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Ignore Reports to the Contrary--Hoffman's a Nice Guy

March 09, 1997|Glenn Lovell | Glenn Lovell is an occasional contributor to Calendar

SAN JOSE — Dustin Hoffman--among the hardest working and most demanding actors now going--has been called a lot of things in the three decades since "The Graduate." But "regular guy" and "saint" don't usually top the list.

Known for demanding as much from writers, directors and co-stars as he demands of himself, Hoffman has a reputation for being, in the words of an "Outbreak" co-star, "a pain in the ass, but brilliant." Depending on the day, he also will answer to "prima donna," "perfectionist," "prickly."

The popular theory behind "What makes Dusty rant?": It took the actor so long to connect (he was 29 when cast as Benjamin Braddock in "The Graduate") that he couldn't sit still and enjoy--or become lackadaisical about--his success. This seems to be changing as the actor nears his 60th birthday (in August) and begins to collect the kind of career testimonials once reserved for an Olivier or a Gielgud, or an American icon in failing health.

Anyone seeking proof need only check in with the still-gaga citizenry here. Park transients as well as downtown business types fell in love with Hoffman during the making of "Mad City," directed by Costa-Gavras and co-starring John Travolta as an ex-security guard who takes hostages at his former place of employment, a natural history museum. Hoffman is the TV reporter who, like Kirk Douglas in "Ace in the Hole," exploits and orchestrates the unfolding drama. (The Warner Bros. production, which reportedly shot two endings, is scheduled for a September release.)

Those who staked out the four-block set found Hoffman a regular Boy Scout, a "totally nice guy" who--yup, you guessed it--halted traffic and production to help a little old lady cross the street.

The actor even gave up his penthouse bed and Jacuzzi to a couple of displaced newlyweds and, just before leaving town, participated in a fund-raiser to rebuild a church that had been gutted by fire.

Shameless column fodder and photo-ops, the cynical among you snort. Uh-uh, chorus the actor's many newfound friends.

"He's not what you would expect," said the October bride, Kim Iden. "He's really a kind man."

"You could see it wasn't a show," said Lina Broydo of the San Jose Fairmont Hotel, where Hoffman stayed for three weeks last fall and sometimes tinkled the ivories in the lobby lounge. "He sincerely loves people."

Lindi Ramsden, senior minister of the fire-damaged First Unitarian Church, described Hoffman as "just amazingly present to all the people--a student of the human soul."

Hoffman the good Samaritan leaped into action his first night in town. At the desk of the Fairmont he learned that the producers had wrangled him the $2,000-a-night honeymoon suite, which was supposed to have gone to Matt and Kim Iden, a Scotts Valley salesman and his dental hygienist bride.

Hoffman, devoted husband and father of six, demanded the hotel put the couple back in the penthouse suite; he would bunk down in their digs, across the hall. And just to show how sorry he was about the mix-up, Hoffman told the hotel to tell the couple: "I'll sign your guest book and come down to your reception."

"We thought, 'Wow, what a nice gesture,' and sort of forgot about it," Kim recalled. "Then, right before dinner, we heard, 'He's too tired to come to the reception, but he'd like you to come up to his room. Grab your photographer.' "

Upstairs, a bushed Hoffman, in khaki pants and no shoes, asked how the wedding had gone. Then, as it often does with Hoffman, inspiration hit: "You need a wedding dance," he told the couple. "Let's go to your suite and I'll play for you. It'll be your first dance."

In the honeymoon suite, Hoffman sat at the baby grand and played one of his own compositions, the love theme from "Tootsie." (Like many Hoffman fans, the Idens had no idea Hoffman had studied at the L.A. Conservatory of Music and considered a concert career.)

"It was a slow, romantic song, like a waltz," Kim said. "It went on pretty long. We got tons of pictures. A tape recorder? No, darn it, we didn't tape it. But we got tons of pictures."

After the dance, Hoffman signed the guest book and solicited some free advice from Kim. How important is it to floss? he wanted to know.

'Mad City," written by Tom Matthews and Ebbe Roe Smith, was originally set in Madison, Wis. But when location scouts picked San Jose's columned Athletic Club to play the museum where the standoff escalates, the producers either had to dig up the palm trees across the street (at $10,000 a pop) or rename the city. They decided to swap Madison for a nondescript town called Madeleine.

But what about the next-door First Unitarian Church, which would be in many of the crowd scenes? Though heavily damaged in a six-alarm fire, the historic landmark was presentable from the street. Church officials were happy to remove street-side scaffolding. Maybe the film company could do them a good turn?

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