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John Oliver grills Dustin Hoffman about sexual harassment allegations

"Last Week Tonight" host John Oliver questioned actor Dustin Hoffman at a Tribeca Film panel on Dec. 4 about sexual harassment allegations made against him. (Video: The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — HBO host John Oliver hammered Dustin Hoffman about allegations of sexual harassment and the actor fired back with a ferocious defense, as a seemingly benign screening became an explosive conversation about Hollywood sexual misconduct on Monday night.

“This is something we’re going to have to talk about because … it’s hanging in the air,” Oliver said to Hoffman at the discussion, an anniversary screening of the film “Wag the Dog.” He was alluding to an allegation made by Anna Graham Hunter last month that Hoffman groped her and made inappropriate comments when she was a 17-year-old intern on the set of the 1985 TV movie “Death of a Salesman.”

“It’s hanging in the air?” Hoffman said. “From a few things you’ve read, you’ve made an incredible assumption about me,” he noted, adding sarcastically, “You’ve made the case better than anyone else can. I’m guilty.”

The “Last Week Tonight” personality was moderating a 20th-anniversary screening panel at the 92nd Street Y on behalf of the Tribeca Institute, with stars Hoffman, Robert De Niro, producer Jane Rosenthal and director Barry Levinson on the stage. About halfway through the hour-long talk, Oliver brought up the issue to Hoffman, saying he found the actor’s statements about the matter wanting. Nearly the entire rest of the discussion was then dominated by Oliver, Hoffman and the subject of sexual harassment.

Hoffman had offered a conditional apology at the time of the allegation, and on Monday he underscored an “if” included in that statement, noting several times that he didn’t really believe he had done anything wrong. He said that he had not engaged in groping, that he didn’t recall meeting Graham Hunter and that all his comments on set were simply how members of “a family” talked to one another.

“I still don’t know who this woman is,” Hoffman said. “I never met her; if I met her, it was in concert with other people.”

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Oliver dismissed that as insufficient, then cited Hoffman’s response at the time of the allegation that the actor’s behavior on set was “not reflective of” who he really is.

“It’s ‘not reflective of who I am’ — it’s that kind of response to this stuff that pisses me off,” Oliver said. “It is reflective of who you were. If you’ve given no evidence to show it didn’t [happen] then there was a period of time for a while when you were a creeper around women. It feels like a cop-out to say ‘It wasn’t me.’ Do you understand how that feels like a dismissal?”

Hoffman accused Oliver of “putting me on display” and said he felt blindsided because neither Oliver nor Tribeca organizers had told him that the moderator would raise the subject.

Several times, however, Oliver sought to move on and talk about the film, but Hoffman returned to the subject of harassment, growing testy as he said Oliver was not keeping an “open mind” while unquestionably believing accusers.

“Do you believe this stuff you read?” Hoffman asked.

“Yes,” Oliver replied. “Because there’s no point in [an accuser] lying.”

“Well, there’s a point in her not bringing it up for 40 years,” Hoffman said.

“Oh, Dustin,” Oliver said disapprovingly, putting his head in his hand.

At one point, Rosenthal tried to jump in and defuse the situation.

“You also have the way men and women worked together [in the past]; you are in a situation where ‘that was then, this is now,’” Rosenthal said. “[And] what difference is all this going to make? … This conversation doesn’t do any good. We have a platform here. How are we moving [the issue] forward?”

Oliver, though, said he felt it was imperative to talk about it. “This isn’t fun for me,” the TV personality noted. “[But] there’s an elephant in the room because, this particular incident, a conversation has not been had.” He noted that the film they were gathering to discuss, “Wag The Dog,” dealt with sexual misconduct by a powerful man.

Rosenthal then said of the film, “It wasn’t produced by Weinstein or Miramax…Kevin Spacey wasn’t starring in it. Let’s look at real sexual criminal predators.”

“That’s a low bar,” Oliver retorted.

The back-and-forth mainly centered on the Graham Hunter allegations, and also at times invoked an accusation by Hoffman’s “The Graduate” co-star Katharine Ross that he had groped her on the set of the classic film. It did not manifestly address another claim, by the writer Wendy Riss Gatsiounis, that Hoffman had propositioned her inappropriately in a pitch meeting in 1991.

The showdown happened as sexual harassment issues continue to roil the entertainment world, with a growing number of men falling under suspicion and being held to account, often publicly. The exchange, however, marked a rarity in the post-Harvey Weinstein era, which has seen accused harassers generally offer short statements in response to allegations, if they respond at all. Very few have engaged in long public conversations about it, and almost none have sounded as defiant as Hoffman did Monday night.

The conversation grew increasingly angry as it wore on. When Hoffman began talking about his long career, Oliver interjected with “Oh, Jesus.”

“So now I can’t even finish a sentence?” Hoffman asked.

Hoffman also cited “Tootsie” as evidence of his feminist bona fides.

“I would not have made that movie if I didn’t have an incredible respect for women,” Hoffman said. “The theme of the movie is he became a better man by having been a woman.”

He said he had an awakening of sorts when, dressed as a woman for that film, he was ignored by some men on the set. “I said when I came home to my wife that I never realized men were that were brutal, that men are that obvious,” Hoffman recounted. “They didn’t find me attractive and they just erased me.”

He added, “What makes me sad is that I grew up in an environment in which we were taught to want the girls on the covers of magazines, the models, and I said to my wife ‘Look at how many interesting women I passed up … look at how many women were erased by me because of the generation I was born.’ That was a very strong reason for me wanting to make that movie.

“It’s shocking to me you don’t see me more clearly,” he then said to Oliver. “That you go by a couple of things you read.”

As the panel went on some in the crowd became involved.

“Move on. Let it go,” one woman could be heard shouting to Oliver. She was soon drowned out by other people, one of whom said “Shame on you.” Another yelled to Oliver, “Thank you for believing women,” to loud cheers.

Oliver said that he considered not addressing the subject at what was intended as a genial chat but then decided he bore an obligation.

“I can’t leave certain things unaddressed,” the host said. “The easy way is not to bring anything up. Unfortunately that leaves me at home later at night hating myself. ‘Why the … didn’t I say something? No one stands up to powerful men.’”

“Am I the powerful man?” Hoffman asked.

The actor asked why the questioner wouldn’t hear his side. “Keep a kind of open mind if you can, John.”

“I’m trying,” Oliver said.

“Well I’m trying harder than you are,” Hoffman shot back.

Tensions did not cool throughout the session.

“You weren’t there,” Hoffman said to Oliver about the “Salesman” set.

“I’m glad [I wasn’t],” the host replied.

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