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Saying something he can be proud of

Published: Jan 30 2020, 01:01:am

Thursday,  August 24, 1989.

    SEATTLE —IT'S BEEN A LONG, hard day. Gene Hackman's familiar, friendly features are nearly as grey as his pullover as he settles into a hard-backed hotel chair for one last round of questions.
    He's been working on the railroad. An all-night shoot on the B.C. Rail line between Squamish and Whistler kept the non-stop actor on the set of his current film in production, [1990’s] Narrow Margin, "till five in the morning."
    It is now four in the afternoon. Hackman, 58, has travelled from Vancouver to Seattle to promote his current film in release, The Package, (scheduled to open across Canada tomorrow). The fatigue is showing.
    "I'm not trained to do press," he says, almost apologetically. "When I'm working, it's hard for me to do anything else. I sort of drift away from everything. I'm awful company."
    "He is very nervous-making," his Package co-star Joanna Cassidy says in a separate interview. "He takes up a room."
    Being described as a glasnost thriller, The Package is the story of a veteran U. S. army sergeant who discovers a plot to permanently poison Soviet-American relations.
    Hackman was chosen for the role, director Andrew Davis says half-jokingly, "over the virile handsome actors who the script was really written for."
    No pretty boy, Hackman falls into the category of "stars who do not get the girl," says Michael Ritchie who directed him in Prime Cut (1972) and Downhill Racer (1969). Among star character actors, "Gene Hackman is the best.
    "He may also be America's best actor, period." says Ritchie.
    Hackman is more modest. "I just do my job and try not to be a pain in the ass about it," he says.
    Though he admits to "childhood fantasies about being in the movies," he took up acting relatively late in life. "By the time I had the courage," he says, "I was about 25."
    Born in California, Hackman grew up in Danville, Ill. At 16, he proclaimed his independence by joining the Marine Corps, beginning a five-year tour of duty that included service in China, Japan, Hawaii and Okinawa.
    "I hated the Marines, but loved the freedom and the travel," he recalls. Saved from Korea by a motorcycle accident that broke both his legs, Hackman was discharged at 20, a disabled vet.
    After some drifting, he set his sights firmly on acting. He studied at the Pasadena Playhouse, then moved to New York where he lived "about seven years before I got a job."
    He made his movie debut at 30, playing a cop in the 1961 gangster film Mad Dog Coll. He made an impression upon fellow actor Warren Beatty during the making of the psychological drama, Lilith (1964).
    Three years later, Beatty cast Hackman in a picture that he was producing called Bonnie and Clyde (1967). As Clyde Barrow's older brother Buck, Gene Hackman won the first of his four Academy Award nominations.
    He finally picked up the Oscar for his portrayal of New York narcotics officer Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle in The French Connection (1971).
    And how do Hollywood's film producers view him today?
    "They see me as the guy from The French Connection," he says with resignation. ". . . a whacko kind of guy. Not a psycho, but driven, you know? Something that translates as excitement on the screen."
    One producer who saw past "Popeye" Doyle was Bud Yorkin. In 1984, he was casting Twice in a Lifetime (1985), the low-key story of a 50-year-old Seattle steelworker who leaves his wife for another woman.
    Hackman was then in the process of ending his nearly 30-year-long marriage to Faye Maltese, a New York bank secretary he'd met at a YMCA dance. "Bud Yorkin knew I was going through a divorce at the time and called me.
    "I saw what I consider a marvellously written script. That's rare."
    Since his divorce, a private parting largely unreported in the press of the day, "my work has changed for the better," he says. "There's a sense of relaxation in the way I now appreciate what I do."
    Though he currently looks for "social comment" in his projects, Hackman is careful not to impose his own views. Pictures like the Oscar-nominated Mississippi Burning (1988) may "say something I can at least be proud of.” But, he adds, "my acting is not a forum for my ideas."
    "He's a complicated man," says Package director Davis. "I don't know what his politics are, but he is an ex-Marine."
    And he is work-driven.
    He put off his own directorial debut, a project called The Silence of the Lambs,  because "it was just too long a process to get involved with at this time." Currently, he's in Vancouver finishing Narrow Margin for director Peter (The Presidio) Hyams.
    Then it's on to "a real small role" in Postcards from the Edge [1990], Mike Nichols's adaptation of Carrie Fisher's Hollywood roman a clef.
    Then to Class Action [1991], a drama in which he'll play opposite Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. And to Dinosaurs [released in 1991 as Company Business], to be filmed in Berlin with Mikhail Baryshnikov.
    In the corner of a hotel ballroom in Seattle, America's hardest-working actor grins wearily. "I like to work," he says.

The above is a restored version of a Province interview by Michael Walsh originally published in 1989. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: Gene Hackman’s involvement with The Silence of the Lambs is now a footnote to that 1991 Oscar-winner’s success story. As it happened, he was the one who bought the screen rights to Thomas Harris’s 1988 novel. He intented to direct himself in the role of serial killer Hannibal Lecter. He withdrew from the project the year before we talked. In a 2017 interview, Bob Bookman, who brokered the book-to-movie deal, told the website Deadline’s film editor Mike Fleming that “Gene Hackman’s daughter read the book. And she called her father and said, ‘Daddy, you’re not making this movie’.” Apparently, she was concerned with how violent the part was for him to do right after 1988’s Mississippi Burning, and he took her advice seriously. He sold his rights to Orion Pictures, who replaced him with director Jonathan Demme, for whom the picture was a career-making hit. With about 100 feature film appearances to his credit, Hackman retired from acting in 2004, after a final role in the political comedy Welcome to Mooseport. He celebrates his 90th birthday today (January 30) at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Our Gene Pool: Among the Gene Hackman feature films currently in the Reeling Back archive are director Richard Donner’s 1978 classic Superman, followed by Richard Lester’s Superman II  (1980) and Sidney J. Furie’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987), in which he put his indelible stamp on the role of supervillain Lex Luthor.
    Also on file is his performance as heroic shipwreck survivor Francis Scott in Ronald Neame’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972); as professional eavesdropper Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974); as the Blind Man in Mel Brooks’s comedy Young Frankenstein (1974); as foreign correspondent Alex Grazier in Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire (1983); his Oscar-winning western badman Bill Daggett in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992); as submarine captain Frank Ramsey in Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide (1995);  and The Voice of God in John Herzfeld's Two of a Kind (1983).