The Greats: Gene Hackman

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Whenever an older, revered icon of the film industry dies, there are plenty of testimonials and remembrances written about that person. But it’s sad that we only take the time to fully appreciate these people’s brilliance after their passing. Hence, The Greats, a biweekly column that celebrates cinema’s living legends.

Gene Hackman hasn’t been in a movie since 2004. It seems even longer than that. For years one of our best and most reliable actors—the sort of performer whose presence in a film was a stamp of approval for the project—he said early in the new century that he was going to retire, and he’s stuck to that promise. (Wes Anderson, responsible for creating his indelible character in The Royal Tenenbaums, has tried to lure him back, to no avail. “I have a character that I have even written some scenes for that I think he’d be really great for but he doesn’t really talk to me,” Anderson told The Big Issue.)

He’s happy to live in Santa Fe, focusing on painting and writing novels, sometimes with a co-author, sometimes by himself. (“I’ve spent my life, actually, with other people trying to create and it’s kind of a different process and kind of exciting in a way,” he once said about the solitary act of writing.) Hackman has gone about his retirement in the same way that he acted, with a minimum of fuss. When GQ asked him if he’d ever consider returning to film, he responded, “If I could do it in my own house, maybe, without them disturbing anything and just one or two people.”

Born in January 1930 in Southern California, Hackman grew up in the Midwest in a small town in Illinois. He joined the Marines when he was 16. “I was looking for adventure,” he later explained to Time, and in the five years he spent in the military, he discovered something important about himself. “I have trouble with authority,” he confessed during a Larry King interview from 2004. “I was not a good Marine. I made corporal once and was promptly busted. And I just have always had trouble with authority.”

After the Marines, Hackman went to New York for acting, eventually moving to Los Angeles to study at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met Dustin Hoffman. The allure of actors and acting had hit Hackman at a young age. “I loved the idea that somebody could convince me that they were a sea captain without being phony,” he recalled to Vanity Fair. “I’d grown up shy—not unusual for actors. They want to show they’re more than that—people of import, substance. I think because I was shy I felt insecure, and acting seemed like a way of maybe getting around that. Getting to be somebody.”

Hackman and Hoffman eventually moved to New York to find roles, befriending another young performer, Robert Duvall, in the process. Hackman held down crummy jobs: truck driver, set builder, doorman. “The worst job I ever had was working nights in the Chrysler Building,” he said. “I was part of a team of about five guys, and we polished the leather furniture. We had to work all night because people needed their chairs during the day. I wasn’t very good at it.”

But he got his foot in the door by starring in the Muriel Resnik play Any Wednesday in the early 1960s, which led to his first film, Robert Rossen’s Lilith. Hackman had initially been cast to play Mrs. Robinson’s husband alongside Hoffman in The Graduate, but director Mike Nichols decided to go with Murray Hamilton instead. Not to worry: Hackman’s availability landed him a role as Clyde Barrow’s brother in Bonnie and Clyde. (The film’s producer and star, Warren Beatty, had worked with Hackman on Lilith.) Hackman got an Oscar nomination, and the average-folk authenticity he brought to the part would be his trademark for the rest of his career. “I always try to approach the work in [an honest] way, regardless of how good or bad the script,” Hackman has said, later adding, “Just be what is asked of me on the page.”

Hackman garnered acclaim for his starring role in 1970’s I Never Sang for My Father, a drama where his character wrestles with his difficult relationship with his father (Melvyn Douglas). He earned another Oscar nomination, but at the time he expressed regret about the performance. “I was uncomfortable doing the part,” he told Roger Ebert in ’71. “In terms of drama, the movie was unrelenting. Every scene was a culmination scene, and we were always taking psychological last stands. Usually an actor can find some way to play against a character, to give him some additional dimension. But it was super-difficult to find an area in this guy that was different. He was always whining. I kept working at it to find ways to release that, but I never could.” Later in Hackman’s life, though, he found an appreciation for the film, saying in a 2011 interview, “I thought it was a sensitive picture about family and relationships, and I think [my late mother] would have been proud and happy to see that. You’re fortunate sometimes to be able to do something in life that defines who you are and who your parents may have wanted you to be.” (It’s probably important to note that Hackman’s father walked out on the family when Gene was only a teenager. Hackman’s mother died before he started making movies.)

But I Never Sang for My Father was merely the precursor to The French Connection, the Oscar-winning police drama that landed Hackman his first of two Academy Awards. However, he never felt that he had the brute force necessary for the role of Detective Popeye Doyle. “No second thoughts. No introspection,” was how Hackman described the character to Ebert. “We had to go back and reshoot the first two days of scenes because I hadn’t gotten into the character enough. I wasn’t physical enough.” On stage to accept his Oscar, Hackman acknowledged that it was director William Friedkin who convinced him not to quit the film.

He went on to play more cops and tough guys. (“For some strange reason, early in my career—you know, I’m a fairly good-size guy—I was cast as policemen, and you just learn to do that kind of role,” he told Time. “Hollywood loves to typecast, and I guess they saw me as a violent guy.”) But some of his best roles of the 1970s eluded such typecasting. He’s splendid as Harry Caul in The Conversation, playing an emotionally cut-off man who discovers how much more cut-off he could become, and Harry Moseby in Night Moves, playing a detective who ends up investigating himself. Two of Hollywood’s key post-Watergate thrillers, these movies maximized Hackman’s rough-around-the-edges quality, that sense that he was an ordinary guy who could fall through the cracks if he wasn’t careful.

The generation raised on blockbusters doesn’t necessarily know that Hackman, though. They identify him as the narcissistic villain Lex Luthor of the Christopher Reeve Superman films, his witty, carefree performance emblematic of a simpler era in comic-book movies where giddy wholesomeness was the coin of the realm. They also remember him as perhaps the quintessential inspirational-coach character of Hoosiers, a beloved sports movie that Hackman made because he needed the money. “I took it for all the wrong reasons,” he told GQ, “and it turned out to be one of those films that stick around. … We filmed 50 miles from where I was brought up. So it was a bizarre feeling. I never expected the film to have the kind of legs it’s had.” Coach Norman Dale isn’t memorable because he inspires with flowery speeches—he’s memorable because he’s gruff but encouraging, the loving father figure who will kick you in the ass when you need it. A couple generations of sports movies since have struggled to get that combination right.

He still delivered superb dramatic turns: Mississippi Burning and Unforgiven, which won him a second Oscar. (And he’s remarkable in Woody Allen’s underrated 1988 drama, Another Woman.) But like a lot of great character actors, he often had to settle for sturdy, uninspired parts that he ennobled with his gravitas. He could still delight, though: Think of him as the oily Hollywood producer in Get Shorty, the stiff-shirt senator in The Birdcage, the Harry Caul callback of Enemy of the State. One of his final roles, if he indeed has decided to walk away from acting, is one of his best. His take on Royal Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums was something genuinely new from him: a precise portrayal of a foolish, impossibly lovable rascal in which the initial caricature was painstakingly brushed away one scene at a time until all we saw was the humanity. Hackman played a man who should be a bastard, but there was such gentleness and pain that we forgave Royal despite our better judgment. Maybe it was Hackman’s vigilant pursuit of honesty that made us respond that way.

And then he was gone. Not really gone, thankfully—he’s still out there in the world. He’s just gone from the big screen. Hackman’s legacy is secure, and he has nothing left to prove. That doesn’t mean we miss him any less.

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.