As an actor two time Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman has created some indelible characters—Midnight Cowboy’s Ratso Rizzo and Tootsie to name a couple—but from an early age he dreamed of being a professional pianist.
“I wanted to be a musician but I was never talented enough,” he says, “so I’m not a musician. I have small hands—and by the way there is no correlation to your hands and personal parts—so I can’t reach much more than an octave.”
In the new film Boychoir he shows his musical side playing a choirmaster to a group of talented youngsters. During the film’s making he tinkled the ivories on screen and off, spending his downtime duetting with director François Girard.
“As far as François and I noodling on the piano,” he says, “I would have preferred it was only me. He was busy lining up the shots, but he did noodle, so there was a bit of competitive noodling.”
As a young man he studied classical piano but when it became apparent he’d never turn pro, he tried his hand at acting. “I had been flunking out of junior college and somebody said, ‘Try acting. Nobody flunks acting.’”
Enrolling at the Pasadena Playhouse, he shared a room with Robert Duvall and studied with Gene Hackman.
“No one told me I was a good actor,” he says. “No one told Gene and there was a third person, Duvall, and we hung out together. They are both much, much older than me. If someone was to say to the three of us in those early days that we were going to be successful, forget about being movie stars, everyone would have laughed. It’s kind of a freak accident that it happened to all three of us.”
Hoffman’s big break came in the form of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Robert Redford was considered for the part but director Mike Nichols rejected the traditionally handsome actor—“ You can’t play it,” he told Redford. “You can never play a loser.”—in favour of the unknown Hoffman. The Graduate made him a star and is now considered a classic, but almost fifty years later he remembers how the critics savaged his performance.
The barbs hurt at the time, but he doesn’t let them get under his skin any more. “Critics are… I shouldn’t say,” he laughs, “I don’t know if anyone grows up saying, ‘When I grow up I want to be a critic.’”
Vanity Fair called the scene in 1969’s Midnight Cowboy where street hustler Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) slaps the hood of a taxi and yells, “I’m walkin’ here!” the movie’s most iconic scene. It is memorable and although it looks carefully planned, was completely improvised.
“They didn’t have the money to close down a New York street,” Hoffman told Peter Biskind in Vanity Fair, “so they were going to steal it [shoot guerrilla style, without permits]. The camera was in a van across the street. It was a difficult scene logistically because those were real pedestrians and there was real traffic, and [director John] Schlesinger wanted to do it in one shot—he didn’t want to cut. He wanted us to walk, like, half a block, and the first times we did it the signal turned red. We had to stand there, and it was killing us, because Schlesinger was getting very upset. He came rushing out of the van, saying, ‘Oh, oh you’ve got to keep walking.’ ‘We can’t, man. There’s fucking traffic.’ ‘Well, you’ve got to time it.’ ‘Well, we’re trying to time it.’ It’s the actors who always get the heat. It was many takes, and then the timing was right. Suddenly we were doing this take and we knew it was going to work. We got to the signal just as it was turning green, so we could keep walking. But it just happened—there was a real cab trying to beat the signal. Almost hit us. John, who couldn’t see anything in the van, came running out, saying, ‘What was that all about? Why did you ruin it by hitting the cab? Why were you yelling?’ I said, ‘You know, he almost hit us.’ I guess the brain works so quickly, it said, in a split of a second, ‘Don’t go out of character.’ So I said, ‘I’m walking here,’ meaning ‘We’re shooting a scene here, and this is the first time we ever got it right, and you have fucked us up.’ Schlesinger started laughing. He clapped his hands and said, ‘We must have that, we must have that,’ and re-did it two or three times because he loved it.”
Midnight Cowboy, the story of a green male prostitute (Voight) and his sickly friend’s (Hoffman) struggle for survival on New York City’s mean streets, was very controversial when it was released in 1969. The film—about which one studio exec laughably said, “If we could clean this up and add a few songs, it could be a great vehicle for Elvis Presley”—was originally rated X, before that rating became the domain of the porno industry, so there is a truckload of trivia about it. At the April 7, 1970 Oscar ceremony it was the first, and so far only X-rated film to win the Best Picture Oscar; Jimmy Carter requested it be shown in the White House screening room, making it the only X-rated film to be shown to a U.S. President while in office and it was the first X-rated film to be shown on television, although the film’s rating had been changed to R by the time of the film’s television premiere.
Co-stars Jon Voight and Hoffman—who kept pebbles in his shoe to ensure his limp would be consistent from shot to shot—were both nominated for Best Actor Oscars, but went away empty handed.