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The Scoundrel King

Gene Hackman Loves Bad-Guy Roles. After All, They Bring Out the Best in Him.

By Sharon Waxman
Special to the Washington Post
October 6, 1996

LOS ANGELES -- "Villains are always the best roles," Gene Hackman is saying carefully.

His cool blue eyes stare off into space. His fingers toy with the ends of his shoelaces. His thoughts drip out in measured doses.

"It's the best kind of acting. The things you get to do." Pause. "Some of it is painful."

Gene Hackman, an ex-Marine who has learned to bottle his rage, has given this a great deal of thought. He is a man who is frightening even when he doesn't intend to be. And is very frightening when he does.

"Someone who is just evil," says Hackman, "a Jeffrey Dahmer -- we don't know anything about him, really. But if we find out that he has a whole life, that makes him much more interesting."

He goes on: "It's even more appalling when you see someone who is diabolical and then you find out how charming, how human they are. It makes it stronger, I think."

He stares again into space. "There is some quote that people live their lives trying to change the world to fit their own prejudices. That's kind of interesting. We all do that to some extent," he says. "We make the world the way we want it to be."

Hackman's world is just about where he wants it to be. Now 65, he has amassed a rogue's gallery of finely honed cinematic villains. In the past decade he has played a corrupt secretary of defense ("No Way Out"), a megalomaniacal would-be world conqueror ("Superman" I, II and IV), a venal corporate lawyer ("The Firm"), a cold-blooded sheriff ("Unforgiven"), a nuke-happy submariner ("Crimson Tide") and a sleazy B-movie producer ("Get Shorty").

Even after two Academy Awards (for "The French Connection" and "Unforgiven") and more than 60 pictures, the actor is still squeezing every ounce of evil from his formidable reservoir of talent. He'll have two movies in theaters by week's end and two more completed before the end of the year. In "Extreme Measures," which opened 10 days ago, he portrays a morally dysfunctional doctor conducting experiments on kidnapped human subjects; in "The Chamber," based on the John Grisham novel of same name, which opens this week, he delivers a powerful performance as a redneck sentenced to die in the gas chamber for an antisemitic bombing.

Both roles display Hackman's special mastery of craft, using the greatest economy of movement to convey the greatest complexity of emotion. It is malevolence as a study in minimalism. He offers up two very different villains -- one a highbrow manipulator, the other a lowlife loser -- and invests each of them with a disturbing layer of humanity that renders them not merely believable but worse, recognizable.

A Hard Worker
Having achieved the stature that few actors do, Hackman has his pick of roles in high-profile productions, commanding the awe of fellow actors and the esteem -- if also the trepidation -- of directors.

Hackman's intensity on the set is well-established in the industry; he has been known to publicly berate directors for what he perceives as their inadequacies. Hollywood insiders stress that it's always about the work -- not, for example, about the food, the trailer or the weather -- but they also note that Hackman has a sharp tongue.

"He's quite testing. He wants to make sure you know what you're doing," says Michael Apted, director of "Extreme Measures." "Our first film together was `Class Action,' and I remember rehearsing and he would see if I was being indecisive. He'd ask, `What do you want? What are you saying? What do you mean?' [to see] if I was being unspecific or vague."

"When he went to work, people would shut up. They didn't speak," says James Foley, director of "The Chamber." "He feels he does his best work -- whether it's calm, sweet, raging -- when he is as calm as he could possibly be. By creating a zone in the eye of a hurricane."

Even "Extreme Measures" co-star Hugh Grant was nervous at the prospect of working with Hackman, who arrived on the set with two German shepherds.

"He looks like someone who's going to be very angry," Grant says.

Hackman saves most of his anger for the camera. This, the actor notes, is a change that has come with time. "I have changed my attitude about acting to some degree," he says during a discussion at a Los Angeles hotel. "In some ways, I don't take it quite so seriously, and in some ways I'm a better actor. I'm prone to be troubled on the set by the process, by the people I'm working with. But now the work doesn't suffer so much from inner turmoil. I use it in characters that I play, rather than turning it back on myself."

He stops to consider some tension-filled projects, which he chooses not to name.

"Watching the films on which I had trouble -- that's why I had so much trouble, with the director. Today I would've been more friendly, more helpful -- and have had a better performance."

Like other good actors, Hackman has discovered that the best result does not necessarily come from endless straining over character development. "I felt at one point in my career that you have to work a great deal to make things happen in the work and in the process. That there were hours to be filled with -- oh -- colors. I've given up some of that. A lot of what's good about acting has to do with an inner peace that you bring to the screen, even in a character that's tormented."

He looks up from his shoelaces and smiles uncomfortably. "I don't do a lot of self-analysis, so I just made that up."

When Hackman talks like this, sitting in the hotel easy chair, one leg lazily crossed over the other, a few stray crumbs of muffin clinging to his lips, he loses his menace. He is neatly dressed in a black knit sweater and hunter green trousers, his steel-wool hair receded midway back on his scalp, his hands dotted with liver spots.

But then he fixes a visitor with a skeptical glance. Without so much as moving a muscle or twitching a narrowed blue eye, Hackman conveys a world of reproach. In the creases and flaps of his jowls, in the mouth that turns down at the corners, there is -- what? Disdain. Disapproval. Disgust. He smiles and lets out a short laugh -- an echo of Sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett about to kill a half-drunk cowboy. It's an unsettling sound.

Hackman says he has always had trouble playing violent, immoral characters, up to and including Sam Cayhall, the white supremacist sentenced to die in "The Chamber." As Cayhall, Hackman spends much of his time spouting N-words and K-words in diatribes against blacks and Jews.

"It's tough," Hackman says. "I have a good friend who owns a restaurant in Santa Fe -- an African American -- and I gave him the script. He said if I did that film I'd owe him a trip to Fiji." He thinks a moment. "It was very hard. I've known a lot of people like this, serving in the Marine Corps, working in summer jobs on construction in Illinois. . . . Working with a dialect coach helps, an accent can help you with a character. What fascinated me about the role -- about doing this guy -- was that many people would think he's a monster. I wanted to do him in a way that was not a monster, that was worse than that, as a human being who should know better. This guy was maybe uneducated, but he wasn't totally ignorant. I didn't want him to be sympathetic but I wanted him, through his behavior, to be seen as somebody."

As with every role, Hackman started to create the character from the inside out, beginning by asking himself questions: Where are you going? Where have you been? How are you like this character? "I take my faults as a human being, change them and make them -- for this character -- bigoted, antisemitic," Hackman says. Then he lay awake at night thinking about it, preoccupied with his questions until weeks after the film wrapped, when he still couldn't sleep.

"If it looks seamless, or without effort, that's fine," he says. If it really were without effort, he adds, "that would be a disaster."

Hackman can't remember a time when he didn't want to be an actor. One of his earliest memories of growing up in small-town Danville, Ill., is of seeing actor Jack Oakie in a film at age 5 or 6, a comedy about people crossing the ocean on a ship, eating sumptuous food and drinking wine. "That's my memory," says Hackman. "It seemed like a life."

His father was a newspaper pressman who abandoned the family when Hackman was 13. In high school, Hackman was so shy that he didn't date. Sexual frustration and an inability -- according to him -- to live up to his mother's expectation to be a father to his younger brother sent Hackman fleeing to the Marines at age 16. Discharged after tours in Asia and the Pacific he briefly studied journalism at the University of Illinois, then dropped out and hitchhiked to New York to attend the School of Radio Technique. After a few years working at radio stations, he moved to California to study acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, and was -- along with Dustin Hoffman -- voted by his classmates as "least likely to succeed."

In 1956 Hackman returned to New York, landing work in off-Broadway shows and live television, making ends meet as a doorman, truck driver and shoe salesman. Slowly he won larger parts on Broadway, finally getting his first movie role as a cop in "Mad Dog Coll" in 1961, followed in 1964 by a more substantial role in "Lilith," a drama about a Korean War veteran starring Warren Beatty. Three years later Beatty got Hackman the role of his brother in "Bonnie and Clyde," which earned the actor his first Oscar nomination. Hackman has worked steadily since then -- frequently two or three films a year -- often portraying the ordinary, workaday American with a subtlety that has rung true for critics and the public.

But every career has its ebbs and flows, and Hackman's has been no exception. The actor found himself in heavy demand after his Oscar-winning performance as the blue-collar cop Popeye Doyle in 1971's "French Connection." He won a half-dozen prominent roles and numerous awards for everything from his Rev. Frank Scott in "The Poseidon Adventure" to the hot-headed ex-convict Max in "The Scarecrow." But Hackman's star went into decline in the late 1970s and early '80s. Films he made -- some memorable, many not -- now dot the shelves of video stores. Remember "Lucky Lady" or "Uncommon Valor"?

Hackman again came into favor in the late '80s, making "Hoosiers" and starring as a courageous, earthy FBI agent seeking the killers of three civil rights workers in "Mississippi Burning." He won an Oscar nomination for that role, and still managed to make four other films that year, 1988.

But then -- again -- he went on to make a string of forgettable films: "The Package," "Narrow Margin," "Company Business." Critics have faulted Hackman for failing to be more choosy. "He has exercised poor judgment in the selection of parts and frequently courted overexposure," wrote Fiona Valentine in a 1990 review of Hackman's career in the anthology "Actors and Actresses." "After years of struggling to gain a foothold as an actor, first on stage and then in films, he felt compelled to sustain the momentum of his success and became less and less selective."

It is certainly true that Hackman has made more films than most of his contemporaries, but it is debatable whether he has made more good films than they have. This may partly be because Hackman, lacking the looks of a Newman or Redford, has never been treated as a classic leading man. A great many of his roles have been supporting parts. From Hackman's point of view, there is no reason to quit now, having spent all this time proving his worth. Even his most severe critics agree that he has more often elevated mediocre material than sunk with a bad script. Since his Oscar for "Unforgiven" in 1993, he has gone on to star -- usually as a villain -- in another string of dramatic and comic successes, including "Crimson Tide," "Get Shorty" and "The Birdcage." Later this year he will star in Clint Eastwood's political thriller "Absolute Power."

Directors seem to agree that Hackman deserves bigger vehicles than he often gets (though he dominates "The Chamber").

"I'd love to find a film that Gene is the heart of, where he is the whole movie," says "Extreme Measures" director Apted.

"Chamber" director Foley agrees. "He should be at the center of every movie," he says. "So many of his parts have been supporting. It's like using a Ferrari to haul sheep. It's a waste."

And what does Hackman think? Apparently he's just content to be getting good work, and lots of it. "I feel in some ways like a pig -- that I shouldn't do all these, that I should let somebody else have them . . ." he says, trailing off. "I think that just briefly -- and then luckily it goes away."

Then he adds, with a sly grin: "I could very easily quit right now. But those [expletive] keep sending scripts with all this money involved -- I'm such a whore."

Coming Attractions
In his youth, Gene Hackman dreamed of being an Errol Flynn. That's the one thing he hasn't been in his career, and it remains one of his regrets. "I always thought of myself as a romantic. I don't get to work with women much, and I like working with them," he says. Then he shrugs. "There's nothing I can do about that. I don't dwell on it. I understand why people are cast a certain way."

Overall, he can't complain. A measure of peace has come from the quiet life he sought and found in Santa Fe, where he has lived for 15 years. After divorcing his first wife of 29 years, with whom he has three grown children, Hackman married Betsy Arakawa, a musician who often accompanies him on the set. In recent years the actor has given up his thrill-seeking hobbies -- flying and race car driving -- to pursue painting, sculpting and more intellectual interests. Nothing about Santa Fe, he says, has anything to do with Hollywood or the life of a movie star.

"I paint, I draw. Santa Fe has a world-class opera, a chamber orchestra. Culturally it's pretty nice there," he says. His paintings are mostly impressionistic still lifes and he sculpts in stone, but he can work on these only when he's not in the throes of a character study.

Which is to say, rarely.

"It's so stressful thinking about a role. You dig up all this ugly stuff in yourself," he says. "That's why I'd like to stop."

And then a moment later he is talking about his next project, "The Magic Hour," in which he stars with Paul Newman and Susan Sarandon. Hackman plays an actor married to Sarandon; Newman is a detective who seduces her away. True to his passion, Hackman is already cogitating over how to play the role.

"I don't quite know how to do him," he muses, as if talking to himself. "Maybe I should play it like the public perception of a movie actor." Then he shakes his head. Too easy. "Naaah, I won't do that."

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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