Gene Hackman: Royal Rapscallion

Film still for Gene Hackman: Royal Rapscallion

He was already past his youth when Bonnie and Clyde established his name but Gene Hackman became a byword for all that was authentic about the explosive new American cinema of the late 60s and 70s. By Andrew Collins

We see him dressed as Santa Claus, roughing up a drug pusher on the streets of New York, or perhaps pork pie-hatted, announcing his arrival in a seedy bar before a shakedown: "Alright, Popeye's here." We see him hanging from a valve wheel wearing a sweat-soaked turtleneck, raging at God in the fiery bowels of a capsized liner, or comical in a garish checked suit, wide yellow collar and curly wig, firing villainous patter at arch-enemy Superman: "We all have our little faults. Mine's in California." These are the well-worn images and easy catchphrases that will fill news montages when Gene Hackman dies. "Best known for his role as uncompromising cop Popeye Doyle," newsreaders will say, "Hackman shunned the glitzy Hollywood lifestyle and disliked giving interviews. He was nominated for five Academy Awards over a career spanning 50 years, winning for The French Connection in 1971 and Unforgiven in 1992."

Let us not will that day forward. Despite a heart seizure in 1990 that put him into a holding pattern of supporting roles for a while, the Marines-trained Hackman is relatively fit for a 75-year-old and is clearly energised by work. It would be nice to think he might elicit a sixth Oscar nomination for a role as yet unplayed (the equivalent of Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond; Paul Newman in Road to Perdition), but if the Academy were prepared to overlook his terrific work in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) it seems unlikely things will swing his way one more time. Though he claimed in an interview with Cigar Aficionado magazine at 70 not to feel his age physically, he admitted, "I don't know how many more of these they're gonna let me do."

So we should cherish Gene Hackman while we can. Modest, decent, professional, fixated on the craft rather than the art of acting - these are not the qualities from which legends are hewn. But a legend he is among leading character actors. Like Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Rod Steiger or the even less dashing Ernest Borgnine - against whose bulk he bumped in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) - Hackman has the face of a character player but the twinkle and stature to carry a film. At the same time he has been one of the most trusted second fiddles in Hollywood, bringing to a cast list the very ballast lacking in the tanks of the top-heavy SS Poseidon.

'Everyman' is an overused term best employed to describe Jimmy Stewart or his natural heir Tom Hanks; it doesn't fully account for Hackman's skill - or indeed his intermittent bankability. To be a big-screen everyman you must to an extent offer a blank canvas on to which an audience's own hopes and fears can be painted. You must be able to play a bank clerk, but Hackman is more likely to do a bank job than have one.

He won his spurs as Warren Beatty's wise-cracking, Kodak-wielding elder brother in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), his Oscar nomination clinched by the memorable shaggy-dog story he tells in the getaway car, ending with the line, "Son, whatever you do, don't sell that cow." It's the perfect calling-card moment for Hackman, with his infectious, throaty giggle; he has arrived. During a subsequent raid he arrogantly announces himself, removing the dark glasses from a security guard's nose as the outlaw gang leave the scene, saying, "Take a good look, pop. I'm Buck Barrow." Over 30 years later Hackman had risen to the rank of master jewel-thief Joe Moore in David Mamet's Heist (2001), sardonic like Buck but slicker, and old enough to make a mistake, captured on a security camera during his penultimate job. In neither of these bookend roles is he the everyman behind the counter.

Take a good look - he's Gene Hackman and he's bigger than that.

He was born in 1930 in San Bernardino, California - source, you'd like to think, of that enduring sunshine squint - though the Depression saw the family move around a lot ("I never had that feeling of belonging," he told journalist Michael Munn, author of one of two workaday biographies). They settled in Danville, Illinois, but Hackman Sr, a newspaper reporter, hopped it when his eldest son was only 13, seeding a low-level rage that would work to his advantage as an actor. He ran away at 16, "like Huckleberry Finn", to join the Marines. Despite a problem with authority figures, and a few excess pounds, he stuck it out for four years, travelling across the Pacific. The first hint of his future came with a spell on Armed Forces Radio.

Demobbed after breaking both legs in a motorbike smash (and thus avoiding the Korean war), he arrived in New York in 1951 with metal pins in one knee but bags of 21-year-old confidence. He passed through the New York School of Radio Technique, took odd jobs in radio and television, then crossed country to the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theater Arts in California, where, at 26, he was much older than the other students. He befriended the 19-year-old Dustin Hoffman, and after graduating the pair hooked up back in New York (Hackman was by then married, and he and his wife Fay put the younger actor up on the kitchen floor).

Taking acting classes with the Lee Strasberg-schooled George Morrison, both hoped to crack the stage and follow everybody's hero Marlon Brando into the movies, as did Hackman's new friend Robert Duvall - also California-born and an ex-soldier. In bohemian New York of the late 1950s, Hackman, Hoffman, Duvall, Jimmy Caan, Jon Voigt, Elliott Gould, even Robert Redford formed a vibrant all-male support system of exciting new wannabes, popping in and out of one another's rented apartments, partying, those who weren't married womanising. "It was a wonderful time," Duvall once told me. Did they know they were going to make it? "We figured we might."

Enduring wigs

You might say that Hackman's advancing age shaped him. His oft-cited boyhood idol James Cagney was barely 30 when he hit it big; likewise Brando when he rewrote the rules of screen acting in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). But Hackman was already on the brink of his forties when, after the obligatory television cop shows, off-Broadway parts and unremarkable movies like Mad Dog Coll (1960), Hawaii (1966) and Banning (1967), he found recognition. It was a small part in the failed potboiler Lilith (1964) that brought him to the attention of its star Warren Beatty, who remembered the bulky fellow when casting Bonnie and Clyde.

Hackman's late graduation to the big league meant that he skipped the complications and temptations of the matinee-idol phase. Even in The French Connection (1971) he was carrying a degree of ex-serviceman's poundage as he chased down pimps; for The Poseidon Adventure the following year he wore what must be one of cinema's most durable wigs. Like Duvall, Hackman arrived on our screens ready-distressed, carrying experience in that jowly face, those sunken eyes and the well-etched laugh lines. He aged in public from middle-aged, Midwestern virility to senatorial, grandfatherly authority. He had a bad 1980s, but so did US cinema, then a welcome renaissance in the 1990s saw him fleshing out presidents and admirals. But no bank managers - though in the 1981 romantic comedy All Night Long he played the night manager of a supermarket, a noted misfire.

It would be easy, if unfair, to hoist Hackman by his family name and dismiss him as a high-class hack. Certainly his panel-beating work rate has mitigated against mystique. Always his own fiercest critic, he melodramatically retreated into early retirement in 1977 having taken the money and run from "four bad pictures in a row" - Lucky Lady (1975), The Domino Principle (1976), A Bridge Too Far (1977) and March or Die (1977) - and with a wish to save his marriage. The family moved out to Monterey and he started painting, sculpting and playing tennis. Not that the cinemagoing public noticed: he'd already shot Superman (another cash job), released in 1978, while the sequel - for which director Richard Lester embellished stockpiled footage of Hackman by using a stand-in and a voice impersonator - followed in 1980. It was Beatty who tempted him out of his life of leisure with a small part in Reds (1981), by which time he had decided that retirement was "a kind of death".

Never getting the girl

Whenever Hackman grants anything more than a perfunctory junket interview, words of wisdom and insight are frustratingly thin on the ground. He's been telling journalists how little he enjoys watching himself for over 30 years: in 1977, after A Bridge Too Far, he complained of seeing "an old man, an uncle figure of around 50" up on the screen, whereas he still felt like "a young guy in his twenties". (He was actually in his late forties.) In 2004 he repeated the riff to CNN's Larry King: "When I see myself up on the screen I see my grandfather there, you know?" Perhaps he's still smarting from those early back-handed compliments: Pauline Kael, praising his performance in the family drama I Never Sang for My Father (1969), wrote, "Though he isn't particularly handsome, he has an interestingly expressive face"; Alexander Walker saw in The French Connection, "a character actor who is no beauty but a force of flesh, bone and blood." It was Michael Ritchie, who directed him in Downhill Racer (1969) and Prime Cut (1972), who observed that Hackman doesn't, as a rule, "get the girl". Ex-wives and dead wives, yes, but not the girl.

David Thomson damns Hackman as an actor too often called upon to trot out "a standard version of gruff decency", finding praise only for I Never Sang for My Father, The Conversation (1974) and Night Moves (1975). But closer inspection reveals acting of value and subtlety in less fashionable places. The Poseidon Adventure's Reverend Frank Scott is the closest Hackman ever came to conventional heroism, doing many of his own stunts as he led his motley band of survivors out of the upturned ship. And for me the film distils what makes Hackman exceptional among Hollywood's 'ugly' guys (a description the actor has often used himself). The tension that prevents him from ever being bland comes from the bulk versus the vulnerability. He's 6' 2", an inch shorter than Charlton Heston and two shy of John Wayne, but look how differently he uses his physical mass and how much more readily he allows the mask of masculinity to slip.

Scott is a fire-and-brimstone priest - "stripped of all my clerical powers but still in business" - banished to a far-off African mission where he relishes "the freedom to discover God in my own way." An establishing on-deck sermon, prefiguring his winners-not-quitters reaction to the imminent disaster, gives Hackman the chance to stamp his authority on the picture, his eyes almost disappearing into his head against the sunlight as he sells God's tough love to the congregation. At dinner the ship's captain is called to the bridge and leaves Scott in charge of the top table; he proposes a toast, "to love". It's a sappy moment, but one grounded by Hackman's avuncularity, the 40-year-old double chin that has always irked him accentuated by that turtleneck. He is an actor who rations his own vulnerability but knows its dramatic power. Ernest Borgnine, stereotyped as the granite New York cop across the table, is unable even to parrot the priest's toast, so bewildered is he by such a feminine display. It's as if Hackman were daring Popeye Doyle to show a little sensitivity.

There's a softness to Hackman's pudgy features in his 1970s heyday that permits such moments of tenderness. He may have been all bull and bluster in Bonnie and Clyde, but his first great dramatic moment on screen came with I Never Sang for My Father, for which he received his second Oscar nomination, again for Best Supporting Actor. As teacher Gene Garrison he wrestles with his grief at his wife's death and his guilt at seeing his once formidable father shrinking into ill health, and essays a cathartic emotional breakdown near the end. You wonder if Hackman weren't working out something raw from his own fatherless upbringing.

Yet despite the Method in George Morrison's teaching, Hackman is no great advocate of 'becoming', preferring simply to act. He spoke to Larry King of using "sense memories" to dredge up anger for a performance, but it would be fanciful to read too much of the man into his work. His mantra is "learning your lines, hitting your marks"; after making Unforgiven he praised Clint Eastwood as a director "because he's an actor. He knows what actors respond to. He doesn't give you a lot of images: think about this, or that, or... you know."

Hackman himself has never directed and he acted only once as executive producer, on Under Suspicion (1999), an admirable, humid two-hander with Morgan Freeman. In Hollywood terms he has always been something of a recluse, retreating from the limelight to fly planes or race cars in his wilder years and these days to paint or write novels with his friend Daniel Lenihan. His reason for not socialising with other actors is blunt: "They talk about their roles and their acting and I don't have anything to say about that, because when I act I don't give it too much thought or preparation."

Vulnerable hulk

How strange, then, that he proved such a stalwart of the cerebral American New Wave. After announcing his arrival in Bonnie and Clyde, he toplined four landmark films in the potent period that followed: The French Connection, the underrated Scarecrow (1973), The Conversation and Night Moves. These were the films (along with Poseidon) that convinced me in my teens that Gene Hackman was my favourite actor - chosen in the manner other boys might pick a favourite footballer. My best friend plumped for Charlton Heston, but I always knew I'd made the cooler choice, the quiet Democrat to his noisy Republican.

In those pre-video fanboy days I would have killed to see the making-of footage now available on the DVD of The Conversation. Here, all too briefly, we watch Hackman preparing to become socially inadequate surveillance expert Harry Caul: putting on his tie clip, his watch, his pinky ring, the unflattering glasses, then applying some grease to what little hair he has and slicking it back. It's a rare glimpse of the man fastidiously at work.

He applauds Francis Ford Coppola's technique, saying, "We worked together on very precise details." One presumes he means the subtle touches that help describe Caul, such as the way he pulls his hand away from removing a Virgin Mary statuette from a shelf when he's ransacking his own apartment for bugs, touching his face as if embarrassed in a social situation.

Hackman learned the saxophone for the part (a key to voicing what Coppola imagines as Caul's "lonely soul"), but that's as far as his Methodology went. It remains a mesmeric performance, alive with the tension that has always been Hackman's secret weapon - though in contrast to Popeye and Rev Scott, as Caul he hides his bulk behind a raincoat and allows the vulnerability to lead. The vulnerability is momentarily eclipsed by the bulk when, having secretly recorded a conversation for a mysterious corporation, Caul wrestles with Harrison Ford's company operative over a bag containing the tapes. Suddenly Caul reveals himself as the stronger man; his bottom lip extends threateningly and he wins the scuffle while the younger man is left pouting. You sometimes need a younger man to point up Hackman's seniority.

Since his true glory days I'll admit we've had to work harder to divine the genius in Hackman's craft. But even quality schlock like Narrow Margin (1990), The Firm (1993) or Extreme Measures (1996) is always lucky to have him. He certainly chooses his parts with more care than Robert De Niro does. I hope they let him do a few more.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012