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In Character

Dustin Hoffman Plays His Greatest Role—Himself—as He Tells A&U’s Dann Dulin About Reckless Rushes, Joyful Sex, and Being a Reluctant Activist

Wanna hear some gossip?” asks Dustin Hoffman conspiratorially when we first meet at one of his favorite neighborhood restaurants.

“I just found out that a legendary musician does not use condoms when he has sex, and I can’t tell you who it is. How self-destructive is that?!”

Hoffman almost instinctively shoots to the core of the issue at hand; one reason he’s such a great actor. For nearly half a century, Hoffman has crafted some of cinema’s most memorable characters, many of which have entered the ethereal realm of American iconography. Do I really need to mention the movies they came from? Okay. The Graduate, Midnight Cowboy, Little Big Man, Lenny, All The President’s Men, Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, and Rain Man. Hoffman has garnered numerous international awards; won two Oscars, and has been nominated seven times. Productive as ever, Hoffman has three new films coming out before the end of the year. He and co-star Lily Tomlin play existential sleuths in I Heart Huckabees. In Meet the Fockers, the sequel to Meet the Parents, Dustin plays husband to Barbra Streisand and father to Ben Stiller. In Finding Neverland, a semi-biopic on Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, he stars with Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, and Julie Christie. Early next year, Dustin lends his voice to an animated feature, Racing Stripes.

When I arrive on the second floor of the restaurant, Hoffman, with one leg propped up on a chair, is chatting on his cell phone. This afternoon, we have the upstairs section of this cozy Italian eatery to ourselves. Large bouquets of dried red peppers hang from the ceiling. To our side, boxes of pasta are arranged on a built-in glass shelf that hovers over the dining area. Dustin and his family are regulars here. He likes community, and Brentwood, an upscale district in West Los Angeles, is his neighborhood. He works, lives, plays, and gets his haircut (his next engagement following the interview) in Brentwood.

Though visibly winding down from the day, Hoffman is still alert and ready for a good conversation. He tells me later that he loathes idle chitchat, and for this reason has never been much of a party-goer.

Though sixty-seven, and no cosmetic surgery (he reveals), Dustin looks much younger. Sporting a neatly pressed blue dress shirt with rolled-up sleeves, gray Dockers, and brown sandals, his thick grayish hair is in a semi-buzz cut, adding to his youthful appearance. He’s tan, attractive, energetic, and entertaining. His demeanor is straightforward, like a quintessential New Yorker, though he’s actually a native Angelino. The atmosphere is relaxed and convivial, like two buddies at the end of the day. He urges me to join him in some wine and orders a bottle of Dolcetto d’Alba. I also order a bottle of Lurisia acqua con gas (Italian sparkling water). The waiter brings the bottle of wine. We toast.

As he sips his glass of wine, Dustin recalls the first time AIDS touched his life. One of Hoffman’s dressers for Tootsie, Frank Piazza, the man who inspired Dorothy Michaels’ swagger, taught him to walk in heels. “Frankie was gay and he liked to pick up, as he put it, ‘guys with thick thighs.’ Truck driver types. He picked them up off the streets. This was before the consciousness of AIDS hit. Who knows when it was first around?” he laments. Later, Frankie worked with Dustin on Death of a Salesman. Hoffman was concerned about Frankie, as he knew of other guys who had been killed by picking up rough trade.

“I didn’t know about AIDS then, but I intuited that Frankie’s casual promiscuity could put him in danger,” notes Dustin. “Unfortunately, he did contract HIV, and eventually developed AIDS.” The AIDS epidemic was in the very early stages and treatments were primitive. Near the end, Frankie invited all his friends over to his home. Afterwards, he went upstairs and took his life. “Everyone loved him. He was such a terrific guy,” Dustin attests. “When I did the narration for Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt [an Academy Award winner], they asked me whose name I wanted on the Quilt and I put Frank’s. That was the name I chose.” He looks off in the distance for a second. I ask, How do you deal with losses in your life? There’s a short silence, then he asks me, “Have you lost anyone close to you, Dann?” He has a knack of answering a question with a question, and does so throughout our talk.

In 1992, another friend of Hoffman’s was battling AIDS: Elizabeth Glaser, wife of Paul Michael Glaser from the seventies TV show, Starsky & Hutch. Dustin and his present wife of twenty-four years, Lisa Gottsegen, were with Elizabeth during her last days. “She could no longer talk, and she was bedridden. This was the first and only time I’ve seen a person near death from AIDS,” Dustin says, becoming noticeably emotional.

Hoffman and Glaser met through their children, and both families became very close. It wasn’t until then that Dustin learned about the ironic link between the two women, his wife and Elizabeth. Years earlier, both of them gave birth one month apart from each other, and both suffered hemorrhaging. Glaser was given a transfusion (that later turned out to be tainted with HIV), and Dustin declined a transfusion for Lisa. “I told the doctors, ‘If you don’t have to, don’t,’” recalls a dumbfounded Hoffman. “I don’t know where my answer came from but I just thought, ‘Why mix her blood if you don’t have to?’” 

Hoffman has been actively involved with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation from the beginning, even hosting events at his home. Cofounder Susie Zeegen comments: “Dustin and his family have not only been financial supporters, but have been generous with their time. Most importantly, they’ve been loyal friends. Complacency is one of the biggest problems we face, but after sixteen years, Dustin continues to raise AIDS awareness. I can sum it up like this: Years ago I thanked him for participating in an event. He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Susie, you don’t ask me to do enough.’”

I remark to Hoffman, I understand that you do a lot of charitable stuff....He cuts me off and declares modestly, “No, I don’t do a lot of stuff.” He stutters slightly and continues with a double-edged undertone: “Don’t do this. I like you, Dann, but you seem to have a small Merv Griffin gene in you. I know you don’t want to hear that, but Merv Griffin used to do shit like that.” Leaning close to me with his elbows on the table, and eyes wide, Dustin mimics Merv with a whisper, “You do a lot of charity stuff, Dustin, don’t you?” We both laugh. “What Merv did was brilliant. He could ask the most invasive, personal, and sometimes offensive questions and get away with it. He’d get right up in your ear and say things like, ‘I heard you had an affair,’” coos Dustin impersonating the sultry Merv. “He would say it with a lot of love,” Hoffman emphasizes in his own voice, then switches back to Merv, “You had oral sex with Frank Sinatra.” Laughing at his own impersonation, Dustin exclaims, “Merv was amazing at that, and I’ve always wanted to play that kind of character in a film.”

Though reluctant to discuss his charitable work, Hoffman has been involved with Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, stem cell research, Heal The Bay, ACLU, MS, The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and Camp Good Times, of which he is one of the founders. Based in Los Angeles, Camp Good Times, which has been renamed Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, reaches out to kids who are battling life-threatening diseases. They provide a year-round campsite in the San Bernardino Mountains where the kids can participate in recreational activities, and have the opportunity to establish new friendships.

The idea for Camp Good Times was born around the time Tootsie premiered. Dustin discovered that a family member, David, had leukemia. No camp would admit the six-year-old because of the supposed high insurance risk. Hoffman and the other cofounders took matters into their own hands, and established Camp Good Times. Today, David is twenty years-old. “Dustin and Lisa have been extremely generous both with their time and money,” says Carol Horvitz, executive director of Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times. “I think his favorite thing is coming up to camp and playing with the kids. He really gets into it. He’s a big kid at heart.” 

With his own six kids, Hoffman approaches the issues of HIV prevention like any other issue—directly. “We say to our kids, ‘You are at risk.’ You can’t say, ‘Don’t have sex.’ That’s not going to do anything. Or you can’t say, ‘Don’t take drugs,’ or ‘Don’t smoke.’ Because they’ll come back with, ‘Well, Dad, you’ve smoked.’ Yes, I’ve smoked grass and I’ve smoked cigarettes, but I didn’t know then what I know now. I’m not saying that would have affected me because I probably would’ve thought that I was immune just like you guys must think. I mean, but now we know that cigarettes are fucking poison.”

All of a sudden, Hoffman gets up and begins knocking on the window to attract the waiter’s attention. It’s a scene right out of The Graduate, when Benjamin bangs frantically on a church window in an attempt to rescue Elaine before she ties the knot. I mention this to Dustin, he pauses for a moment and then agrees, “Yeah. It sure is!” The waiter soon arrives and Dustin pleasantly insists that we eat something. We both settle on ensalata della casa, a house salad.

Sitting back in the chair, with hand atop head playing with his hair, Dustin stretches his legs, and arches one eyebrow. “My oldest son, Jake, who is twenty-three, loves to tell this story about our condom talk. I had lectured in a UCLA class on a Saturday and when I left there was a biology class in session next door. On the door was a carton of free condoms, and I stole it. Actually, I said to the instructor, Since I’m not getting paid for the lecture can I have this instead? He said, ‘Sure, take ’em.’ And I took off. I came home, went to Jake’s bedroom where he was lying on his bed talking on the phone. He said, ‘Hey Dad, what’s up?’ I just walked over and spilled all of them on his head—hundreds of condoms!” 

Hoffman’s not subtle, and it seems that he’s in tune with today’s youth. He has read studies of current college students who say they don’t wear condoms because they can tell from someone’s appearance if they are HIV-positive. This ruffles Dustin, yet he is patient when he interjects, “You must point out to them that when they have sex with a person they’re having sex with every single person who that person has had sex with.” 

Not that Dustin’s a prude. When on the subject of sex, he gets on a roll, or is it—a role? “I am a sexual being and I dispute the way society views sex,” he proclaims. “I think they compartmentalize it. Sex has to do with spirit and life force. Whether you’re gay, bisexual, or straight—I don’t care what combos you want to put in there—sex is a good thing. And God bless everybody, and may they come off the charts any which way they can! Just protect yourself,” he stresses.

Our salads arrive. During our lunch together, Hoffman asks many questions, not only about AIDS, but about many other life issues, as well. He likes chewing at the meat of an issue. Perhaps, this is his way of dealing with his discomfort over being interviewed, or it may be his obsessive curiosity about life—possibly it’s both. At one point he admits, “I’d be more free and animated if this wasn’t an interview. Imagine, if you’re on my side of the interview, you can’t help but be thoughtful as you’re talking. I’m not naturally thoughtful. I’m more reckless,” he says with a boyish grin.

Does recklessness in the face of danger provide us with an adrenaline rush? “In terms of sex, I think there’s always been a correlation between sex and danger,” insists Dustin firmly. “Before HIV there was the risk of getting a girl pregnant and playing that game was a part of the excitement, especially during the teen years. I don’t think that has subsided in today’s world. It’s the same with smoking and drinking. There’s a danger. It’s a flaw in the human makeup. We take on that which scares the shit out of us.”

I propose to Dustin that his theory might be, in part, an answer to why barebacking in the gay community, and the escalation of HIV transmission among the younger generation has become more common over the years. He is disturbed to hear this. Does he have a way of getting through to them? “Not by interviewing me,” he says humbly. “You’d have to interview one of their peers. If you interviewed me thirty-five years ago it would have worked, but you have to get to someone who is iconoclastic. I’ll tell ya what works. If a famous person of their generation contracted HIV then they could identify.” And in the same breath he thoughtfully questions in earnest, “How do you get through to them?

“Look, I’m an actor,” asserts Hoffman. “My limitations are right in the title of my profession. So, I don’t have the magic bullet to get AIDS information across to these people. We can’t even get it across for cigarette smoking, or the disaster our environment is in. For a while I’ve thought of the epidemic metaphorically,” says Dustin pensively with his head tilted upward. “As I understand it, AIDS is simply a breakdown in our immune system, do I have it right? To me, that’s a metaphor for the state of the planet. Just as HIV invades the body, we are invading the planet.”

Hoffman’s curiosity is not yet sated.  He inquires about A&U, its publisher, and how it got started. He is astonished at the concept of a publication devoted entirely to people with HIV. “My god, it’s such a fucking heroic concept. It’s too bad this magazine is not in the countries where AIDS has become devastating, like in Africa.” Conceivably, Dustin’s gathering information in preparation for playing a character like an editor-in-chief.…

Hoffman’s cell phone rings. He answers. While talking, he looks up and wrinkles his nose as he listens. It’s a delightful character trait that I’ve seen him do in more than one movie.

After hanging up, Dustin immediately blurts, “How long has AIDS been around?” Twenty-five years I reply. “It’s amazing. There’s an epidemic of media in this country. Now, more than at any other time in the history of the planet, information is right at your fingertips and yet, if you were to take a poll, wouldn’t you find that people still view AIDS as a gay disease? That’s the mythology—that HIV is a selective virus. Now that’s interesting. You’re talking twenty-five years”—he slowly pronounces each word almost in disbelief—“and there’s no greater denial than that, is there? What is that about?” He ponders this point for a moment and then shakes his head intensely, “I don’t have the answer.” He takes a bite of salad and says, “What made Elizabeth Taylor come out in the forefront when no one else did? Was it her friendship with Rock Hudson? She really had balls.”

Our luncheon ends and Dustin generously takes care of the tab. Forthright, frank, honest, and headstrong—this is the Dustin we’ve all come to love. Hoffman views the AIDS epidemic as everyone’s problem. What happens to you, happens to me—the domino effect. We, as human beings, are in this life together. Forget prejudice. Forget judgment. We’re all integrally connected, and we need to take an interest in each other. When there’s a crisis, like a horrific hurricane or September 11, people generally unite. “We need to band together as a unit every day, especially to conquer the strength of the AIDS virus,” says Dustin. And that’s a wrap.

Meet the Hoffman

Of all the memorable characters you’ve created, do you have a personal favorite?

No.

What do you fear most?

Self-deception.

Complete this sentence, “For me, fame…………..”

…drops the barrier that exists between people, so that if I’m recognized I’m trusted and I can talk to people on the street. I can live a life, generally speaking, the way everyone did when 9/11 happened.

Do you have a favorite movie of all time?

I don’t have a favorite anything except my wife—I better say that [he laughs]. Though I do love watermelon and also chocolate.I love certain movies, especially the French film, Forbidden Games. I also love Fellini’s 8 1/2.

What is your most cherished possession?

My lucky socks. Their one of my cherished possessions. I have different pairs, some have question marks, and some have nutty faces. They’re funny. I found them in Paris, and they are my Achille’s Socks. If I need good luck, or fly in an airplane, I wear my lucky socks.

Name one of your favorite plays.

The Time of Your Life by William Saroyan.

Out of the many people you have met, is there one in particular who stands out who impressed you or inspired you the most? 

Nobody famous comes to mind. The kids who have cancer that have visited Camp Good Times. 

Is there anyone that you would like to meet, that you haven’t met yet?

I wish I could have spent time with Brando years and years ago. I had one talk with him on the phone for about an hour and a half about a year before he died. [He thinks.] There’s probably a lot of people I’d love to meet. I do love to spend time with a few people. The odds are when you meet famous people you’re always disappointed. No one is as interesting as the person that you meet on a totally random encounter where you go, “Wow!”  There are a lot of dogs I’d like to meet; many animals. I’ll see some animals on TV and I’d think, I’d like to meet them. I’d rather meet animals than people.

What would you most like to be remembered for? 

[He immediately questions, then responds] By whom? Passion.

One Word, Besides “Plastics."

Dustin gives a brief answer to those who have touched his life

Gene Hackman: Badass motherfucker.

Meryl Streep: Divorcee.

Anne Bancroft: I’ll come back to that.

Teri Garr: Original.

Mike Nichols: Brave—no one else would have cast me in that part [in The Graduate].

Bob Fosse: Electric.

Tom Cruise: Indefatigable.

Robin Williams: Shy.

Andy Warhol: Visionary.

Dustin Hoffman: Naughty.

 

Outtakes & Deleted Scenes

“When I did Tootsie my wife said, ‘You’re the best girlfriend I ever had.’ Tootsie was her favorite character that I’ve ever played. The hardest character for me to portray, that I worked on for two years, was the convict in Straight Time. It was a depressing character.” 

“I never stopped thinking about doing a sequel to Tootsie, just couldn’t figure out how to do it. I’ve never done a sequel. In my mind Dorothy Michaels would have to be in another country.”

“Had I stayed married to my first wife (Anne Byrne) I probably would know more people who had died from AIDS. She was a ballerina in the New York City Ballet, and there were a lot of gays in the company who were our friends. She and I broke up before AIDS really hit.”

The restaurant phone rings loudly. “That’s a loud cell phone,” Dustin jokes. He briefly imitates Lily Tomlin’s character Ernestina, the operator saying “’Hello, Yes?’  I just finished working with her on Huckabees.  God, she’s brilliant. We’re supposed to be existential detectives. I just mounted her last week. (He smiles devilishly.) We did an infomercial for the movie. As we were doing it, Lily gave the best belly laugh.”

“Do you know that obesity is going to outrank cancer as the leading cause of death in this country? I heard it the other day. Obesity will be the leading cause of death.”

“I must tell you, I’ve had a life long romance with acne. I’ve leaned to love my pimples because of the perks.  Apparently, you don’t lose your hair, you don’t have creases, and you have a rather lusty testosterone count. So now, I can look at the possibility of being seventy and not having my sexual appetite lessen.” 

Meet The Fochers has a chance to be good a movie. I don’t want to jinx it (by talking about it). But working on it was a picnic. I know it’s a press junket statement but we all dealt with comedy in the same sensibility. That’s the equalizer. Nobody was pushing. The director was grounded in reality, and I like that style.  DeNiro I worked with twice before (Wag The Dog & Sleepers). Streisand, this was the first time I’ve worked with her.  I met her when we were kids and we were both literally starting out. I dated her roommate.  At the time, I didn’t know she sang. I just thought she was studying acting. This is the second time working with Blythe Danner, the first time with Ben Stiller – really a smart guy -- and the first with Teri Polo, and the director.” 

“I’ve been working on a movie for four years now called Personal Injuries. I want to direct and act in it. I’ve been co-writing it. I bought the book and spent my own money. It’s a subtle relationship between a womanizer and a lesbian -- a love story. I’ve interviewed lesbians in the same way that I interviewed women for Tootsie. One woman said a wonderful thing during our conversation.  She said, 

“I’ve also had sex with men.”

“Did you enjoy some of them?” Dustin asked. 

“Yes.”

“Did you have orgasms?” 

“Yes.”

“Then you’re not gay, you’re bi-sexual.” 

“No, I’m gay.”

“Explain it to me,” Dustin urged.

And she said it very simply: ‘I reach a deeper place with another woman.’  And I got emotional. I couldn’t ask any more questions. That’s quite beautiful, isn’t it?” 

Several months ago, Hoffman landed in Santa Domingo to work for a few days on an Andy Garcia movie. It was his first time there and he was surprised at the poverty he saw. “From the ride to the airport to the hotel at night you could see the headlights preying on male and female prostitutes lining the street. Many times the faces were, I’d bet, no more that fourteen years of age. I thought of AIDS immediately.  How can you not?” he says and questions reason.  “So if you’re someone out there procuring the services of one of these kids, is a condom involved?  Huh? Is it ignorance, or worse than ignorance? Is it narcissism?  Is it the attitude: everyone’s gonna get hit but me? God won’t let me get hit?” 

Dustin takes a few moments to remember the early stages of the AIDS epidemic. His good friend, the late Hal Asby (Being There, Harold and Maude, Coming Home), who was initially going to direct Tootsie, had been diagnosed with (incurable) pancreatic cancer. Staying with Hal for several weeks in the cancer ward, at times he’d mosey around the hospital.  “I hit a floor that was so filled with humanity and life in every room; cards were on the walls, flowers were around. I said, What is this? They said this is the AIDS ward. And I remember the feeling I had. I said, Why don’t you have that kind of spirit in the cancer ward? And they said, ‘Nobody comes to see patients when they have cancer. They stay away in droves.’ Though when people have AIDS, their friends come. Does that make sense?” Dustin witnessed the infancy of the AIDS epidemic where a convergence of bonding took place within the gay community -- brothers and sisters rallied around to support and inevitably, witnessed the dying of their friends.

Can the government do more in the battle against AIDS? “Always. Always. Always. Hopefully, with a new administration….I’m not a Bush-ite, god knows. I remember that Reagan wouldn’t say the word for three years. No matter who’s in office, a Democrat or Republican – since AIDS hit the streets in terms of a name in the early 80s – neither administration has really done anywhere near enough, Clinton probably the most.”

Hoffman seems to be in tune with today’s youth. Sitting back in the chair, hand atop head playing with his hair, he reflects on the confusion, insecurity, and rebelliousness of his own adolescence, which has fed his compassion for young people. When Hoffman’s family moved every few years, it made it difficult for him to establish firm roots. He attended Los Angeles High School, and describes himself as “unpopular, unattractive, shortest kid in class, and kind of a misfit.” He wasn’t a jock, and never hung out with the guys though he did hang out with minority groups such as Hispanics and blacks. “I never felt an identity growing up but I didn’t know that I didn’t feel an identity. I just didn’t feel right. When I started taking an acting class there was a connection. Looking back on it now, I only knew who I was when I was being someone else.” He briefly attended Santa Monica Community College before heading to the Pasadena Playhouse.

When on the subject of sex, Hoffman gets on a roll, or is it—a role? “I am a sexual being and I dispute the way society thinks of that. I think they compartmentalize it. Sex has to do with spirit, and life force.  Whether you’re gay, bisexual, or straight --  I don’t care what combos you want to put in there -- sex is a good thing. And God bless everybody and may they come off the charts any which way they can!” he says raising his voice. Now he lays the punch.  “Come on you fuckers that are trying to condemn people for their sexual preference.  They’re not hurting anybody. They’re only threatening your identity, which is your soul; or what you <feel> is your identity.  But if you’re identify is really based on that – of whom you go to bed with – then you ain’t got an identity.  You don’t.”

Hoffman claims that there were only two times in history when sex could be potentially lethal – before Penicillin and after AIDS. “Penicillin was invented during the second world war. There were two secrets: the A-bomb as a couple of nations was secretly connecting to produce what was this nuclear bomb, and the other secret was penicillin. I know the English and the Americans were secretly in cahoots to find a replacement for sulfa because they were using sulfa to treat the wounded soldiers. They were losing too many soldiers and running out of draftees, and they needed more manpower. That’s why they needed something better than sulfa. So, that’s what produced Penicillin. Suddenly they could give these soldiers Penicillin and send them back again. After the war, it hit the streets. Penicillin could cure gonorrheal and syphilis but before that take a look at all the Royalty who died from these diseases. I certainly was given it, and who knows how sick I would have been without it. I bring it up because between Penicillin and AIDS there is about thirty some odd years.  That may be the only time in the history of the planet where sex wasn’t potentially fatal. The AIDS epidemic window came at a time ironically of the women’s movement, the pill, drugs, casual sex, where you could do anything you wanted and it wasn’t potentially lethal. I was around then. The worst thing you could get then was the crabs. If AIDS hadn’t happened promiscuous sex had no real penalty. Well, no, that’s not true.  You could get herpes and other stuff.”

“As I understand it, on a daily basis our bodies are continually at war. The immune system usually wins the daily battles. But that war, one could contend, is being lost on our planet. That information is not impacting a very large percentage of people,” persists Hoffman. “You’ve got the Green Party, and many other organizations but until your head gets whacked… what do they say the definition of a conservative is? A liberal who’s been mugged?  So until we’ve been mugged –- euphemistically or literally –- we don’t react.”

Our luncheon concludes, Dustin generously takes care of the tab. Reaching into his briefcase, he pulls out a new dental floss stick, and begins to pick at his teeth. He gushes over this gadget and offers one to me. In the meantime, my mind reviews all of the great films that he’s made, and I remember reading somewhere that he’s been yearning to make The Graduate Part Two, but with an ironic twist; his character is now the seducer! I inquire if he’s ever appeared in an AIDS-themed movie. “No, not because I haven’t wanted, but they never asked me,” he exclaims, feigning sorrow. “Gay people just don’t see me as attractive. I’m just not their type. I can live with that,” he says off the cuff with a raised shoulder, and faking hurt. The truth be known, Dustin is a pin-up boy and doesn’t even know it. Maybe Mr. Robinson is ready for his close-up.

Dann Dulin interviewed actress Sandra Oh for the September issue.

October 2004