The Gene genie works his magic off screen
Actor Gene Hackman is a burly ex-Marine with a reputation for intense, brooding aloofness, but Michael Shelden finds him genial and forthcoming.
WITHOUT warning, Gene Hackman stops me on our walk through a Chicago hotel and performs a magic trick. Using his wife Betsy as his assistant, he opens his palms to show they're empty and cups one hand over his wife's face; then she sneezes and a couple of shiny coins appear to fall from her nose into his other hand.
Smiling proudly, he takes a slight bow and his obliging wife jokingly announces, with a toss of her head and a gentle snort: ``I feel so much better.''
Such antics are the sort of thing you'd expect from a playful young star, but Hackman, 70, is a burly ex-United States Marine who has a reputation in Hollywood for being intense, demanding, brooding, aloof in short, anything but playful. He can seem so forbidding that directors and fellow actors have been known to tremble at his approach. On the set of the film Extreme Measures, an obviously nervous Hugh Grant remarked of his tough co-star: ``He looks like someone who's going to be very angry.''
Despite being one of Hollywood's most recognisable faces he's the veteran of more than 70 films, including such classics as The French Connection and Unforgiven, and the more recent Get Shorty, Crimson Tide, and Enemy of the State Hackman is so reclusive, and gives so few interviews, that many of his fans know almost nothing about his personal life. Complaining of his ``taciturnity'' during a painfully awkward interview in 1994, a writer for the Los Angeles Times called him ``one of the champion loners, hell-bent on not keeping in touch''.
But Hackman doesn't care what the opinion-makers in California think of him. He snubbed them years ago by moving hundreds of miles away, and now spends much of his time at a modest house he shares with Betsy in New Mexico.
``Where we live, in Santa Fe,'' he says, ``you can lead your own life and not be bothered by the latest gossip. Besides, a film actor doesn't have to live in LA. Not that many movies are shot there any more.''
Today, Hackman seems remarkably relaxed and genial, without any hint of that fearsome scowl he employs so effectively in his films. No doubt it helps that we've agreed to meet in a place where he feels at ease. Not far from his hotel in Chicago lies his hometown of Danville, Illinois, where Eugene Alden Hackman came of age and where his father worked as a printer on the local newspaper.
This rare visit to old, familiar territory has put him in a nostalgic mood. ``My dad was a strange sort of guy," he says, rubbing his chin and chuckling to himself. "He'd disappear and I wouldn't see him for years. Then, suddenly, we'd meet somewhere and spend a few days together like old pals.
``Early in my career, when I was acting on Broadway, we would go out to eat and he would say to strangers: `Hey, see my son here? He's in a hit play.' Those displays of fatherly pride always took me by surprise.''
The elder Hackman was not much of a father. When Gene was only 13, the restless printer drove off in the family car and never returned home. His son remembers him driving down their road and waving goodbye with an expression that seemed to say: ``You're on your own, kiddo.''
Three years later, Gene also ran away, lying about his age so that he could join the Marines. He left behind an alcoholic mother and a younger brother whose lives were a constant struggle to make ends meet. Gene was determined to find a better life.
``I knew that I wanted to be an actor some day, but I didn't know how that was going to happen. I just knew that it wasn't going to happen in Danville. So I left.''
After leaving the military, he went to California and took acting classes at the Pasadena Playhouse, where his one friend was a short ``beatnik'' with a bad complexion who wore a leather vest, played bongo drums and went by the name of Dusty. Their fellow actors chose Gene and young Dustin Hoffman as the members of the class who seemed ``least likely to succeed''.
Those now forgotten classmates cannot really be blamed for misjudging Hackman and Hoffman, both of whom had faces and bodies that didn't seem to promise stardom. They were told that they would have to be content with careers as character actors.
``That kind of thinking is hard to shake. I still have a hard time accepting that I'm an actor in demand. I wonder sometimes why people want to hire me. They ask if I'll take this or that part, and the first thing I think is, why would they ask me to do it?''
It didn't help that Hoffman found success before Hackman did. When the director Mike Nichols gave Hoffman his first big break as the star of The Graduate, he also found a part for Hackman as the husband of the film's seductress, Mrs Robinson. But in rehearsals Gene lost the job.
``I'm terrible in rehearsals. I stumble around a lot and am slow to make an impression. It takes me a while to get into the rhythm of a part, to get the feel for my character. So things didn't work out with Mike and somebody else played Mr Robinson.''
If Hackman sometimes gives the impression of being an angry guy, it's not without reason. He still seems to resent the early disappointments. When I ask how he was able to capture so well the volatile character of Popeye Doyle the part he made famous in his breakthrough film The French Connection he frowns and a small wave of bitterness emerges.
``That film worked partly because I was so eager to prove myself. I was 40, still unknown to the average audience, and wasn't afraid to take risks. I didn't have a lot to lose. And I was a guy who had been working at crappy jobs for 20 years, waiting for my break. I had done every kind of job, hauling furniture around New York on my back, and not making much money.
``So, yeah, there was some real frustration that came out of me in that film character. He was obsessed and so was I.''
Thirty years later, it is still frightening to watch the film and see the fury in Hackman's eyes as he pursues the villains with single-minded determination. His performance earned him the first of his two Academy Awards (the second was for Unforgiven), and he was soon making incredible amounts of money acting in everything from brilliant dramas (Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation) to blockbuster epics (A Bridge Too Far and The Poseidon Adventure).
After all his lean years, he pushed himself too far too fast. He appeared in many mediocre films, partly because all the rejection had made him afraid to say no. And the pay was much too tempting. When Christopher Reeve asked why he wanted to play the villain in Superman, he famously replied: ``You mean, besides the two million dollars?''
Inevitably, things started to go wrong. He suffered heart trouble in the late Eighties and was treated in hospital for a blocked artery. His first marriage, to Faye Maltese, ended after 30 years in 1986.
The mother of his two daughters and one son, Faye had stood by him in the early days, working in a New York bank to support the family. But as Hackman is quick to concede success drove them apart. He spent too much time away from home, and their relationship suffered.
But then Betsy Arakawa came along. An attractive, petite Asian woman 30 years his junior, she met him in California where she was trying to forge a career as a classical musician. They soon fell in love and married in 1991. She often travels with him and seems to share his sense of humour and his preference for a quiet life in the desert.
It is not clear how close he remains to his three grown-up children. When I ask what they are doing, he smiles and says: ``Well, that's a good question. I'm not sure, actually.'' Later, he adds vaguely that his daughters are involved in writing and broadcasting, and that his son wants to be a filmmaker. But his comments seem to suggest that all three are still looking for direction.
``It's tough being the son or daughter of a celebrity,'' he says. ``I couldn't always be home with them when they were growing up and then, living in California, they've had my success always hanging over their heads.''
He credits his children for his decision to stick with acting instead of retiring to a place behind the camera. Several years ago, he acquired the film rights to Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs and planned to use it for his debut as a director. But he turned the job over to Jonathan Demme instead, and the film went on to become a classic.
``I don't have any second thoughts about that decision. My kids helped me see that it just wasn't the best thing for me to do. My film would have been smaller and darker than Jonathan's, and wouldn't have worked as well, commercially or artistically.''
THE impulse to direct comes from a deep desire to exert more control over his creative efforts. Recently, that desire led him to try his hand at novel writing. He is spending some of his time in Chicago promoting the book, which he completed in 1999 with co-author Daniel Lenihan, a friend from New Mexico.
Wake of the Perdido Star is a rambling adventure yarn set at sea during the 19th century and features a young American hero who seems torn from the pages of an old boys' magazine Hackman read in childhood. The book has received mixed reviews in America, but Hackman is proud of it and his only regret is that some critics have chosen to review him rather than his book.
``I think some people doubt that I wrote any of the story, but I actually wrote a bit more than half of it, and did it all in longhand. It's my work, and I wish that people wouldn't say: `Oh, a famous actor put his name on it so it can't be any good.' They should read it and forget that I'm also an actor.''
Well, that's rather difficult to do, and the uneven nature of the story makes one wish that Hackman had tried directing a film instead. The screen is the territory where he's most at home, not the printed page.
In any case, he's never been reluctant to tell directors what he wants from them, but they haven't always been able to do justice to his talents. He is perhaps the only person whose direction could draw out his full potential as an actor. Indeed, he is keenly aware that his skills have often been wasted on screen.
Despite his proven ability to carry an entire film, he has never completely overcome the burden of being a character actor. As director James Foley has pointed out: ``So many of his parts have been supporting. It's like using a Ferrari to haul sheep.''
So does Hackman agree with that observation?
``Things haven't always gone the way I've wanted but, look, I know I've been very lucky. I've had more than my fair share of success, and the audiences are still good to me.''
Good to you?
``Yeah, when you've been around as long as I have, they cut you some slack and you can't complain about that. They've come to like you because you're like family. They're used to you. And do you know what that means?''
You keep working after 70?
``Yeah, and also they're nice to you. They give you more credit than you're due.''