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Hackman, Beyond It All : On the set of his 62nd movie, Hollywood's Tight-Lipped Loner Contemplates Retirement--Even as He Faces the Camera for Yet Another Take.

March 20, 1994|Hilary De Vries | Hilary de Vries' last story for this magazine was a profile of Center Theatre Group producing director Gordon Davidson

There won't be a lot of talking, that is a given, but his taciturnity still comes as a surprise. "I might," he says, setting the terms of his availability with great economy, letting his blue eyes scan the room with that elusive, shuttered quality seen in his films.

Think about it: Buck Barrow in "Bonnie and Clyde," Popeye Doyle in "The French Connection," Bill Dagget in "Unforgiven," even Avery Tolar in "The Firm," all men tight as safes, ulcers in the making. This much is true: That bottled-up quality girding all of Gene Hackman's performances springs from a deep personal reticence, a loathing of exposure. Talking to the actor, even over lunch in his trailer here in the Arizona desert, even at what is arguably the apex of his career, is like robbing a bank. Whatever goods to be gotten will be under duress and passed through a very small window.

"Well, only because I don't like talking about myself," he says, pausing to swallow some ice tea, pensive in the winter light pooling on the little Formica table, on his restless, ruddy hands. "I just, I don't know--I guess I'm a private person. For me, acting is a kind of private thing, and I just don't like sharing it."

For those who know him, this is nothing new. Hackman, they'll tell you, is one of the champion loners, hellbent on not keeping in touch. Acting is his escape and his solace, his craft, as he likes to think of it; he is happiest when he has some acting problem to resolve, but wary when his job is examined too closely.

"When I'm doing it, I think it's great and I like doing it," he says. "But to watch it or any of the other parts of the business is so alien to me, I don't get it. There is part of you emotionally that says, 'I don't know why they bother to ask me to work.' The intellectual part says, 'Well, you have a body of work and and you've done this, that and the other, so they'll ask you to work again.' " He grips the glass between his hands, staring into its blue plastic depths. "When I do see my films, I'll say to my son, 'I don't understand it, I don't understand why I'm doing this and why they keep asking me.' "

UNTIL HE MADE "THE FRENCH CONNECTION" IN 1971, GENE HACKMAN worried that he would never work again. This despite the fact that, at 40, he had starred on Broadway, made 13 films and been twice nominated as best supporting actor, for "Bonnie and Clyde" and "I Never Sang for My Father." But it wasn't until he won the Best Actor Oscar for playing the raging New York City police detective Popeye Doyle that Hackman crossed that line in his own mind. He was finally a star. "Once I got through 'French Connection,' I felt pretty good about what I was doing."

Hackman, now 63, with 60-plus films to his credit and a second Oscar--for best supporting actor in "Unforgiven" last year--is in demand enough to no longer fear unemployment, to even contemplate retirement. He is known for working a lot, maybe too much. "The Poseidon Adventure," "Lucky Lady," "March or Die," these he made for the money, he has said. Sometimes he regrets that, "but only for a minute or two, because it really doesn't mean that much." Mostly, he says, he doesn't want to become one of those guys who hang around "out of ego because they could not stop."

Not that that seems remotely likely. If his name no longer sells tickets on its own, you hear him described in hushed reverential tones as one of the greatest American actors, a modern-day Spencer Tracy. Warren Beatty, who hired Hackman to play his brother in "Bonnie and Clyde," considers him one of the best American actors working. So do Dustin Hoffman and Clint Eastwood. Robert Duvall has called him America's "Everyman." Even now, two of Hackman's co-stars on his current film, "The Quick and the Dead," Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, agreed to do the film largely because of the chance to work with him. "I don't know when you get in the league of people like that," says DiCaprio.

"Right now he's at the top of his form," adds Sydney Pollack, who directed Hackman in "The Firm" last summer. "Almost at a Zen-like place in his acting where you don't see the effort, he's so comfortable with himself."

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