his knees, palms facing the ceiling. Suddenly, an idea hit him. Wouldn't it be so like the eccentric character of Royal Tenenbaum, Hackman said, if his toe was peeking through his sock? With that, Hackman's publicist handed him a tiny pair of scissors attached to a key chain and the actor snipped away at the material

It is this uncanny ability to instantly devise a prop from almost nothing that is part of his genius as an actor. Whether it's cutting a hole in a sock or spilling soup in a monster's lap as he did as the blind hermit in 1974's "Young Frankenstein," Hackman has the gift of creating scenes or characterizations that stick in the viewer's mind.

Over the years, Hackman has had his share of run-ins with directors.

Friedkin remembers a scene they were filming for "The French Connection." It was a bitterly cold day in New York City--so cold, the director recalled, that his crew would duck into a nearby shoe store every 10 minutes for warmth. Hackman was standing on the street holding a piece of pizza and waiting for the cameras to roll. In the scene, "Popeye" Doyle was munching on the pizza while conducting surveillance on a drug smuggler who was dining in comfort inside a nearby restaurant.

The camera zoomed in for a close-up of Hackman's hands, but Friedkin didn't like the way the actor was doing the scene.

"I kept asking him to do it again and again," the director recalled. "Finally, Hackman shouts, 'Why the hell don't you step in front of the camera and show me exactly what you want me to do?!' So, I stood in front of the camera and showed him exactly what I wanted him to do and he did it exactly how I showed him. I said 'Cut!' and he walked off the set for the rest of the day.

"We had a challenging relationship and I would say a difficult one on 'The French Connection,'" Friedkin said. "But it was always toward the same result--always toward trying to get the best we could."

One reason Hackman never directed a film is that he can't stomach the thought of some mid-level studio executive in a suit handing him script notes and suggesting how to shoot a scene. "I have a lot of trouble with executive types that want to have too much say," he said. Yes, he can be confrontational on the set, but Hackman said it's never over something so petty as a star demanding a larger trailer. "The only problems I ever have on the set have to do with the work. When people don't understand that, I guess they dub you as being 'difficult.'"

Scott said that as long as directors come to the set prepared for the day's shoot, Hackman is no problem to work with. It's when they aren't prepared that fireworks go off.

"We call him 'Vesuvius' because you aren't quite sure when he is going to blow," Scott said, laughing. "I saw very little of those 'blows' because I came prepared.... With Gene, there is a lot of anger inside him, but that anger translates great into [on-screen] personality.

"Gene is tough to work with because he does an enormous amount of homework," the director added. "When he comes to the set, he knows exactly where his character is in that single moment in time. He knows where he wants to go and where his character is."

His constant striving for perfection may have pushed him to prematurely announce his "retirement" from films in the late 1970s.

"He rented an apartment in West L.A. and just sat in a room and painted," Friedkin recalled. "I remember visiting him in that room and him telling me he may never act again. It wasn't a dislike for acting. I think he didn't want to repeat himself or perform just for the money. He wanted to find a stronger reason to put so much of himself out there in front of the public."

It was Beatty who enticed him back in front of the cameras by giving him the role of magazine editor Pete Van Wherry in the 1981 epic "Reds."

"When I did 'Reds,' he came all the way to London with a fever of 101 degrees," Beatty recalled. "I had one scene where the character talks nonstop for two pages. He came over to do that when he had a fever."

Adds director Scott: "Both times I worked with him, Gene said, 'God, I'm going to retire after this.' Each movie takes a piece of his soul because he gives it so much."

For a world-famous movie star, Hackman remains a remarkably private individual who tries to keep show business at arm's length.

At the recent premiere of "The Royal Tenenbaums" at the El Capitan in Hollywood, Hackman dutifully showed up on the red carpet to pose for the paparazzi, but he was a no-show at the post-premiere party held at the old Rudy Vallee estate in the Hollywood Hills. Hackman admits he's not into frequenting Hollywood parties.

"I did some of that right after 'The French Connection,' when I was being offered a lot of things and your head gets a little bit swelled because of all of that. You go to the parties and they all seem so shallow and there's nothing ever really said. Nobody ever talks about anything that is interesting at all, except about themselves or what films they are doing.

"You know, I love actors," he adds with a chuckle, "but I like knowing them on the set."

Underwater archeologist Daniel Lenihan, who co-wrote a 1999 adventure novel with the actor titled "Wake of the Perdido Star," said Hackman seems very comfortable as a movie star, generously signing autographs even when fans are a little too aggressive, "but I sense that what is a problem for him is people defining their relationship to him on the basis of him being a movie star."

He also describes Hackman as an "energetic dynamo."

"We would spend hours and hours over coffee and sometimes a bit more boisterous over wine" discussing the book, Lenihan recalls. "I think that book was written three times. There was always something we didn't like about it. He's a real perfectionist and has a strong sense of what he thinks is genuine or interesting about a story. I kind of had to do mental push-ups before any of our sessions."

Hackman's wife, who is of Japanese descent and was raised in Hawaii, often accompanies her husband on their diving expeditions. They have traveled to such destinations as the Cayman Islands, Hawaii and Truk Lagoon in Micronesia.

But in addition to adventure, Hackman also enjoys a refined life. His love of painting dates to the early '50s, when he studied at the Art Students League of New York. He modestly says that "I have too good an eye" to believe he is any good at it, but Eastwood and others say Hackman's paintings are excellent.

Politically, there was a time when Hackman was much more out front than he is these days. "I'm a longtime Democrat," he said. "I think of myself, I guess, as a 'limousine liberal,' but I don't involve myself a lot. Years ago, Warren [Beatty] asked me to campaign for [presidential candidate Sen. George] McGovern and I did that. Of course, that was a long time ago and so we both got our names on [Nixon's] 'enemies list.' I was kind of proud of that."

If there is one social issue that stirs him, it's civil rights. He was stung by complaints from the African American community that "Mississippi Burning" seemed more about making the FBI look good than it was about the civil rights struggle of blacks.

To this complaint, he replies: "It's true. It wasn't the black story. It was the story of the FBI and maybe it could have been done better, but my position about that was, hey, step up and do that story. There is a lot of black money out there and a lot of people who can afford to produce a film. Let's see that movie."

He admits there have been films that he now regrets having made, but Hackman says that was usually because the atmosphere on the set inhibited an actor's best work.

"It's not that it's uncomfortable or like that," he explains. "But can you do something with this? Can you make something happen here? When that doesn't happen, that's when I'm disappointed."

It pains him, nearly 30 years later, to think back on how well he and Al Pacino clicked in "Scarecrow," but then saw the movie fail at the box office. "I felt we had done good work in that film and it didn't work out commercially--big time," he recalled. "I thought, 'Aw, hell, I'll just take anything that's offered. So, I did that for a while. I ended up doing some things like 'March or Die' in Africa and maybe other things one shouldn't do. You get disappointed that your message maybe isn't getting across. I don't mean that to sound highfalutin. Actors generally know if they've done good work.

"You can never tell if a film is going to work or not," he adds, "but you can tell by individual scenes whether they had that spark."

*

Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°