“The Worst Actors Get the Parts”

 

Fans Gene Hackman and Dustin HoffmanI don’t know how many are interested in such things, but among those who follow the careers of the best American actors, there is a well-known bit of lore about the pre-fame friendship of Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, and Robert Duvall.

Well, it’s not lore, it’s true. You can read about it here. The trio banged around New York for a solid 10 years before finally finding their footing in the film business.

Every young actor in New York or Hollywood feasts on such stories because they make the impossible seem real. You and your buddies—as hungry and invisible as you are now—could one day find yourselves on top. It could happen. It has.

Gene Hackman is retired now. Hasn’t made a movie since 2004. And more’s the pity because he’s an American treasure.

The same can be said for Robert Duvall, who’s still going strong—maybe stronger than ever. But Duvall’s a man of few words. He’s not prone to reminiscing.

Luckily, Dustin Hoffman, the youngest of the old gang, likes to talk and has rarely been at a loss for something to say. Yesterday, he told John Hockenberry of WNYC’s The Takeaway a crackerjack of a story about Duvall and the science of auditioning:

Actors will tell you it’s nothing to audition for ten years and not get anything.

What Duvall told me when we we were roommates, he said, “Many times the worst actors get the part because the producers and the director really want to see the character when you do an audition, and actors who have studied with one of these, let’s say, ‘giants’ of acting teachers, would say, “You have to find the character. There’s a way, a system of finding the character and you kind of start from zero.”

Which is really what [director Mike] Nichols had us do in rehearsal for The Graduate.

And as Duvall said, “The actors who have a character for the audition—and they haven’t even rehearsed yet, they’re just auditioning—will give you a derivative character, they’ll give you a cliché, and they give you the most superficial one, but the director and the producers say, ‘Oh! Yes! Now we know what we’re gonna get.”

And that’s why Duvall said those actors he used to call: “What you see is what you get.”

All these guys will be gone one day, maybe soon. Like I said, I’m not sure how many are interested, but for those of us who are, this stuff is as good as gold.

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  1. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    A great story, Matthew, and it happens (of course) in every generation. I’ve read a bio of Spencer Tracy where he reminisces about getting beat for Broadway parts in 1930 by Frederic March, a more than decent actor who’s almost forgotten today. I heard 80 year old Barbara Stanwyck reminisce about auditioning against Claudette Colbert and Lucille Ball (“and none of us thought we’d ever make it into the Talkies”)

    In the Sixties, Robert Vaughn went from playing “Teenage Caveman” to getting an Oscar nomination for “The Young Philadelphians” within 18 months, the envy of all his actor buddies. Pal Gary Lockwood got a TV series first (“The Lieutenant”), but pal Steve McQueen bolted out of television and became a genuine movie star. Vaughn’s “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” became a huge hit, but McQueen and Vaughn were both amiably jealous of Lockwood for landing a part on a Stanley Kubrick film, “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Then, when Vaughn was off the air again, McQueen talked him into a supporting role in “Bullitt”.

    • #1
  2. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Didn’t know they were friends before making it big. For some reason Duvall has always played stoic old men, so the older he gets the better he gets.

    • #2
  3. Knotwise the Poet Member
    Knotwise the Poet
    @KnotwisethePoet

    I read Michael Caine’s memoir “The Elephant to Hollywood” last year.  Pretty interesting book (I do wish I’d gotten the audiobook, though, so I could have heard him read it).  I guess he and Sean Connery were pals before either made it really big (I think he was friends with some other future British stars, though I don’t recall all who).  Anyways, one story I remember from the book is that he and Connery were at some pub where there was karaoke.  Some guys were up singing and a few guys at the table next to Caine’s and Connery’s were heckling the singers.  Connery told them to knock it off and when they didn’t he went over and laid them all flat.

    • #3
  4. Southern Pessimist Member
    Southern Pessimist
    @SouthernPessimist

    And as Duvall said, “The actors who have a character for the audition—and they haven’t even rehearsed yet, they’re just auditioning—will give you a derivativecharacter, they’ll give you a cliché, and they give you the most superficial one, but the director and the producers say, ‘Oh! Yes! Now we know what we’re gonna get.”

    And that’s why Duvall said those actors he used to call: “What you see is what you get.”

    Are you talking about acting or politics?

    • #4
  5. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    Southern Pessimist:And as Duvall said, “The actors who have a character for the audition—and they haven’t even rehearsed yet, they’re just auditioning—will give you a

    And that’s why Duvall said those actors he used to call: “What you see is what you get.”

    Are you talking about acting or politics?

    Good question. When I saw George Allen up close, he came across as someone who knew he was in a crowd of potential donors and/or vocal supporters, and had a well rehearsed, pre-packaged role for us, the diamond in the rough who’s got what counts, guts and convictions. But he came across as someone auditioning as J.R. Ewing, or a socially conservative LBJ; it was a slick imitation.

    By contrast, when John Kasich “auditioned” with the same group earlier, he did something that casting directors claim to admire, but seldom reward: Kasich did something authentic and original. Given an easy lay-up, a friendly fat cat’s question about getting the Feds to protect his studio against Canadian competition, he shrugged instead. “I’m a Republican (the whole room, as he knew, was full of conservatives). You make a bad business decision, you can’t compete or you lose money, that’s not my business, and it’s not the government’s either.”

    • #5
  6. Matthew Hennessey Contributor
    Matthew Hennessey
    @MatthewHennessey

    Southern Pessimist:And as Duvall said, “The actors who have a character for the audition—and they haven’t even rehearsed yet, they’re just auditioning—will give you a

    And that’s why Duvall said those actors he used to call: “What you see is what you get.”

    Are you talking about acting or politics?

    I know what you mean. I considered drawing that connection but thought better of it. Sometimes an actor’s old war stories are just an actor’s old war stories.

    • #6
  7. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    Off-topic but pls tell Ursula I miss her sports commentary on this site particularly after Jeter’s retirement this year. Not to get huffy or anything, but I surely would have appreciated a pick-me-up post during this melancholy time for Yankee fans. ;)

    • #7
  8. Matthew Hennessey Contributor
    Matthew Hennessey
    @MatthewHennessey

    EThompson:Off-topic but pls tell Ursula I miss her sports commentary on this site particularly after Jeter’s retirement this year. Not to get huffy or anything, but I surely would have appreciated a pick-me-up post during this melancholy time for Yankee fans. ;)

    Will do! ;)

    • #8
  9. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    I was listening to Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, where Gottfried and Frank Santopadre interview various Hollywood figures. They had Larry Storch on. Storch’s most famous role was as Cpl. Agarn on F Troop, but he had an interesting career. Anyway, during WWII, Storch served on a submarine tender with a guy who wanted to break into show business named Bernie Schwartz. He told Bernie how tough the business was, but told him he’d help if he could. (Storch had a little pre-war experience under his belt by virtue of dropping out of school at 15 to go into vaudeville.)

    Anyway, after the war Bernie changed his name to “Tony Curtis,” and Storch said he never really needed an agent after that because Tony got him so much work.

    • #9
  10. user_697797 Member
    user_697797
    @

    Outside of Gene Hackman’s horrific Polish accent in “A Bridge Too Far”, he definitely qualifies as one of my all-time favorites.

    • #10
  11. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    I’m always reminded of Laurence Olivier’s comment to Dustin Hoffman when Hoffnan was having trouble getting into character while they were filming “Marathon Man” – “Why don’t you try acting“.

    Mark Metcalfe (Nedermeir in Animal House) used to be a regular on a local radio show, had two stories about the best direction he ever received when he was working on stage:

    “You’re an actor – try acting like a good one.”

    “Don’t just walk around stage saying your lines – I can hire the janitor to do that.”

    • #11
  12. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    Knotwise the Poet:I read Michael Caine’s memoir “The Elephant to Hollywood” last year. Pretty interesting book (I do wish I’d gotten the audiobook, though, so I could have heard him read it). I guess he and Sean Connery were pals before either made it really big (I think he was friends with some other future British stars, though I don’t recall all who). Anyways, one story I remember from the book is that he and Connery were at some pub where there was karaoke. Some guys were up singing and a few guys at the table next to Caine’s and Connery’s were heckling the singers. Connery told them to knock it off and when they didn’t he went over and laid them all flat.

    I know what my next audible is going to be.  In fact, I’m going to get it today, and put the book I’m currently listening to on hold.

    • #12
  13. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    Is it a bizarre coincidence that I dreamed last night that I met Gene Hackman?

    • #13
  14. user_928667 Member
    user_928667
    @Daphnesdad

    I met Gene Hackman in the men’s restroom in San Francisco’s Hall of Justice.  He was there to watch Tony Serra in action in a criminal case Tony was trying.  I said Hi to Mr. Hackman as I thought I recognized him as a bailiff or someone else I knew casually in the building.  He said Hi and grinned.

    Later a bailiff friend of mine said, “Did you see Popeye Doyle?”

    A lightbulb went off and I thought, “Oh, dang.”

    Later I remembered something Lawrence Olivier had said about being able to walk the streets unrecognized:  “Act unimportant.”

    Hackman did not have “celebrity energy.”

    • #14
  15. user_56871 Thatcher
    user_56871
    @TheScarecrow

    Out of the blue, I just started Lonesome Dove again. Duvall’s Gus McCrea proves again why he is one of my top maybe three fictional characters ever. ( Thinking of Samwise Gamgee, and there must be another in there.)  There is so much nuance – such sweetness, such humor, such wisdom, such violence, and in the end, such tenderness.  A tough old cob.

    Gene Hackman? Made everything he was ever in better. Even when you think it can’t get any better. Watch Young Frankenstein.

    Hoffman? Some atrocious parts – Perfume… Some legendary parts – all the ones you’re thinking of.  And one of my faves: Ishtar. Ishtar – just wow.

    • #15
  16. BuckeyeSam Inactive
    BuckeyeSam
    @BuckeyeSam

    Gary McVey:

    ***

    I’ve read a bio of Spencer Tracy where he reminisces about getting beat for Broadway parts in 1930 by Frederic March, a more than decent actor who’s almost forgotten today.

    ***

    No actor who starred in the cast of The Best Years of Our Lives will ever be forgotten. At least I hope so.

    • #16
  17. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    My wife used to work for the Samuel Goldwyn Company, run by Sam Junior (in a rare exception to Hollywood’s rule of nepotism, he was an excellent film executive in his own right), and when they moved out of their longtime studio lot home (where “Star Wars” was mixed, BTW), bits and pieces of their corporate records made their way to Sam’s modern office building in Century City.

    One of them was an ordinary bound schoolbook with lined paper. As each Goldwyn film of the classic era was approved for production, its title was written in ink and a consecutive production number issued. The copyright office was notified, and the film processing laboratory instructed to issue X amount of credit to the new film. That was usually the first legal mark of its existence as a real movie, not just a script that might be made.

    At the end of the pages for 1945, there was a final entry, “Glory For Me”. It was crossed out and the new title handwritten under it, “The Best Years of Our Lives”. It was a thrill, knowing that those scribbled words on paper meant little at the time, but mean so much to us ever since.

    For the little Goldwyn outfit, the 1946 Christmas smash was “Gone With the Wind” meets “The Godfather”: an enormous hit, a prestige picture that everyone would be proud of forever.

    • #17
  18. captainpower Inactive
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    BuckeyeSam:Gary McVey:

    ***

    I’ve read a bio of Spencer Tracy where he reminisces about getting beat for Broadway parts in 1930 by Frederic March, a more than decent actor who’s almost forgotten today.

    ***

    No actor who starred in the cast of The Best Years of Our Lives will ever be forgotten. At least I hope so.

    Thanks for sharing!

    I hadn’t heard of this film or Frederic March, but will have to add it to my netflix queue.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036868/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

    It’s also available for rental/purchase:

    • vudu $2.99 rental, $9.99 purchase
    • amazon $2.99-$3.99 rental, $9.99-$14.99 purchase
    • #18
  19. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    captainpower:

    BuckeyeSam:Gary McVey:

    ***

    I’ve read a bio of Spencer Tracy where he reminisces about getting beat for Broadway parts in 1930 by Frederic March, a more than decent actor who’s almost forgotten today.

    ***

    No actor who starred in the cast of The Best Years of Our Lives will ever be forgotten. At least I hope so.

    Thanks for sharing!

    I hadn’t heard of this film or Frederic March, but will have to add it to my netflix queue.

    Please tell me that you’re very, very young, or I shall be terminally depressed.

    • #19
  20. Peter Robinson Contributor
    Peter Robinson
    @PeterRobinson

    I love this stuff, Matt, and Gary, and all of you–just love it. Hm. Come to think of it, I might add a little story of my own.

    When Rob and I took Nancy Reagan to lunch a couple of years ago–Mrs. Reagan still has a regular table at the Hotel Bel Air–she started peppering Rob with questions about present-day actors he admires, then started talking about one of the actors whose technique she always particularly admired herself. It took Rob and me a moment or two to figure out that when, completely casually and unself-consciously, she referred to “Spence,” she was talking about one of the two or three finest actors in the history of film, Spencer Tracy.

    She’d known Spence she she was a girl, she explained. He and her mother–Mrs. Reagan’s mother, Edith Luckett, as you may recall, was an actress herself–had known each other in the theater before Spence moved out to Hollywood, and when Mrs. Luckett left the stage to marry Dr. Davis, who became Mrs. Reagan’s adoptive father, he stayed in touch.

    A lot. “Spence would visit us for a few days at a time.” Pause. “He’d spend most of the time sleeping.”  Pause. “You see…he’d be sleeping off a binge.”

    • #20
  21. user_2505 Contributor
    user_2505
    @GaryMcVey

    That’s a wonderful story, Peter. It’s the kind of real life Hollywood history that, ironically enough, could be overlooked by blinkered historians scanning the story for “Nancy Reaganisms” that would be politically simple to comprehend for the pre-existing prejudices of their audiences. It’s rather hard to think of another First Lady whose unique life experiences included being among the top of Hollywood society in the Fifties. That alone ought to make Nancy Reagan’s film memories as respected as those of, say, Bette Davis in “Hollywood Be Thy Name”. But the mainline guys will treat her like a not-quite-respectable narrator, after all, “the Eva Peron of America”. We can shout the truth all we like.

    Come to think of it, that’s why we’re here.

    • #21
  22. captainpower Inactive
    captainpower
    @captainpower

    Miffed White Male:

    captainpower:

    Thanks for sharing!

    I hadn’t heard of this film or Frederic March, but will have to add it to my netflix queue.

    Please tell me that you’re very, very young, or I shall be terminally depressed.

    I’m in my 30s at the upper age bracket of millennials.

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but such is the way of the world.

    Complaints about societal decline recur between generations, but they aren’t meritless.

    Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians – we call them ‘children.

    Knowledge is lost. It wasn’t until recently that we recreated Damascus Steel – using modern techniques. We may never know exactly how it was done historically.

    The venn-diagram overlap of culture in common is shrinking as media and access to it explodes. It’s easier to know a lot about a niche topic that others don’t know about. And everyone is ignorant about something.

    On the bright side, this means there is always opportunity to introduce people to great stuff they’ve never seen, heard, or thought.

    And there are those who collect and redistribute shared culture.

    Part of why I love Ricochet is because I know there is lots to learn.

    As tribute, I offer up one of my favorite films: The Philadelphia Story (not to be confused with The Philadelphia Experiment.)

    p.s. Quiz time. How many of these links had knowledge that was new to you?

    • #22
  23. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    captainpower:

    Miffed White Male:

    captainpower:

    Thanks for sharing!

    I hadn’t heard of this film or Frederic March, but will have to add it to my netflix queue.

    Please tell me that you’re very, very young, or I shall be terminally depressed.

    I’m in my 30s at the upper age bracket of millennials.

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but such is the way of the world.

    Complaints about societal decline recur between generations, but they aren’t meritless.

    Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians – we call them ‘children.

    As tribute, I offer up one of my favorite films: The Philadelphia Story (not to be confused with The Philadelphia Experiment.)

    The Philadelphia story.  You have redeemed yourself.

    Now let me throw out another name of a now (unjustly) obscure actor – William Powell.  I actually envy anyone unfamiliar with his work, because you have the opportunity to watch his work “fresh”.

    If you’re not familiar, here are your homework assignments:

    1:  The Thin Man

    2:  After the Thin Man

    3:  Mr. Roberts

    4:  Manhattan Melodrama

    5:  My Man Godfrey

    Next, we’ll discuss Fred Astaire.

    • #23
  24. Ricochet Contributor
    Ricochet
    @TitusTechera

    Miffed White Male:

    captainpower:

    Miffed White Male:

    captainpower:

    Thanks for sharing!

    I hadn’t heard of this film or Frederic March, but will have to add it to my netflix queue.

    Please tell me that you’re very, very young, or I shall be terminally depressed.

    I’m in my 30s at the upper age bracket of millennials.

    Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but such is the way of the world.

    Complaints about societal decline recur between generations, but they aren’t meritless.

    Every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians – we call them ‘children.

    As tribute, I offer up one of my favorite films: The Philadelphia Story (not to be confused with The Philadelphia Experiment.)

    The Philadelphia story. You have redeemed yourself.

    Now let me throw out another name of a now (unjustly) obscure actor – William Powell. I actually envy anyone unfamiliar with his work, because you have the opportunity to watch his work “fresh”.

    If you’re not familiar, here are your homework assignments:

    1: The Thin Man

    2: After the Thin Man

    3: Mr. Roberts

    4: Manhattan Melodrama

    5: My Man Godfrey

    Watch Love Crazy–the best romantic comedy with William Powell & Myrna Loy

    • #24
  25. kelsurprise Member
    kelsurprise
    @kelsurprise

    As an actor, I really loved that Vanity Fair article – – thanks for posting.

    One of my favorite lines:  “To live truthfully in an imaginary set of circumstances, that’s what it’s all about.”    Some think acting is about lying, but it’s about truth.    Even when the script calls for reactions or lines you can’t imagine saying – – you have to find your way to a place where you can actually understand how it would make sense to you, or it won’t make sense to anyone else.

    That said, I also liked the comment from Hackman that he never forgets it’s really him in there.   I’ve met actors who feel the only way to that truth is to “completely lose oneself” inside the part.   A self-indulgent, silly notion, in my opinion, not to mention dangerous.  Most of the injuries that I’ve witnessed or sustained myself on stage were caused by an actor who was so “in the moment” that all the blocking and safety rules were ignored.

    I’m all for doing anything you need to do (within the law) offstage to get your mind and physical being in the right place to play a part.  But it’s the actor, not the character, who needs to be in charge when you’re on stage.

    • #25
  26. Spin Coolidge
    Spin
    @Spin

    Spin:

    Knotwise the Poet:I read Michael Caine’s memoir “The Elephant to Hollywood” last year. Pretty interesting book (I do wish I’d gotten the audiobook, though, so I could have heard him read it). I guess he and Sean Connery were pals before either made it really big (I think he was friends with some other future British stars, though I don’t recall all who). Anyways, one story I remember from the book is that he and Connery were at some pub where there was karaoke. Some guys were up singing and a few guys at the table next to Caine’s and Connery’s were heckling the singers. Connery told them to knock it off and when they didn’t he went over and laid them all flat.

    I know what my next audible is going to be. In fact, I’m going to get it today, and put the book I’m currently listening to on hold.

    FYI – I’m an hour into this audible book and it’s great.  Probably the second best audible book (counting the entire LorR trilogy as one book) I’ve experienced.

    • #26
  27. Ricochet Inactive
    Ricochet
    @deoac

    A story that’s so good it must be apocryphal:

    As a young man, Harrison Ford was rejected for a part.

    Director: “You’re just not an actor.  Consider Marlon Brando.  He could play a busboy, but when he walks across stage, you say, ‘Now there goes an actor!'”

    Ford: “When I play a busboy, you say, “Now there goes a busboy.”

    • #27
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