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A Labor-Intensive 'Hoffa' : Jack Nicholson got the part, but it's Danny DeVito, directing with the bark of the Teamster boss himself, who acts like Jimmy Hoffa

August 30, 1992|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN | Patrick Goldstein is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

Convinced the Moore screenplay was not a "finished material," Pressman and the studio contacted David Mamet, whose plays and scripts celebrate the four-letter-word eloquence of working-class salesmen, cops and hoods.

"We thought Mamet was unavailable," recalls Fox's Joe Roth. "But his father had been a labor lawyer and he was fascinated by this whole environment. He went right to work on the script."

The studio didn't have much input. As Roth puts it: "David's terms were simple--we send him all the research and he'd send us the finished screenplay."

Delighted by Mamet's script, Pressman and Fox began approaching a variety of directors. "We gave it first to Barry Levinson," Pressman recalls. "But I remember having meetings about it with Oliver Stone and John McTiernan and perhaps others."

Not long before, Danny DeVito and his agent had lunch with Roth, who went down a list of scripts in development.

"When he told me about 'Hoffa,' I said, 'Stop right there,' " DeVito recalls. " 'That's the one I wanna do.' "

DeVito left for Europe, thinking about what a great movie the Mamet script could make. On the flight back, he sat with his friend, James Brooks, who at that point had a production deal at Fox.

"He tells me, 'Hey, I saw that Hoffa script you were interested in. You should read it. It's really good.'

"And inside, I'm steaming. I'm thinking--how come I haven't seen the (expletive) script?"

DeVito called his agent, who informed him that Fox had given the script to a DeVito pal, Barry Levinson.

"That really got me going," he recalls with a laugh. "I start screaming and yelling, especially when I hear that Barry Levinson was at some (expletive) party and when he said he was interested in the script, they sent it to him!

"I'm going, 'What the (expletive)! That's how people do business around here? You go to a party and get the script?' So I'm screaming at everyone--and in the midst of this, who calls?"

DeVito leans forward and stares in your face. He clearly relishes the drama of all this. He roars: "Barry Levinson!"

"The great thing is--he doesn't know anything about what's going on. He only called because he saw 'Tin Men' on TV and wanted to tell me he thought we did a really great job."

Of course, DeVito can't contain himself. He casually asks his pal about the Hoffa script. Levinson tells him he's reading it, saying he's a Mamet fan. After they hang up, DeVito stews.

A few days later, the movie gods cut DeVito a break. Levinson passes on the script. "Hoffa" is all DeVito's. By now, he's built up a huge head of steam. Bursting with enthusiasm, he phones Mamet.

"I say, 'I got a few ideas.' And he goes, 'Uh-oh.'

"And I say, 'What's that mean?'

"And he tells me, 'Whenever I hear a director say--I got a few ideas--that usually means they want to put people in chicken suits.' "

As it turns out, Mamet did make some minor revisions for DeVito, emphasizing Hoffa's candor and honesty. "You know the one thing I really did?" DeVito says. "I got David to finish his sentences.

"He'd have all these (expletive) ellipses and I'm thinking, 'How am I gonna tell the actors what to say here unless we know where the (expletive) the sentence is going?' "

When it came time to pick an actor, DeVito had only one choice--Jack Nicholson. However, even with Nicholson signed on, it took some haggling before Fox and the filmmakers could agree on a budget.

"We wanted to finance the whole movie," says Roth. "It's just that the numbers we came up with were different than Danny's. As a director, he saw the film on a larger canvas."

To make up the difference, DeVito deferred his salary for a piece of the film's profits. Pressman persuaded a French cable TV firm to pitch in some extra money. Finally, "Hoffa" was ready to shoot--first in Pittsburgh, then Detroit, then back to Los Angeles, with a final two weeks in Chicago. It was a grueling shoot, 85 days in all. Initially budgeted at $42 million, the film came in at just under $50 million.

A healthy chunk of the budget--roughly $10 million--went to Nicholson. Was he worth it? Could the 55-year-old star capture Hoffa's youthful fervor and brawny aplomb, all while wearing a putty nose?

DeVito waves off the query. "Jack has saturated himself in this part," DeVito says proudly. "You can't go anywhere with him when he's not talking to people about Jimmy, reading about him, watching clips of him."

To get into character, Nicholson has his own mantra. He walks around the set, chanting, "That's right . . . that's right," steeping himself in Hoffa's harsh Midwestern twang. (When the crew celebrated Nicholson's 55th birthday, they rolled out a cake with the greeting: "That's Right, Jack. It's Your Birthday.")

Ready to shoot a new scene, DeVito hops out of his director's chair. "Jack's in the role. He's way in. He's so far inside the character that I'm sure his friends are shaking their heads, saying, 'Is he ever gonna come out?' "

"There are more con men in Washington than there are at a carnival."

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