Dustin Hoffman, 75, has a new movie out, but you won’t see him on the big screen. The two-time Academy Award winning actor has gone behind the camera and directed Quartet. It’s a movie that focuses on a concert at an English retirement home inhabited by opera singers and musicians. It stars his good friend Maggie Smith (now of Downton Abbey fame), Billy Connolly, Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins, and Tom Courtenay, and he has received excellent reviews.
“It was my first movie directing job, and a natural path to take as an artist,” he points out. “It feels like I finally got a chance to hold the paint brush. Every actor is a director in his mind. We all direct when we act and I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years. The most important lesson is to trust the actors. And with this cast it was easy. They inspired me and surprised me.”
Hoffman’s acting career starting by attending a drama class at Santa Monica City College as a teenager. “I went into the acting class because I didn’t want to go to work, and I didn’t want to go into the service,” he reports.
Realizing he enjoyed acting, he moved over to classes at the Pasadena Playhouse, but he had his eye on New York. So, off he went to the Big Apple, where he found acting jobs scarce or non-existent. He made a friend of Gene Hackman, also at the time an unemployed actor, and the two wound up sharing a cheap apartment. From there he moved in with Robert Duvall, who was also looking for work as an actor.
Making his way back to California, Hoffman didn’t look like the standard leading man type in Hollywood. But he started landing small roles, and then along came The Graduate, which changed his life and career forever. From that point the roles kept getting bigger and more important. He played the tragic street hustler Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, a film that earned him high honors. He got his first Oscar for Kramer vs. Kramer as a man trying his best to be a good father, and earned his second Oscar as the autistic brother in Rain Man.
No matter what role he plays, Hoffman doesn’t feel the character overtakes the actual actor. “The character doesn’t inhabiting me. I don’t take the character personally. I’ve never had that experience. You’re just pretending, you know.”
For his acting, Hoffman earned his tribute at the most recent Kennedy Center Honors in Washington, D.C. “We even hobnobbed with the Obamas,” he brags. And was pleased that his long-time friend Robert De Niro (himself a former Kennedy Center honoree) took to the stage to praise Hoffman for his lifetime of achievement in the film industry.
De Niro, in a humorous mood, referred to being in the box office hits Meet the Fockers and Little Fockers movies with Hoffman. DeNiro called Hoffman “world class, spectacular, and a colossal pain in the ass.”
When Hoffman recalls his many movie roles, he sighs about his short stint in the HBO series Luck, with Nick Nolte. The show was about a variety of characters in the racetrack world, but it was canceled after accidents led to the death of a couple of race horses.
Despite a brief stay on the series, Hoffman expresses his fondness for working on TV. “In the movies, there are committees. There are meetings. They are on the set, and they get involved. They buck heads with people they shouldn’t be bucking heads with. In television, take HBO for example, once they give a ‘go,’ there is no committee.” Hoffman likes that atmosphere as an artist.
Hoffman has no desire to retire. Although he’ll still look for acting roles, he’s now made a name for himself as a director with Quartet, a great little movie now playing at the Laemmle NoHo7 and around town.