Dustin Hoffman is as surprised as anyone to see himself — after five decades on the stage and big screen — showing up on television. When he mentioned his interest in the show “Luck,” the David Milch-Michael Mann horse-racing series on HBO, his friends and colleagues were not optimistic.
“People said, ‘Oh, no, you’re into television!’” he recalls, sitting in a hotel suite with the show’s creators during a recent press tour. “‘It causes divorce, it maims people physically; you knock out so many pages a day….’”
Part of what drew him to a television part was the chance to act in a program that — unlike a film — could take every role seriously. Although the show, which was renewed for a second season after its first episode aired in January, received its share of tough reviews, nearly all of them praised the acting and rich array of characters. Even in the best films, Hoffman says, many characters have only two dimensions.
In person, the dapper, diminutive Hoffman manages to seem both reflective and down-to-earth — and uses the actor’s trick of seeming to tune out while Mann and Milch talk enthusiastically about the show. Even when he comes to, snapping out of his reverie, he apologizes, saying he never talks about his characters — in this case, a wealthy mobster of complex loyalties, recently sprung from prison, named Chester “Ace” Bernstein, whose scheme in some ways drives the series’ action.
But when he talks about character in general, Hoffman can barely stop.
“If you go into a restaurant, every single person there has a three-dimensional life — there’s people with divorces, with cancer…,” he said. “There’s barely a table in the place without a long story.
“And that’s what this piece does. I was so aware of that — whether it’s Nick Nolte [who plays a grizzled horse owner], the Irish jockey or the degenerates [a quartet of roguish gamblers]. Those are three-dimensional characters who are given their time, onscreen, to reveal that dimension.”
When Hoffman, now 74, started out as an actor in the ‘50s, he had no way of knowing how sophisticated television would eventually get. Early on, though, Hoffman would have jumped at a steady television role — just about any television role. “I would have taken ‘General Hospital’ for 20 years!” he shouts. “Raise a family, stay in one town….”
Instead, those early years were spent onstage at the Pasadena Playhouse before following friend Gene Hackman to New York, where he checked coats and typed for the city Yellow Pages. He got a few bit parts on TV and some commercials and remembers that period mostly as a struggle.
“There are a few of us who became actors because we were failures at our first choices,” Hoffman says. “With acting, I didn’t know if I was any good — for many years — but I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. I felt … more grounded when I was working. And working doesn’t mean getting paid — a lot of times it was rehearsing. My roommate Bob Duvall was getting work, our friend Gene Hackman was getting work, and I was kind of the drifter.”
Things changed abruptly in 1967. “You know, I was lucky — I got ‘The Graduate,’ and a light switched on from unemployment to stardom.”
Hoffman has played some of the most memorable and distinctive characters in American cinema: a disillusioned college graduate, a weaselly con man, a desperate actor forced to impersonate a woman, a crusading journalist helping to bring down a crooked president. Hoffman became identified with a certain kind of neurotic or wounded protagonist that especially suited the maverick cinema of the late 1960s and ‘70s.
As roles go, Ace Bernstein is a departure for him, Hoffman says: Instead of a character who responds to what’s handed him, this enigmatic, internal businessman is working what you could call a very long con. Though the series is full of subplots, its main action involves Bernstein breaking into the track as a way to seek revenge on old underworld associates. “I see him as the architect,” Mann says. “The guy with the plan.”
As Bernstein, Hoffman is able to do a lot with a very understated character: He male-bonds with sidekick Gus (Dennis Farina), plays sympathetic philanthropist to a woman running a charity (Joan Allen), acts the tough guy with various former colleagues, and responds with flashes of openheartedness to the track’s horses.
Milch says he immediately thought of Hoffman for the role while writing the script. Partly, it’s for the actor’s gift with stillness. “There’s a deep reserve of power,” the “Deadwood” creator says of Hoffman’s touch with Bernstein, along with a sense of yearning. In one early scene, Milch says, “Dustin is just static — and you see the wheels turning.”
Another reason Hoffman took the Bernstein role, he concedes, is that an actor of his years — no matter how distinguished — sees the work dry up. (Hoffman’s most popular movie role in the last decade has probably been as the goofy father in the “Fockers” films — a very different temperature from “Straw Dogs,” “Marathon Man” or “Rain Man.”)
“In truth, I don’t get a lot of scripts my way, the way I used to,” Hoffman says. “Leads are written for guys in their 20s and 30s, and unless you carry a gun or have a signature part like 007, you are not going to get those kinds of parts. Suddenly, you start out hoping to get supporting parts. You feel victorious if you do.”
Hoffman, in a contrast to the bravado and narcissistic self-assertion of many actors with a fraction of his talent , says he doubts himself with every performance. Doesn’t his previous successes give him courage?
“The opposite,” he says. “I’ve never understood people who go into [an acting job] thinking it’s gonna work. They don’t look at the stats. If you’re a baseball player, one out of five ain’t bad. And yet people in this business think they’re gonna get four for four, or something.”
Whatever his age or confidence level, Hoffman gives everything he’s got to his role in “Luck.”
“Dustin works as if, on a given Tuesday afternoon, getting a scene right is a matter of life and death,” Mann says. “He comes in and does it on a Tuesday, he does it on a Wednesday.…"
Says Hoffman: "[Tennis star] Jimmy Connors was like that. Every shot. It didn’t matter what the score was. It’s like his life depended on it. He would run into a wall — to go for the impossible shot.”