My admiration for the work of actor Gene Hackman, all comes down to his role in The French Connection from 1971. Let’s have it right, that is a stellar film for so many reasons. Yes, Hackman has made some wonderful films since then and I’ll touch on some of them in a moment, but I watch The French Connection every time it comes around, just because, well, it’s there.
Hackman is magnificent as Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle, the spiky and mean New York detective, with a pork pie hat balancing on his combed over head of hair, as he runs around on the hunt for the leader of a French drug smuggling cartel. If ever a role brought an actor to the attention of the movie fan in me as one to watch out for, that was the one.
All right, Popeye’s here! Get your hands on your heads, get off the bar, and get on the wall!
He was born Eugene Allen Hackman in the January of 1930, in San Bernardino, California, to mum Anna and Dad Eugene Snr., a reporter for the local newspaper. The family later moved to Danville, Illinois. His parents divorced when he was 13, after his father just walked away from the family set-up, waving goodbye, never to return.
‘It was a real adios. It was so precise. Maybe that’s why I became an actor. I doubt I would have become so sensitive to human behaviour if that hadn’t happened to me as a child—if I hadn’t realised how much one small gesture can mean. Acting was something I wanted to do since I was ten and saw my first movie, I was so captured by the action guys. Jimmy Cagney was my favourite. Without realising it, I could see he had tremendous timing and vitality.’
Hackman left home aged sixteen, lying about his age to enlist in the US Marine Corps, ending up serving four years as a radio operator, stationed first in China, then Japan and Hawaii. Discharged in 1951, he landed in New York. At first, he tried his hand at TV production, studying under the G.I. Bill of Rights, but gave up on that and moved to California, with his first wife Faye.
Now I’m gonna bust your ass for those three bags and I’m gonna nail you for picking your feet in Poughkeepsie.
There he joined the Pasadena Playhouse, and became good friends with another aspiring actor called Dustin Hoffman. They were both thought of as ‘no hopers’ by their classmates, with Hackman describing himself as a ‘big lummox kind of person’ and they were both voted ‘least likely to succeed.’ Using that judgement as fuel to his fire, Hackman moved back to New York , where he met up again with Hoffman and another struggling thespian, Robert Duvall. Staying close, they then shared apartments at various times, during the 1960s. Gene worked various jobs to support himself, whilst trying to make a go of the acting game against a tide of apathy and ridicule.
‘It was more psychological warfare, because I wasn’t going to let those fuckers get me down. I insisted with myself that I would continue to do whatever it took to get a job. It was like me against them, and in some way, unfortunately, I still feel that way. But I think if you’re really interested in acting there is a part of you that relishes the struggle. It’s a narcotic in the way that you are trained to do this work, and nobody will let you do it, so you’re a little bit nuts. You lie to people, you cheat, you do whatever it takes to get an audition, get a job.’
Never trust anyone!
Hackman’s mother died in 1962, before he hit it big, so never saw him make it. He rarely speaks about her death, but it has been reported that she was drinking, then passed out in bed with a lit cigarette, starting a fire that killed her. Slowly, he began to pick up small TV and film parts and he acted off Broadway. Then things changed up big time, when he landed a decent part as Buck Barrow in the film Bonnie and Clyde, which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination. He picked up a second nomination in 1970 for I Never Sang for My Father, then scooped the big one, Best Actor, for his portrayal of Doyle in the film, directed by William Friedkin, from a screenplay by Ernest Tidyman.
This is Doyle. I’m sittin’ on Frog One…
The Oscar now put him in the frame for leading man roles and over the next few years he appeared in big box office films like The Poseidon Adventure, in 1972, and The Conversation directed by Francis Ford Coppola in 1974. He was back as ‘Popeye’ Doyle in The French Connection II , with the film this time set in Marseilles. He then appeared as Polish major general Sosabowski in A Bridge Too Far in 1977 and as Lex Luthor in Superman in 1978 and its subsequent sequels in 1980 and 1987.
The Westbury my ass! I got him on the shuttle at Grand Central, now what the hell’s going on up there?
Other notable parts saw him Reds in 1981, Hoosiers in 1986 and Missippi Burning in 1988, which brought him another Best Actor nomination. He later followed that up as ‘Little’ Bill Daggett in Unforgiven from 1990 directed by Clint Eastwood , which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, with the film also picking up the Best Picture too,
Listen, I know the deal hasn’t gone down yet. I know it! I can feel it, I’m dead certain.
1993 saw him in The Firm alongside Tom Cruise , and he starred with Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide in 1995. In the same year, he starred in Get Shorty alongside John Travolta and Danny DeVito and in 1998, he was in Enemy of the State with Will Smith
Your hunches have been wrong before Jimmy
Going into his 70s, he was as busy as ever . He starred in Heist in 2001 and The Royal Tenenbaum’s for Wes Anderson in the same year. He and his old pal ‘Dustbone’ – Dustin Hoffman – finally teamed up in Runaway Jury in 2003. Hackman then retired from acting after Welcome to Mooseport in 2004. When asked in 2011 , would he consider coming out of retirement , he replied ‘if I could do it in my own house, maybe, without them disturbing anything and just one or two people…’
In reality medical advice had forced the issue – ‘The straw that broke the camel’s back was actually a stress test that I took in New York. The doctor advised me that my heart wasn’t in the kind of shape that I should be putting it under any stress.
When I’m actually on the set or on a stage, actually doing the work, I loved that process and I loved the creative process of trying to bring a character to life, and then, when you’re actually shooting or performing, there is a kind of a feeling that comes over you, a confidence and kind of a wonderful, washed over feeling of wellbeing, if you will. When it’s going well! Whereas the business part of show business is kinda wicked. You jump from trying to be a sponge, if you will, in terms of input from other actors and the director and everything that’s surrounding you, you jump from that to a luncheon meeting with an agent and a producer on another film, or something that’s gone on, on the film that you’re doing. It’s kind of a frying pan. It was jarring and at my age and with my health, I decided I didn’t want to do that any longer.’
What was the weight of the car when it came in Irv?
Added to his acting career, he has written numerous books, with subjects including historical fiction, the American civil war, the old wild west and his last one to date, a police thriller 2013.
Gene – ‘It’s very relaxing for me. I don’t picture myself as a great writer, but I really enjoy the process, . We had to do a great deal of research and it is stressful to some degree, but it’s a different kind of stress. It’s one you can kind of manage, because you’re sitting there by yourself, as opposed to having ninety people sitting around waiting for you to entertain them!’
Frog one is in that room…
Married twice, he has three children, and he lives in Sante Fe, New Mexico , at the grand old age of 92.
Director, Alan Parker – ‘Gene is someone who is very intuitive and an instinctive actor. The brilliance of Gene Hackman is that he can look at a scene and he can cut through to what is necessary, and he does it with extraordinary economy—he’s the quintessential movie actor. He’s never showy ever, but he’s always right on.’
Asked how he’d like to be remembered Hackman said
‘As a decent actor. As someone who tried to portray what was given to them in an honest fashion. I don’t know, beyond that. I don’t think about that often, to be honest.
I’m at an age where I should think about it….’
The Mumper of SE5
THE SPEAKEASY VOLUME 2 – AVAILABLE NOW
THE SPEAKEASY Volume Two by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)
Illustrations by Lewis Wharton
Foreword by Rhoda Dakar
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