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Still the Tough Guy

Hem Gene Hackman in and you're in for a fight. He needs room to do his best work, whether it's in 'French Connection' or 'Royal Tenenbaums.'

December 16, 2001|ROBERT W. WELKOS

Gene Hackman holds up his hand to display the small scabs still evident on his knuckles three weeks after he was involved in a minor traffic accident in West Hollywood that escalated into a fistfight with two men in broad daylight.

"He brushed against me and I popped him," Hackman recalls, slapping his open palm with his fist to illustrate. "Then the other guy jumped on me. We had this ugly wrestling match on the ground. The police came.... I got a couple of good shots in. The guy had me around the neck. That's the ugly part. When you're down on the ground and you're [nearly] 72 years old ..."

Hackman pauses. "I was as responsible as they were," he says, looking as though he regrets the incident.

Whoever was at fault, the fight must have been a doozy. The actor--a former Marine--was kicked in the groin and flipped on his stomach. He remembers getting out of his car to apologize for "tapping" the other vehicle from behind and facing two young, "pretty good-sized" men who were being "really intimidating." But he said the only injuries he suffered were a few scratches on his forehead and a big black-and-blue mark on the back of his leg.

There was a moment, Hackman notes, when he could have backed off and the incident might have ended peacefully. So, why didn't he?

"I was mad," he says. "There were two of them and I felt threatened."

And when Gene Hackman gets mad, watch out. As any filmmaker who's worked with him during his 40-year career can attest, Hackman is not a guy to mess with.

With his nervous laugh, flinty persona, imposing physique and Everyman mug, Gene Hackman has come to embody the tough-guy image of the American male on screen, an icon with a hint of danger lurking somewhere behind those restless eyes.

"There's something very charismatic in him, even when he's being his worst," observed Wes Anderson, who directed Hackman in the new black comedy "The Royal Tenenbaums," which has generated considerable Oscar buzz around Hollywood for the veteran actor.

"There is something about him that gives him a kind of gravity that is pretty rare," Anderson added. "When they are playing a scene where there is sadness or something gentle, he can be especially sad and gentle. When they are playing a scene where they need to turn on the rage, he can be scary at the drop of a hat. That is the way he will attack a scene--with everything he's got."

At an age when acting careers are frequently ebbing, the 71-year-old Hackman remains as popular and busy as ever. He currently stars in three high-profile movies, each requiring a different, textured performance, yet each evoking the tough-guy persona he has perfected over his long career.

In David Mamet's "Heist," released last month, he plays the brilliant, no-nonsense leader of a gang of jewel thieves who's willing to spill blood to get revenge on a double-cross.

In first-time director John Moore's "Behind Enemy Lines," which also opened last month, he's the gruff but patriotic U.S. Navy admiral determined to defy orders and risk his career if that's what it takes to rescue an American flier whose plane has gone down in war-torn Bosnia.

And, in "The Royal Tenenbaums," which opened in limited release Friday in Los Angeles and New York, Hackman portrays Royal Tenenbaum, the eccentric, sharp-tongued patriarch of a family of geniuses who tries to con his way back into the good graces of his estranged wife (Anjelica Huston) and three grown children (Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson) by pretending to have cancer.

Hackman's life, much like his screen roles, is one of contrasting images, from the product of a broken home whose happiness was ripped from him when his father up and left one day, to the grown man, an accomplished painter and late-blooming novelist who lives a life of refinement far from the madding crowd of Hollywood in art-friendly Santa Fe, N.M., with his second wife, Betsy, a classical pianist.

Although Hackman calls winning two Academy Awards "a great experience," he can't recall where he has put his golden statuettes. "We don't keep them out," he said. "Maybe they're packed somewhere. It's not that I'm not proud of them. We don't have anything in the house about show business--except I do have a poster of Errol Flynn."

A decade ago, a bout of angina sent him to the hospital for angioplasty surgery. It was a health problem so serious that doctors at the time told his wife he only had a few hours to live had he not received prompt care. But heart problems have not slowed him. There was a time when his passion was aerobatic flying and race cars. Now, he and Betsy sail to exotic locales to dive shipwrecks and coral reefs.

And despite his status as one of Hollywood's acting heavyweights, he has managed to keep his private life largely out of the public eye--except for his headline-grabbing street brawl--and rarely reveals himself in interviews. He lets his acting speak for itself.

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