Ten Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Actor Gene Hackman
We tend to gloss over the Gene Hackman’s of our society, those rough-around-the-edges simple soldiers of the stage and silver screen who weren’t and aren’t particularly pretty nor scandalous — the good guy artisans who stuck to their craft, always performing their best, staying out of trouble, and standing to the side while the more famous and glamorous get all the attention.
It’s a surprise to learn that San Bernadino’s most famous resident is none other than the accomplished film actor Gene Hackman, now retired from the big screen. He hasn’t made a film in more than a decade and is likely finished with movies.
In other words, he’s likely made his last film. Hackman was born in San Bernadino back in 1930. That makes Hackman age 85, as of today.
Hackman may have been forgotten by many in these fast-moving times, erased by a social media-driven culture where the shelf life of public attention borders on the expiration date of a quart of sour cream on sale at the supermarket. We mostly forget the Gene Hackman’s of society, those rough-around-the-edges simple soldiers of the stage and silver screen who weren’t and aren’t particularly pretty, nor scandalous — you know, those good guy artisans who stuck pretty much to do their jobs, performing their best, staying out of trouble, and stand off to the side while the so-called glamorous get all the reverence and giggles on TMZ.
By accident, I discovered that Hackman, apart from his movie roles, is far more interesting than many of us give him credit for or might realize. Accordingly, you’re now reading, or are about to read what I have recently learned about this two-time Academy Award winner.
A Grantland article written a few years ago sums up Hackman and his movie legacy best:
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.
Here are a few facts you probably don’t know about Hackman, his life, and his movies:
- At age 13, Hackman was abandoned by his father, who provided no explanation to his son or family why he was leaving — Hackman told an interviewer with Vanity Fair many decades later (published in 2004) about the trauma of losing his father in the most inexplicable fashion. The event likely contributed to his curiosity about acting, theater, and human behavior. Up until that interview, Hackman had never discussed the painful impact of abandonment on his own life. The reasons his father simply decided to leave one afternoon without notice were never known. “The young Hackman was playing in the street when it happened. His father feigned only a faint wave before departing. ‘It was a real adios,’ Hackman (said). ‘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 was stationed in China just prior to the Communist takeover and Mao’s Revolution in 1949 — At age 16, Hackman left high school and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. While serving, Hackman completed tours of duty in both Qingdao and Shanghai. He completed his nearly 5-year military stint in Hawaii, as a radio operator.
- Hackman was once voted “Least Likely to Succeed” by his classmates — Upon returning to California after completing his enlistment as a Marine, Hackman enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met a couple of other young aspiring actors (see below). Hackman was dishonored with the booby prize “Least Likely to Succeed” by his snooty and more fashionable classmates. An instructor who saw no future for Hackman as a film or stage actor recognized Hackman one evening, while the struggling thespian was working as a doorman part-time on the night shift. “See, I told you, you wouldn’t amount to anything,” the acting coach allegedly said to a devastated Hackman.
- Hackman’s classmates at Pasadena Playhouse included Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall — It’s hard to imagine an acting class loaded with more onscreen talent than the trio enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse around 1956-57, which included Hackman, along with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall. The three became good friends. The same instructor who was less than supportive of Hackman’s prospects had similar barbed criticism for Hoffman. Since then, between the three actors, they have made some of the best movies of the last half of the 20th Century, received 19 Oscar nominations and five golden statues between them. No word on what became of the acting coach, who perhaps had a heart attack or just decided to off himself while watching the Academy Awards sometime later.
- Hackman got his first big break late for an actor, at age 37 — Hackman’s future prospects didn’t look promising until he was cast in a supporting role in the 1967 film classic, Bonnie and Clyde, directed by Arthur Penn, starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Hackman was nominated for “Best Supporting Actor.” However, it would be four more years before he was offered a starring role, at age 41.
- Hackman was almost cast as Mike Brady on the hit ABC television show, “The Brady Bunch” –– Think of tough-nosed Hackman in the lighthearted role as one of America’s lovable dads (a part that eventually went to Robert Reed). But he was close to accepting the part when the television pilot character was offered up in 1969, following two years of bouncing around in various small-bit TV roles. Hackman was persuaded by his agent to stick it out for meatier, character-driven movie opportunities, which would become his trademark during the 1970s and ’80s.
- Hackman’s stock in Hollywood rocketed to A-Lister following the 1971 instant classic, “The French Connection,” for which he earned the “Best Actor in a Leading Role” Oscar — Surprisingly, Hackman almost didn’t get the part and probably should have faded into cinematic oblivion. He was one of the last actors picked by the studio after several notables turned down the famous role as NYPD narcotics investigator Popeye Doyle. Hackman couldn’t have been too pleased to learn his role had been turned down by Paul Newman, Jackie Gleason, and even writer Jimmy Breslin, who had never previously appeared on film. Hackman was at best, a distant fourth choice, hired only because he would work cheap and desperately needed a starring role. Director William Friedkin later admitted, “I had no interest in casting Gene Hackman in that role….he only got it because he was the last man standing and we had no star getting ready to go into production.[INTERESTING LINK HERE] Side Note: “The French Connection,” winner of the 1972 Oscar for “Best Picture” was initially turned down by every major Hollywood studio. It was finally made on a bare-bones budget of just $1.5 million, paltry by the standards even back then.
- Hackman appeared in 79 movies over a 43-year period — Hackman’s career began in 1961 and ended in 2004. His film legacy includes — Bonnie and Clyde, Downhill Racer, Marooned, The French Connection, The French Connection II, The Poseidon Adventure, The Conversation, Young Frankenstein, A Bridge Too Far, Reds, Uncommon Valor, Power Hoosiers, No Way Out, Superman, Mississippi Burning, Postcards from the Edge, Narrow Margin, Class Action, The Firm, Unforgiven, Crimson Tide, Get Shorty, The Birdcage, Absolute Power, Heartbreakers, Heist, The Royal Tenenbaums, Runaway Jury, and several other successful films.
- Hackman has published three novels — Since retiring, Hackman has pursued writing novels, specifically historical fiction. He has written or co-written five novels, to date. From his Wikipedia page: “Hackman has written….Wake of the Perdido Star (1999), a sea adventure of the 19th century, Justice for None (2004), a Depression-era tale of murder, Escape from Andersonville (2008) about a prison escape during the Civil War, Payback at Morning Peak (2011) a story of love and revenge set in the Old West, and Pursuit (2013), a police thriller.
- Hackman may have quit film acting and isn’t onscreen anymore, is still a badass— Today, Hackman resides in Santa Fe, NM with his second wife, whom he’s been married to for the past 24 years. Hackman had been married to his first wife for 30 years, which ended in divorce. The couple had three children together. A devoted sports fan, Hackman is a huge supporter of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars and sometimes flies in to attend many of their home games. A few years ago, a derelict man approached Hackman on the street, demanded money, and insulted his wife with an obscene phrase when the retired actor refused to humor his request. Despite being age 83, Hackman slapped the man following the insult and was not charged. A police investigation determined Hackman had acted in self-defense. That’s what I call a badass.