The Making of an Anti-Hero
Originality and innovation set Dustin apart from stereotyped actors of his time. His contribution to the film industry is unquestionable in spite of starting out quite late in the movie industry. Now a respected actor, Dustin never ceases to evolve and discover new things to do with his talent. He acts, he directs, he produces. Only a person with profound dedication to his artistry could survive the test of time and still shine as an inspiration for the younger generation.
That’s what Dustin has now achieved—esteem. He is esteemed not only by showbiz greenhorns, but by veterans alike. There is no denying how much Dustin has contributed to the film industry. And he did all that without looking like an actor at all. He need not look spectacularly handsome to pull off complex roles such as that of a person with autism, or a father going through a painful divorce, or a struggling actor who had to disguise as a woman just to land a job. What Dustin wanted was for his talent to be appreciated for what it is—fruit of hard work.
By now, we must be asking ourselves, what could have Dustin done to get to where he is now? Just like any other success story, Dustin had to do it the hard way. No short-cuts. He studied, went on auditions, got rejected, got fired and accepted odd jobs. And like any other success story, those challenges added color to his journey to fame. Without those, where would Dustin get the emotions from? In a nutshell, the actor first played the lead role in his dramatic and adventure–filled life. It just took some time before he got to recreate the scenes while the whole world watched. It’s a plus that he gets paid to do it.
Dustin Hoffman’s Early Life
Harry Hoffman, Dustin’s father, was of Jewish descent. He worked as one of the prop men in Columbia Pictures. Hard work soon earned him a higher position, that of a prop manager. Dustin’s mother, Lillian, is a jazz pianist. According to Dustin, his mother was a totally independent woman who would run away whenever she felt like it. The Hoffmans had their first baby, Ronald, who was soon followed by Dustin. Their second boy was born on 8 August 1937. The couple named him after the silent actor, Dustin Farnum. Could his parents have known what awaited their boy? We would never know; but if ever they had, they would have thought otherwise when Dustin neither grew as tall as his older brother nor became as good-looking as he is.
As a matter of fact, Dustin would never grow any taller than his 5 feet 4 inches stature. Well that didn’t look so encouraging for an aspiring actor. The thing is Dustin never thought about acting—although as a child, he would always be the class clown. With a father working in a film production company, Dustin had been to movie sets but they never really left any impression on the young boy’s mind. His parents wanted him to be a musician because they saw that he was better than his brother at playing the piano. They had him take piano lessons, which Dustin hated being a boy of five who wanted to play anything but musical instruments.
During the great depression, Harry lost his job and was forced to support his family by being a furniture salesman. Since then, the family moved around a lot. It did not help build Dustin’s self-confidence. He always compared himself to his brother who seemed to be the smarter one, the more handsome between them, and not to mention, a lot taller for his age. To make matters worse, Dustin suffered from a bad case of acne and wore braces. Having that kind of childhood left a void in him, one that he had to fill in by striving to get everybody’s attention.
As a result, Dustin grew up into a restless boy. His attitude always got him into trouble with impatient teachers. Lillian and Harry were often summoned by teachers who weren’t so happy about how Dustin was behaving in the class. In some occasions, Dustin’s naughtiness led to expulsion much to his parents disgrace. There was this event in school he joined when he was in primary school. A ninth grader dared him to say something hilarious and almost blasphemous at the closing of the play. He obliged to add that bit in his dialogue, which offended the school and resulted in his expulsion.
Dustin always craved for attention. As he grew older, he would cite his uniqueness as a gift rather than a curse (as he used to believe as a teenager). It was his willingness to be different and to stand up for what he believes in that made him more competent and credible as an actor.
His choice of school was influenced by his desire to fit in. He went to Los Angeles High School and reveled at the attention he was getting, being only one of the few fair–skinned students. Most of his schoolmates were Hispanics and black. Surprisingly, he did not feel ostracized; he enjoyed their company. It was also the time he discovered girls. Girls would preoccupy most his attention during high school. After getting rejected time and again by girls he asked for dates, he lost heart.
Discovering His Knack for Acting
Vying for more attention, from the opposite sex in particular, he joined the tennis team when he started attending Santa Monica City College. Poor grades made it impossible for Dustin to enroll in a university. That time, Dustin only went to college so he would have something to do with his time. He was not there to get himself a degree in preparation for a decent career. Biology appealed to Dustin and so he took that as a course without really putting much thought into it.
It did not take long before he began flunking his subjects. Dustin was not a typical rowdy student who did not care about grades. If there was a way to do something in order not to waste his parents’ hard–earned money, he would have done it. Panic groped him. He was in a desperate state when one of his friends suggested that he take up an acting elective, saying, “Nobody flunks acting.” Taking his friend’s word for it, he enrolled in an acting class—something he never thought he would do in this lifetime as someone who had self-confidence issues.
What Dustin realized after attending the first few sessions in that course blew him away. Acting was a piece of cake to him. For the first time in his life, Dustin found something he was good at—so good that doing it seemed to be effortless. Acting came naturally to him. Not before long, Dustin found himself engrossed in acting. Being someone who gets easily distracted, he was amazed how acting got him absorbed. When he was acting, he was more focused. When somebody talked about acting, he was more attentive. It was Dustin’s “eureka!” moment.
By the end of the first school year, Dustin was sure that his heart was not in Biology. The next thing was how to tell his parents about pursuing a career in acting. He had to persuade them to support his endeavor. Maybe it was his earnestness that convinced both Lillian and Harry to allow their son to think of himself as a potential actor. Or he could have sampled them an acting piece. Anyway, whatever he did to talk his parents into it apparently worked.
Striking a Friendship with Gene Hackman in Pasadena Playhouse
Dustin would soon find himself at the gates of Pasadena Playhouse where tall blonde men and drop-dead gorgeous women abound. It was Dustin’s height and appearance that again haunted him while in acting school. Fortunately, he was not the only lonely soul in Playhouse. Looking rather plain, Gene Hackman found a friend in Dustin. The two became close friends and their queer acting method added to their alienation from other students.
The two of them looked so out of place that most of their schoolmates thought they would best fit character roles. After two years of being together and collaborating in some productions, Gene thought of leaving Pasadena for some serious acting. He went to New York, leaving his friend Dustin behind. Gene kept close contact with his friend though. He finally convinced then–22–year–old Dustin to come to him to New York and give acting a go.
Much of his acting inspiration was obtained from what followed his leaving Pasadena Playhouse. Having no place to go home to in New York, Gene took care of Dustin’s accommodation. He offered Dustin a place in his kitchen—far from luxurious but way better than sleeping on the streets. Soon, Dustin had to leave the comforts of his friend’s kitchen so that Gene could have the privacy he needed as a newly-married man. Robert Duvall became Dustin’s new roommate.
Dustin Waits for His Elusive Luck in Movies
Dustin knew roles wouldn’t just come to him. He was yet to prove himself as a worthy actor. Before that happens, Dustin had to eke out a living. He accepted any job offer that would provide him the extra financial support he needed apart from what he was receiving from his parents.
The actor that we know now was once a waiter, a dishwasher, an attendant in a psychiatric institute, and a newspaper crier. Customers often complained on being talked down by the feisty Dustin. He would get terminated and would again find another odd job to augment his meager income. Through it all, Dustin was saving up on experience. As a method actor, he took every opportunity to play different roles in real life.
Robert and Gene were not having much luck either. The three friends almost gave up their hopes of ever becoming an actor. As they aged, their dreams seem to become further and further from reach.
1960 came and Dustin’s career was yet to take off. His only appearance then was in a Volkswagen TV advertisement. Hopelessness was getting the better of him and he was contemplating on giving up acting altogether. Auditions turned out nil results and his finances were dwindling. If he needed to pursue another career he should do it as soon as possible before he wakes up one day wrinkled and still waiting for his big acting break. Fortunately, he need not wait that long to land a role in a stage play. The play was under Gertrude Stein’s direction called, “Yes is for a Very Young Man.”
Dustin had his eyes on Actor’s Studio. Getting in was not easy. However, after getting turned down five times, he thought Actor’s Studio was not for him. Until one young actor asked him for help to do a scene for an audition. He did what he could to lend the young boy a hand in his skit. It was not his audition so he was just being himself, trying to make the actor shine in their exchange. What happened next took him aback (actually, not just him, even the kid who asked his help). Actor’s Studio accepted him and rejected the kid. So without intending to audition, he finally got in.
List of First Movies and Plays
After that stage production of “Yes is for a Very Young Man,” he started appearing in “Naked City,” a TV series in the sixties. He also appeared in “Guiding Light,” “The Defender,” and “Hallmark Hall of Fame.”
In 1960, Dustin got into a serious accident. Their kitchen went on fire and he incurred serious burn injuries. The earnest actor did not want to let opportunities pass, so in spite of his condition, he still went to rehearsals and auditions. He finally got convinced that he needed bed rest when he collapsed in the middle of a session.
He was made a part of the theatrical film, “The Tiger Makes Out” in 1967. It was his debut project in film and Dustin was already gaining the respect of fellow stage actors and actresses. He must have really impressed William Saroyan so much that he had him direct a play for Emma Herbst Community Theatre which was called “The Time of Your Life.”
Before he took on major roles, Dustin did stage plays. His acting talent was first noticed in “Eh?” a play by Henry Livings. It earned him his first recognition—a Drama Desk and a Theater World Awards. Likewise, the war drama, “Journey of the Fifth Horse” became a success giving him another trophy—an Obie Award.
Bagging the Lead Role in The Graduate
It’s been five years since he was inducted into theater and he’s still waiting for his movie break. He was making a name as a stage actor, but he felt that he could do more than act on stage plays. The movie “The Graduate” provided just the chance he needed to prove himself as a versatile actor. Michael Nichols, the director he would soon claim to admire, cast the 28–year–old Dustin to play Benjamin Braddock. It was by far Dustin’s worst audition. He just came from a long trip and was having a serious headache which tormented him all throughout the screening. Why Michael Nichols chose him remains a mystery to Dustin up to this moment.
The character of Benjamin Broddick was not so far from Dustin Hoffman. Like the fresh graduate he portrayed, he felt as vulnerable. His fantastic skill, in letting the character speak volumes by mere screen presence, earned accolades from critics. It was a new approach in acting and it solidified method acting theories he learned from Lee Strasberg.
Embassy Pictures, the studio producer of “The Graduate,” couldn’t be happier for the movie’s success. At 28, Dustin finally makes it on the big screen and did it in such an unforgettable fashion. The actor who slept on his friend’s floor started receiving thousands of fan mails telling him how cute he was playing Benjamin.
It was only the beginning of award–winning performances from Dustin. The following year, 1968, the actor went back on stage to portray the lead character in “Jimmy Shine.” Everybody was convinced that Dustin is a great actor in the making. He won a Drama Desk Award for his fantastic rendition of Jimmy Shine.
Playing Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy
We saw Dustin next as Ratso Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy.” Dustin played opposite Jon Voight, Angelina Jolie’s father. Jon has not yet risen to fame by then and producers did not understand how Dustin could have agreed to play the supporting role. He did not listen to other people’s unsolicited advice and gave Jon the lead role, Joe Buck.
Dustin was almost unidentifiable in that film—got himself all greasy and went to the dentist to get crooked teeth dentures to add to the effect. In short, he was the perfect Ratso for the role. This was an entirely different personality from what we have seen in his portrayal of Benjamin Braddock, clean-cut and all. Broad as the difference was, it had the same effect on award–giving bodies. Again, Dustin earned positive reviews and he was nominated Best Actor in the Academy Awards for the second time.
Looking back, Dustin recalled how he developed that limp, which earned him his nomination. He was crossing the street with a bunch of people and when the go signal for pedestrians turned green, the first person to cross was a limping man. It meant a lot to Dustin. Without knowing it, the limping man became his inspiration. Of course, he found something to identify with Ratso—appearance. Like Ratso, Dustin also harbored insecurities concerning his looks. He always felt that he had lots of disadvantages in that department. One big difference is that his Ratso character had a very visible reason to feel insecure. His insecurity, on the other hand, was a product of society branding, which is why he hates typecasting even up to now.
His disdain for stereotyping couldn’t be more evident in his desire to play distinct roles to keep innovating himself as an actor. That was confirmed later on by his ex-wife in an interview for his video biography.
Marrying Anne Byrne
Speaking of his first wife, Dustin married the beautiful ballerina, Anne Byrne, in 1969. What attracted Anne to Dustin was his raw energy. He wanted to succeed and Anne felt the fire in him, which added to his boyish appeal. Anne had a daughter Karina from her previous marriage. Karina was later on adopted by Dustin. Jenna, their first biological daughter, was born on 15 October 1970.
List of Movies: Successful and Not So Successful
What he then thought was a stable career was put to the test when his other projects failed to gross. Producer Sidney W. Pink saw him perform on stage and was quite impressed with his genuine ability to act. She cast him in an Italian film, “Madigan’s Millions” shot in 1966 but was not shown in theaters until 1968. It was unsuccessful. “John and Mary” added to the disaster when it failed to get the following it expected when it was shown in 1969.
“Little Big Man” salvaged whatever career was left for Dustin. It was a movie that was totally out of his league. By then however, Dustin could have felt that after he did Ratso no role would ever be out of his league. He needed to portray Jack Crabb, a lone white soldier survivor of the Battle at Little Big Horn. Besides the training he had to do in order to become a convincing cowboy, Dustin had to go through a grueling five–hour “makeover” to give him the look of a 121–year–old man. The looks can be achieved with the help of prosthetics. But Dustin should provide an equally convincing voice to go with the character. That was the hard part. Dustin had never ever met a person that old all his life. As an avid follower of method acting, he had to hear it first to play it.
And so the hunt for a voice model began. Dustin met elderly people in a hospital but it did not help much since the patients were not as old as the character he was playing. Even if they did look old, he could not see the bearing of Jack Crabb in them making it impossible for him to visualize how Jack Crabb would look and act in his old age.
He was close to giving up when he met the father of one of his crew members while filming in Canada. Finally, they found the voice for the 121–year–old Jack Crabb. To say that it was a convincing portrayal would be an understatement. Dustin was beyond recognition—visually and aurally. Actors of this generation had it easy. To achieve that hoarse voice quality, Dustin would scream at the top of his lungs for hours. Trust Dustin to resort to anything just to do his character justice. If we think about it, it’s highly unlikely for Dustin to let the character be dubbed if he had the luxury of technology then.
That feat earned him two nominations, a Guinness World Record spot, and a solid career. 1970 was a bittersweet year for Dustin as it was the year of “Little Big Man” and the big explosion in their village. His townhouse got blown up when a bomb was accidentally detonated in the building. He would later on find out that his then–wife, Anne, used to be a member of the group responsible for the accident.
The following year, Dustin played the role of David Summer in “Straw Dog” which was remade in 2011, around 40 years later. Being an actor who loved reprising his image, Dustin portrayed the role of a nerdy American who left his country to live in his wife’s town in England. The violence in the film was intoxicating. It was in that movie where Dustin displayed his genius in using his body to add personality to the character in the movie. Since then, Dustin would make characters he played distinct by developing mannerisms that are unique to them.
Rain Man and More Movies Starring Dustin Hoffman
His next movies such as “Marathon Man,” “Lenny,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Tootsie,” “Hook,” “Rain Man,” “Wag the Dog,” “Sphere,” and “Meet the Fockers” would all attest to his respect for what he does. Dustin Hoffman is aging gracefully. He is one of the few people whose career was made even better by age. It might as well be the case for Dustin who uses every experience he goes through to spike up the roles he played.
Even his divorce with first wife Anne Byrne could not be more timely and useful for the movie he was then making—“Kramer vs. Kramer.” It was him, Dustin Hoffman, we were seeing. He was playing his character, his life.
He again fell in love when he saw Lisa Gottsegen ten years after they first met and Lisa was only 17 years old then. She had a crush on Dustin then and vowed that she would someday marry him. The second time they met, Lisa is already a lovely lawyer. She realized the vow she made years ago and they got married in 1980. The two are now parents to four children: Jacob Edward, Rebecca Lillian, Maxwell Geoffrey, and Alexandra Lydia.
Luck TV Series Gets Canceled
In 2012, HBO launched a drama TV series called "Luck" which starred Dustin Hoffman on the lead. It was directed by David Milch and went on for only one season after its second season was canceled due to issues concerning the death of horses used on the set. As the story was about horse racing, the production was questioned when three of its horses got injured and was subsequently subjected to euthanasia. Dustin was saddened by the decision of HBO to cancel the shows but opted to concentrate on directing his film, "Quartet."
Dustin Hoffman made it in Hollywood by just being himself. Now, he enjoys playing the most important role—that of a father and a mentor. Dustin is now an accomplished actor, and yes, his nose is still big and he hasn’t grown an inch.
Organisations and Campaigns Supported
- 826 National
- Achievable Foundation
- Cinema For Peace
- Declare Yourself
- Democratic Party
- 1967: Won his first Golden Globe Award for The Graduate
- 1967: Won a BAFTA Award for The Graduate
- 1967: Nominated Best Actor in the Academy Awards (The Graduate)
- 1969: Won a BAFTA Award for Midnight Cowboy
- 1969: Won a BAFTA Award for John and Mary
- 1969: Won a Golden Globe Nomination for Midnight Cowboy
- 1969: Won a Golden Globe Nomination for John and Mary
- 1969: Nominated in the Academy Awards for Midnight Cowboy
- 1970: Gained a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the film Little Big Man in the “greatest age span in one movie” category
- 1970: Earned BAFTA Award Nomination for Little Big Man
- 1974: Earned Golden Globe Nomination Lenny
- 1974: Earned Academy Award Nomination for Lenny
- 1976: Earned BAFTA Award Nomination for All the President's Men and Marathon Man
- 1976: Earned Golden Globe Nomination for Marathon Man
- 1979: Won Academy Award for Kramer vs. Kramer
- 1979: Won Golden Globe Award for Kramer vs. Kramer
- 1979: Earned BAFTA Award Nomination for Kramer vs. Kramer
- 1982: Won BAFTA and Golden Globe Award for Tootsie
- 1982: Earned Academy Award Nomination for Tootsie
- 1985: Won Emmy and Golden Globe Award for A Death of a Salesman
- 1988: Won Academy Award for Rain Man
- 1988: Won Golden Globe Award for Rain Man
- 1988: Earned BAFTA Award Nomination for Rain Man
- 1991: Earned Golden Globe Nomination for Hook
- 1997: Awarded by the Golden Globes with the Cecil B. DeMille Award
- 1997: Earned Golden Globe nomination for Wag the Dog
- 1997: Earned Academy Award Nomination for Wag the Dog
- 1999: Recipient of American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award
- 1999: Produced A walk on the Moon and The Devil’s Arithmetic
- 2012: Recipient of Kennedy Center Honors
- Received Theater World Award
- Received Drama Desk Award
- Won two Academy Awards
- Won five Golden Globe awards
- Won four BAFTA Awards
- Won three Drama Desk Awards
- Won one Genie Award
- Won one Emmy Award