The Greatest Living American Actor at 85: Gene Hackman Is Retired But Still in Charge

20th Century Fox

The Gene Hackman performance that sticks with me the most didn’t occur in one of his 79 films, but rather in a profile written by Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1971. Hackman stopped in town on the way to a family reunion in Danville, Illinois, where the Hackman clan settled after wandering across four different states during Gene’s early childhood. Hackman later escaped the Midwest by talking his way into the Marines at 16, and after he was discharged four and a half years later, he wandered some more, living briefly in New York, Florida, back in Danville, then back to New York, and then back to the state where he was born, California, where he was enrolled at and swiftly dismissed from the Pasadena Playhouse. Then Hackman wandered more still, back again to New York and a string of odd jobs that propped up his acting ambitions.

Bonnie and Clyde - Gene HackmanWarner Bros.

Hackman’s ship didn’t come in until his mid-thirties, and it took losing another job for it to happen. After getting bounced from The Graduate — he was to play his best friend “Dusty” Hoffman’s prospective father-in-law, despite being only seven years Hoffman’s senior — Hackman was cast in the other paradigm-shifting event movie of 1967, Bonnie and Clyde, eventually garnering his first Oscar nomination for his nervy performance as Clyde’s brother, Buck Barrow. Three years later, Hackman was nominated again, this time in the punishing family drama I Never Sang for My Father.

He couldn’t have planned it this way, but Hackman had aged into a screen persona — he looked like he had spent years driving a truck or working as a doorman before lucking into the movies, because that’s basically what had happened. Hackman might’ve studied the Method under Lee Strasberg (“He played with people’s heads a lot,” he recalled derisively of Strasberg in 2001), but he could just be and be authentic onscreen.

When Ebert interviewed Hackman over steaks at famed Chicago restaurant the Pump Room, Hackman was 41 and about to transition from Oscar-nominated actor to Oscar-winning superstar. The French Connection had just come out and was already a box office sensation. In the film, Hackman is Popeye Doyle, one of the great ’70s antiheroes, a combination Dirty Harry/Archie Bunker who flaunts his racism and unscrupulous policing methods as shamelessly as his schlubby-chic porkpie hat. Hackman subsequently played variations on Popeye throughout his career — his type was the old-school, take-charge man’s man who must harness his inextinguishable rage or risk being destroyed by it.

“I’m not that kind of guy. He was a physical man,” Hackman said of Popeye in the Ebert interview. “We had to go back and re-shoot the first two days of scenes because I hadn’t gotten into the character enough. I wasn’t physical enough.”

Dining with Hackman and Ebert was Hackman’s dad, Gene Sr., who had made his living working on newspaper presses many years prior. Ebert asked Hackman to compare Popeye Doyle to the more passive character he played in I Never Sang for My Father, who also happened to be named Gene. In its own way, I Never Sang is just as unrelenting as The French Connection, only instead of being mentally tormented by a suave French drug lord, Hackman grapples with the dread of every encounter with his distant, judgmental patriarch.1 And, unlike in The French Connection, Hackman is never afforded the catharsis of shooting somebody.

Hackman complained about how trying I Never Sang for My Father was for him. “He was always whining,” he said. “I kept working at it to find ways to release that, but I never could.” He insisted the part wasn’t at all autobiographical.

Hackman then turned to his own father and asked Gene Sr. if he’d seen the movie.

“No, I didn’t see that one,” he said.

“I thought you had.”

“No,” Hackman’s father said, “I didn’t very much want to see it. I heard from some other people what it was about, and I didn’t think of myself as that kind of a father, so I didn’t go.”

“See?” Hackman said.

What Ebert didn’t know — because Hackman didn’t discuss it for another couple of decades — was that Gene Sr. had abandoned his family when his son was 13. The younger Hackman was playing in the street when it happened. His father deigned only a faint wave before departing.

“It was a real adios,” Hackman told Vanity Fair in 2004. “It was so precise. Maybe that’s why I became an actor. I doubt I would have become so sensitive to human behavior if that hadn’t happened to me as a child — if I hadn’t realized how much one small gesture can mean.”

Hackman developed his own repertoire of small gestures. Growing up in the Midwest, the explosive dynamism of his idol, James Cagney, wouldn’t do. So Hackman instead brought a little Danville demeanor to Hollywood, expressing himself via jocular forms of misdirection that deflected the true feelings of his characters. There’s the funny little “heh-heh” laugh that recurs in all of his films and never seems to express genuine mirth. There’s the too-wide smile that crinkles his eyes, and then slowly falls into a tight-lipped smirk. There’s the way his sandpaper purr cracks whenever he increases the volume too quickly, evoking a levee holding back a tidal wave of emotion that’s about to give way.

Taken together, these gestures enabled Hackman to act one way externally and convey the opposite truth of what was happening with his characters internally. Audiences instinctively understood this, like they would if they were conversing with their own beloved yet guarded family members. Hackman couldn’t have made himself more clear if he had just come out and said, “See?”

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Gene Hackman turns 85 on Friday. He hasn’t made a movie in 11 years — insert Welcome to Mooseport joke here — and likely won’t ever make one again. When asked by Yahoo Movies in 2014 if there’s any chance of audiences seeing him onscreen again, Hackman replied, “Only in reruns.”

If you love movies, it’s hard not to miss him. So, for the past month I’ve been watching Gene Hackman films — not just the iconic ones,2 but also the deep cuts, good and bad. Almost all of them are worth seeing, because Hackman himself is almost always worth seeing, but also because the man had a knack for picking projects that have only gotten more strange with time.

I refer to films like Prime Cut, in which Hackman plays a Kansas City gangster named Mary Ann who forces Sissy Spacek to lie naked in a pen at a sex slave farm until Lee Marvin comes along; Cisco Pike, a far-out drug thriller set in early-’70s Los Angeles in which Hackman plays Big Foot Bjornsen to Kris Kristofferson’s Doc Sportello; and Loose Cannons, a confoundingly stupid buddy-cop comedy costarring Dan Aykroyd that has one of the all-time great Netflix plot summaries.3 (Though, regrettably, it doesn’t mention the part where Dom DeLuise fires a machine gun at a gang of bumbling neo-Nazis.)

hoosiers-gene-hackmanOrion Pictures

I was searching for a thread in Hackman’s movies, and for a while I wasn’t sure I’d find one. Unlike his contemporaries Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall — Hackman’s running mates in the late-’50s/early-’60s New York City theater scene, and the other defining examples of the “not quite a leading man, not quite a character actor” type — Hackman didn’t have passion projects. When Hackman had the clout to function as the reigning auteur on set, he chose not to take advantage. He instead approached the material as a craftsman-for-hire — speak the lines as written, get the story across, execute the take, cash the check. When asked by GQ in 2011 what he wanted his epitaph to be, Hackman was customarily humble: “He tried.”

Nevertheless, there is a thematic link in Hackman’s movies, and it doesn’t square with the word most often used to describe him: Everyman. On the contrary, Hackman played exceptionalists — cops, lawyers, coaches, military leaders, heads of industry, Lex Luthor. For more than 30 years, people bought movie tickets to watch Hackman take charge. He was a molder of men: Hackman taught Redford how to ski, DiCaprio how to shoot, and Keanu how to play quarterback.

As the culture’s perspective on Great White Males changed, so did cinema’s view of Hackman. If you want to chart how attitudes about power shifted in the late 20th century, Gene Hackman movies are a good place to start. His filmography unfolds as a treatise on how authority is established, then corrupted, then dissolved.

In the Watergate-weary ’70s, Hackman was a capable man called on to fail, again and again. Popeye Doyle in The French Connection kills a fellow cop and lets Fernando Rey evade capture. Harry Caul in The Conversation is duped by his own surveillance and allows his client to be murdered. In the underrated noir Night Moves, Hackman is private detective Harry Moseby, who is lied to by everybody and seems resigned to it; when his wife, who is cuckolding him, asks who’s winning the football game he’s sullenly watching, Moseby says, “Nobody, one side’s just losing more slowly than the other.” Even in Scarecrow, Hackman’s personal favorite of his films, the one in which he plays a penniless drifter named Max Millan, Hackman loses the one thing he has: the adoration of his friend, Lion (Al Pacino), who winds up getting institutionalized right before the pals can realize their dream of opening a car wash.

This is the Gene Hackman I miss the most, because I can’t think of a contemporary analogue. Perhaps Philip Seymour Hoffman occupies this lane in an alternate universe where he lived out his own richly dissatisfying middle age and inspired first-rate directors to plumb their own psyches. Otherwise, the Hackman of the ’70s seems very much a product of his time, a too-brief hiccup when art and commerce magically aligned in the favor of a balding monument to embittered personal dysfunction.

But there are other Hackmans that have proven to be more easily replicated. Hackman started to win in the Reagan ’80s, an era when father figures were restored to hero status, no matter their past sins, in a way that now seems reminiscent of our current paternal asskicker-in-chief, Liam Neeson. For Target, Arthur Penn,4 who also directed Hackman in Night Moves, bowed to the times and made his star a retired CIA operative who must save his wife and impress his son (Matt Dillon) by shaking off his put-upon civilian meekness and killing some scheming Germans. After making the first Rambo film, First Blood, director Ted Kotcheff used Hackman in Uncommon Valor, putting him in command of a team of mercenaries rounded out by Patrick Swayze and Randall “Tex” Cobb and funded by Robert Stack (!) that is dispatched to Laos to rescue Hackman’s POW son, without any meddling politicians or hippies getting in the way.

In Hackman’s most celebrated movie from this period, Hoosiers, he arrives in a small Indiana town not unlike Danville, a former college coach who’s drummed out of the big time for striking a student but retains his stern methods because he knows what’s best for the kids. Then there’s the crudely compelling Mississippi Burning, a true-life civil-rights-era drama that illustrates just how mendacious this kind of movie was permitted to be before every junior historian had access to Wikipedia and a Twitter account. Director Alan Parker depicts a Southern town as a bastion of faceless KKK zombies; it’s like The Walking Deadneck. The film is a historical travesty, but a pretty good cop thriller: Hackman plays another iteration of Popeye, a fed who must “do it his way” for justice to be parceled out.

By the ’90s, the culture swung back to skepticism over paternal authority, and Hackman was packaged accordingly with up-and-comers looking to vanquish him as a rite of passage. In The Firm, Hackman acts first as a mentor for Tom Cruise and then as a cautionary tale about how selling your soul to an evil Memphis-based law practice is a bad idea. In another John Grisham adaptation, The Chamber, Hackman is the imprisoned racist grandfather to idealistic lawyer Chris O’Donnell, who must rise above his revulsion and rescue the old bastard before Hackman is executed. In Enemy of the State, Hackman took Harry Caul out of mothballs and plugged him into a supercharged Will Smith vehicle about how creepy it is when Jon Voight stalks you. In The Quick and the Dead, Hackman killed three birds with one stone, playing the mean ol’ cuss for the benefit of Sharon Stone, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Russell Crowe.

Then there’s Crimson Tide, in which this happens:

When threatened, Hackman retreats to his glasses and clipboard, the accoutrements of command. And how does Denzel respond? “I DO NOT RECOGNIZE YOUR AUTHORITY.” Like that, Denzel Washington becomes Gene Hackman right before your eyes.5 And Denzel held on to that role in subsequent movies. Flash forward 20 years and it’s Denzel playing daddy to Mark Wahlberg in 2 Guns.

As for Hackman, it’s as if he were liberated from the responsibilities of his old self. In the final decade of his film career, Hackman resumed playing doctors (Extreme Measures), lawyers (Runaway Jury), coaches (The Replacements), military leaders (Behind Enemy Lines), and even the president (Absolute Power). But the parts that people remember are the ones in which Hackman played against type and embraced his inner buffoon — in Get Shorty, as B-movie producer Harry Zimm, and as the titular character in The Royal Tenenbaums, a tragicomic bookend for I Never Sang for My Father, this time with no whining and a few more laughs.

In 2001, Hackman confessed to David Edelstein that he felt “very conflicted” while making The Royal Tenenbaums, “because people were much younger than me and I felt left out or ignored. And that wasn’t even true. I knew it wasn’t true, but I used it anyway.” Like Royal Tenenbaum, Gene Hackman’s alienation derived from the accumulated weight of his personal history. He had finally aged into only a persona. Perhaps it was time to step away. While Wes Anderson wanted Hackman again to humanize one of his life-size dioramas,6 in his own mind Hackman was already on the road to Mooseport.

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royal-Tenenbaum-gene-hackmanTouchstone Pictures

Another oft-made claim about Gene Hackman that you learn is untrue after digging deep into his back catalogue is that he never gave a bad performance. I’m sorry to report that Hackman sort of sucks in The Poseidon Adventure, the first and only time he headlined a big-budget blockbuster.

He plays the Reverend Frank Scott, sailing aboard a massive ocean liner filled with assorted disaster-movie ringers while preaching a bizarre proto–Tea Party doctrine of self-reliance that appears to defy conventional Christian faith. “God loves triers,” Scott declares, and is subsequently proven right when the ship flips upside down and legions of Leslie Nielsens and Shelley Winterses without the wherewithal to climb to safety are killed.

“When I was working on it, I was kind of ashamed of myself,” Hackman told Edelstein, claiming that he still hadn’t dared to watch the movie. “I had to have my hair poufed up at the end and slicked over. And the producer, Irwin Allen, was one of those guys who used to comb his hair from one ear across the top of his head, and I just didn’t want to look like him.”

Hackman for me is the greatest living American actor because — with the exception of the Reverend Frank Scott in The Poseidon Adventure — I always buy what he’s selling. Even when the movie is bad, you believe what Hackman is telling you, right down to the last “heh-heh.”

Hackman retired from movies for the first time at the end of the ’70s, but was coaxed back by Warren Beatty to appear in Reds. However, I don’t doubt Hackman now when he says that he’s finished. In interviews, he has acknowledged his strained relationships with directors and other actors, a byproduct of his perfectionism. He’s also hinted at feeling estranged from his children after spending so much time away from home on movie sets.

Even when these feelings of separation weren’t based in reality, Hackman had to manufacture them for his job. For his role as the sadist sheriff Little Bill in Unforgiven, which won him his second Oscar and might be my favorite Hackman movie performance, he worked himself up for a scene in which Bill savagely beats an outlaw played by Richard Harris by drawing on his disappointment over Harris not remembering the time they had previously worked together 26 years earlier, on 1966’s Hawaii.

“Of course, I wasn’t really angry with him. I love him, I think he’s terrific,” Hackman told Edelstein. “But I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I can use this.’ I just took that disappointment and did this kind of transference.”

Hackman drew on that sort of negative energy — the unshakable feeling that he wasn’t good enough to warrant consideration — as motivation for much of his life, perhaps starting with the moment in the street when he watched his father walk out on him. It propelled his characters as they searched in vain for something that wasn’t there, like that scene in The Conversation when Caul tears through his apartment, floorboard by floorboard, hunting for surveillance devices.

I miss Gene Hackman, but I’m also happy for him. He writes books now.7 You can still hear him reading copy in Lowe’s commercials. His wandering days seem to be behind him. Hopefully, he’s found a safe place in which to blow.

Editor’s note: Because of an unintentional misunderstanding stemming from our original headline, “The Greatest Living American Actor at 85: Gene Hackman Is Gone But Still in Charge,” we’ve changed the title of this piece. Mr. Hackman is very much alive.

Filed Under: Movies, Gene Hackman, Hoosiers, The Royal Tenenbaums, Bonnie and Clyde, Night Moves, The French Connection, I never Sang For My Father, Get Shorty, The Conversation, Welcome to Mooseport

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden