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In conversation with Dustin Hoffman
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In conversation with Dustin Hoffman

Sunday, 03 December 2017
By Frank Rousseau
Frank Rousseau

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6 min read

Interviewing Dustin Hoffman is a privilege no-one can refuse. Especially when this screen legend is in a chatty mood. In a career spanning more than half a century, he has marked generations of fans and inspired hundreds of young actors.

What he lacks in height he makes up for in talent. The star of The Graduate, Kramer vs. Kramer, Little Big Man, Tootsie, Papillon and Rain Man recalls off-screen moments from some of the films in his impressive career.

Have you ever been tempted to buy a really nice watch?

Yes, in Las Vegas while filming Rain Man with Tom Cruise. I was walking down the Strip one evening when I came across this store, or rather a pawnbroker, that had a display of Swiss watches in its window. One of them in particular caught my eye, a Jaeger-LeCoultre if I’m not mistaken. I was about to go in and buy it, but a little voice told me it had probably been left there by some poor guy who’d lost the shirt off his back in one of the casinos. There wasn’t much I could do except hope his luck would turn and he’d be able to buy back his watch. And I went on my way. Back at the hotel, I told myself I’d done the right thing. My conscience was clear. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’ll never see a clock in a casino and the dealers don’t wear a watch either, the point being for you to lose track of time. I thought about this guy, without his watch, being taken to the cleaners all over again.

Dustin Hoffman
Dustin Hoffman
A remake of Papillon recently finished. What can you tell us about shooting the original movie?

It came out in 1974, if I remember correctly. Henri Charrière had sold us the rights to his best-selling book. I wasn’t even supposed to be in it. They hired me because I didn’t cost much back then! [laughs]. You see, they were paying Steve McQueen $2 million, which was the most any actor had ever been paid. By way of comparison, Richard Burton earned $1 million for Cleopatra. Anyway, the producers needed another star, to show Steve to advantage, I guess. The film had gone way over budget, and the producers had to go knocking on doors to raise enough money to finish it. We were on location in Jamaica and the crew hadn’t been paid. It got to the point where they refused to hand over the cameras. The whole thing was a nightmare!

I’ve always thought Steve McQueen was amazing in Papillon. He gave such a convincing performance. Of course, he did spend time behind bars as a teenager. Sure, it wasn’t the penal colony in Cayenne but he still understood what it meant to have your freedom taken away. The way he used to talk about prison made me think it wasn’t a fun place, and I remember he didn’t appreciate people making jokes about jail. Steve McQueen was no ordinary man. The day he got his $2 million cheque, we celebrated in a restaurant in San Sebastian, in Spain. He’d turned up a few days after everyone else because he’d been partying with Ali MacGraw. He would go on about how he wished his fans would leave him alone, how he wanted to stay incognito. Why not, except he’d turn up for appointments driving some hot rod. You knew it was him when you heard the tyres screeching. He owned quite a few race cars. That was his thing. Cars and watches. I don’t know how many watches he had. Some TAG Heuers, including the Monaco of course, plus other brands too. Steve had a thing about watches. He always had to be seen with women, cars and watches! So anyway, we’re sitting down in this Spanish restaurant and Steve pulls out the $2 million dollar cheque he’d just been given. He looks me straight in the eye and says, “We’ll split it.” He was like that. Unpredictable and generous. Strangely enough, the first time we met he actually seemed wary of me, but that day in Spain we became friends for life.

I heard there was some story about a watch during the filming of Little Big Man. What was that?

As you know, I’m probably one of the shortest actors around, so you can imagine the trouble I had getting on a horse for Little Big Man. I could hardly get my legs round its belly. I was like a compass with my two legs sticking out! The production team came up with all kinds of ways to hoist me up there, from a stepladder to this pulley system that would lift me off the ground then lower me onto the horse. Given the amount of time and effort it took just to get me in the saddle, you can imagine that once I was up there, we had to shoot as many horseback scenes as we could! [laughs]. So, I spent hours upon end sitting on this horse, staring at my watch thinking “when is this going to be over?”. Back then I’d bought myself a Rolex with a sweep seconds hand. It was beautiful, I used to love looking at it. Until the day one of the crew members told me there was a problem. I asked him if there was something wrong with the horse. And he replied, “It’s not the horse, Mr Hoffman, it’s your watch. This is a Western and people didn’t wear that kind of watch then.” After that, to my great disappointment, I had to leave it in my room. At the end of the day, by the time some kind soul had helped me down, the muscles in my legs were completely dead. Someone would put me in a car, stiff as a board, drive me home and tell my wife to put me in a bath of Epsom salts. I haven’t been able to cross my legs since! [laughs]. It’s a good thing I’m not a woman, otherwise I’d be accused of lacking decorum!

Dustin Hoffman was speaking to Frank Rousseau in Los Angeles.

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