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'YOU KNOW YOU'RE ALIVE WHEN YOU'RE MAKING LOVE--WHEN YOUR BODY IS COOKING LIKE THAT, YOU'VE GOT TO BE ALIVE'

A line like that might have been spoken by horny Benjamin Braddock to Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate," Hoffman's 1967 breakthrough film. But it's actually what the actor said to me in 1979, when I interviewed him following the opening of "Kramer vs. Kramer," in which he gave an Oscar-winning performance as a man who was a miserable flop at keeping his love alive. Hoffman told me a lot of other offbeat things that night, too--all of which I thought made perfect sense in a triumphantly weird way. I still do. --GUY FLATLEY


“My parents are happily married, now that they’ve gotten rid of my brother and me,” Dustin Hoffman says, half in jest, half in genuine relief. “I remember rousing fights and terrific tension in our house; I think that if my parents were in their 30’s today, they wouldn’t still be married. There were taboos against divorce in those days that kept marriages together, and maybe that was a good thing, because a lot of marriages today that are worth fighting for aren’t being fought for.”

Two candidates for that lamentable category come instantly to mind. In “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the tough but tearful movie that’s currently whizzing this sometimes underachieving “Graduate” back to the top of his class, Dustin plays a dedicated dad whose emotions are ravaged when his runaway wife returns to collect their spiritually battered son. And, in cruel real life, his seemingly idyllic marriage to dancer-actress Anne Byrne has collapsed, cutting him off for painful chunks of time from Jenna, his 9-year-old daughter, and Karina, Anne’s 13 year-old daughter by a previous marriage.

Watching Dustin pace back and forth in front of a ludicrously mammoth bed in a sterile hotel room, my mind roams back to another night, several years ago, and my conversation with a solidly married citizen, the very picture of proud fatherhood – and frustrated motherhood.

“I’m in favor of women’s lib,” Dustin told me then, tugging at the beard he’d sprouted for “Lenny,” “but every time I hear this talk about women being second-class citizens, I want to say, ‘What about men?’ Men miss out altogether on the wonderful experience of carrying babies inside their bodies. We have the sperm, and that’s it. Women get to carry the sperm and make the baby, which sounds pretty first-class to me. In the end, you gotta talk personal. So lib, schmib, the purest experience I’ve ever had was being present at the birth of my daughter. It was an experience that Anne and I shared. We were a unit, each helping the other do his own thing, none of this first-class, second-class stuff.”

Now that unit is being dissolved, and Dustin and Anne are headed for the not-so-minority class of divorced parents. Conceivably, some portion of their private pain is reflected on the public screen in “Kramer vs. Kramer.”

“I can’t talk about that, simply because it doesn’t feel good to talk about it,” says Hoffman, seated now and relentlessly twisting and pulling at an alien-looking blob of Silly Putty. “But if there are moments in the movie when you feel I’m coming very close to the bone, you’re probably right. Those moments are there.”

Hoffman seems more comfortable recalling scenes from an earlier marriage, distant domestic wars when he was growing up in 1940's California. “I was an outsider in my own family, and the one way I could be sure of getting attention was to make people laugh. That’s why I developed my ability as a mimic. I remember getting into fights with my brother, who was seven years older, and suddenly my mother would step smack into the action, and then we’d attack her.


“When my father walked in the door, my Mom would scream, ‘Harry, I can’t deal with them anymore!’ And he’d answer, ‘Lil, it’s your job to raise the kids. Listen, you guys, if you treat your mother badly, I’ll crack your heads together, because after you’re gone, I’ll have to live with this woman.’ ‘Harry,’ Mom would plead, ‘that’s enough!’ And he’d answer, ‘Shut up, Lil!’ The next night, at the dinner table, there’d be a complete playback from me, and everyone would double over laughing. That’s how performing became a high for me.”


Performing came naturally to Hoffman, but not acting. “I’ve never felt that I’m a natural actor; there’s a part of me that feels I’m just a guy that got lucky, and that the only thing I really had going for me is this un-actory physiognomy. There’s something so prosaic about me – I lack presence as an actor, but not as a performer. Performers are like kids, like my daughter Jenna. I can see her counting a group to see if there’s enough for an audience, and then saying, ‘Wanna see my cartwheel?'

“I’m still like that; whenever I’m in an elevator, it’s hard for me not to do a standup routine. Everyone else is staring stonily ahead, and I feel I must do something, even if it’s only something as simple as standing there and doing this.” Dustin’s shoulders stiffen, his eyes roll weirdly up into his head, his mouth hangs open and an unearthly death-rattle of a snore curls eerily out of his taut body. Then, in an instant, he’s grinning, childlike, and stretching his Silly Putty into oddly erotic shapes.

“Well, that always gets people going,” he says. “Either they turn around and sneer at me, or they laugh. I welcome both responses. You see, performing is somehow making people look at you, choosing certain things, pleasant or unpleasant, to make sure they won’t forget you. It’s proof that you were there. When you’re performing, you’re giving people a superficial layer, so they’ll know what to expect; but when you’re acting, you’re presenting them with an artichoke, allowing them to peel the layers off, to work their way to the core of your character. That’s what I’m trying to do, but I’m afraid I’m not succeeding.”

Critics who have rhapsodized over Dustin in his diverse roles – the impudent lad who dallies shamelessly with Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate,” the sweetly seedy Times Square hustler in “Midnight Cowboy,” the licentious, drug-addicted moralist in “Lenny,” the hyperkinetic crusader in “All the President’s Men” – would quibble with his brutal self-assessment. Perhaps his misplaced feelings of inadequacy stem from too many seasons spent in the shade of flashier men of the theater. While Hoffman sweated away in grimy Greenwich Village coffeehouses and Off-Broadway pits, Paul Newman basked nightly in the applause greeting his magnetically sexual Chance Wayne in “Sweet Bird of Youth.”

“I used to go to Central Park every Thursday afternoon and watch the Broadway Show League baseball games. I’d sit there watching those guys play ball, envying them the whole time. One day, I looked out to left field and my mouth fell open. Paul Newman was standing there – it was Paul Newman in left field! Right away, I put an imaginary 70-foot screen all around him and sat there gazing at the superstar. Then, suddenly, a high fly was hit into left field and Paul Newman began moving toward it – beautifully, the way you knew Paul Newman would move. And as he stretched out his arm and lifted his glove gracefully into the air, the ball went sailing right between his legs. The ball went through Paul Newman’s legs, and it made my day!”


Dustin’s day on Broadway came close to never dawning, due to a nightmarish accident which left him writhing in pain, a feverish patient diagnosed by hospital medics as terminal. Even today, his death-pocked view of life mirrors the horror he suffered on the eve of his intended Broadway debut, replacing Martin Sheen as the anguished hero of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Subject Was Roses.”


“The first day of rehearsals had gone very well,” Hoffman recalls quietly, “and my girlfriend was cooking a surprise dinner for me. There was a pot filled with oil, and it ignited, shooting flames up the kitchen wall. I reached for a pot holder, and things seemed to be under control, but there was a kind of explosion, and the next thing I remember was a great noise, an animal roar. Later, I realized the sound was coming from me. Then I was running up and down the hall, trying to put out the flames on my chest, my arms and my legs. I looked down at my arms and there was this white tissue, the skin pulled up in ringlets.”

When the ambulance arrived, Dustin refused to go to a hospital; instead, he went to a doctor he knew. “The doctor dressed my wounds every day, and I went to rehearsals. It was the middle of August and I wore long-sleeved shirts, and there were bandages all over my body. The pain was so bad that I held my arms over my head and clasped my hands together. I told the stage manager I was doing this because I had a habit of gesturing too much with my hands and I was trying to break it.


“After seven days of this, I was getting a little nutty, and my doctor insisted I see a surgeon friend of his. The surgeon said, ‘We’ve got to get you to a hospital bed right away – you’re poisoned.’ ‘But I’ll lose my part,’ I argued, and he said, ‘You’ll lose your life.’ So I went to the hospital.”

Dustin seems on the verge of tears now, reliving the agony of that lost chance to dazzle Broadway. “In the hospital they said I’d need surgery because the scar tissue had built up to a dangerous degree. One night I looked at myself in the mirror and my face had turned maroon – literally, maroon – so I called the nurse and asked her to take my temperature. She did, and I saw her mouth fall open. 'This is it!' I said to myself.

“It was midnight, and suddenly there was my doctor, his hair not even combed. 'We’ve got to operate right away,' he said, and then they were putting ice cubes in my armpits and on my crotch. I had a 106-degree fever, and they had to get me down to 102 before they could operate.

“ ‘What’s happening?,’ I asked my doctor, and he said, ‘You’re going to be fine.’ ‘I want the truth,’ I said. ‘Really?’ he asked. ‘Well, the truth is you can go either way.’ ‘Thank you,’ I said, and started singing 'I’ve Got You Under My Skin.' And then I was being wheeled into the operating room, naked as a jaybird, and I was appalled because everybody looked so bored.

“The anesthetist was from Hungary and sounded just like Dracula. ‘Don’t vurrie,’ he said, as he sprayed my mouth and throat, in order to get the tube down my esophagus, so that if I vomited during the operation, I wouldn’t strangle on the meal I’d eaten earlier. Meanwhile, someone else was sticking a thermometer up my rear, and I kept rejecting the tube, unintentionally, and spitting up blood. ‘How will we know when the tube is set?’ I asked the anesthetist. ‘We’ll know, because you won’t be able to talk,’ he said.

“Finally, he said, ‘OK, the tube is set, let’s go with the needle!’ ‘How can it be set,’ I gasped, ‘when I can still talk?’ ‘Let’s go with the needle!’ he repeated, and I pulled the tube out of my throat and screamed, ‘Take me back downstairs!’ I sensed I was going to die – I could smell death – and that guy didn’t care. He only wanted to save himself the embarrassment of not getting that damn tube set.”

By the next morning, Hoffman’s fever had broken. “After the operation, the real pain began. My arms felt like they were in a furnace, and the only thing that brought me relief was Demerol, to which I became quickly addicted. You’re in love with the world when you are on Demerol.


“Toward the end of the month I spent in the hospital, my doctor said he wanted me to try changing my bandages without Demerol, and I said no, absolutely not. ‘Why not?’ he asked, ‘You did it without Demerol yesterday.’ ‘That’s not so,’ I answered. ‘I did have Demerol yesterday.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘that was a placebo. Now let’s get into the bathroom and change that dressing.’ We went in, and I got to work. ‘Are you feeling pain?’ he asked, and I answered, ‘It’s OK, I did it yesterday with just a placebo.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘you had Demerol yesterday.’ And that’s how we broke my drug habit.”

Happily, Dustin did not break the habit of seeing his doctor. “Doctor Bergerman and I became good friends. Later, I photographed operations for him. It’s great in the operating room, like being in outer space, all blue and green and wonderful, an extraordinary sight, not gory at all. It’s incredibly beautiful inside your body. And the things they can do. They can put a plastic voice box in your throat, lift out your rib cage, take out your brain and slice away your tumor. And if you can look at all that without getting upset, it’s tantamount to a religious experience, because you realize you’re much more than those elements lying there on that operating table. You learn something important about yourself in terms of after death.”

There was an abundant life after near-death for Dustin, despite the thorny wound of not being able to blossom on Broadway in “The Subject Was Roses,” and despite his almost suicidal insistence that he would be a zero in “The Graduate.” “I’d read the book and I said to director Mike Nichols, 'I’m not right for this part. Benjamin Braddock is tall, he’s a blond, he’s Anglo-Saxon. I’m too Jewish.’ ‘Read it again,’ Mike said, ‘but this time, think of Ben as Jewish inside.’”

Not too many months later, Dustin and his bride, Anne, sat tensely at the Oscar ceremonies, immediately behind Anne Bancroft, another “Graduate” nominee, and her husband Mel Brooks.


“Nobody knew who Mel was, except for a few of us, though I think Mel wanted to be known,” Dustin says, grinning. “Every time some foreigner got up to accept an award and struggled to say something polite in English, Mel would turn around in his seat and say to everyone sitting behind him, ‘That guy’s a whacko!’ Then Annie would poke him and push him down in his seat and try to shush him. It was a bona-fide scene from 'Virginia Woolf.'"

The room is quiet, and Dustin, pacing before the monstrous bed, ponders his incipient bachelorhood. “I hesitate to say I feel pretty good, but I do,” says Hoffman, a man who’s been known to inspire passion in a multitude of women. “There are days when I do think of having another go at marriage, and having more children, but on the other days I say, ‘No, that will never work.’ The fantasy, of course, is that one can find somebody to grow old with. There is poetry in that, poetry in the concept of family. When you’re a kid, your parents take you to the park and help you up the ladder of the slide and run around to the other side, holding out their hands to catch you when you reach the bottom. And, in the end, things come full circle – the children are there, holding out their hands when you take that final slide. Family is the thing that helps you out of this life.”


The specter of death intrudes once more. “I find it unhealthy not to think about death. My whole attitude about life springs from the knowledge that I’m going to die. I almost died not long ago, as a matter of fact. I was in the Caribbean, just after finishing 'Kramer,' and I was actually electrocuted for a minute – 220 volts ran through me, and if that plug hadn’t come out of the wall, I’d be gone. One sentence rushed through my mind as I stood there, barefoot, holding that cord in my hand – ‘So this is the way it’s going to happen, turning on a lamp in a hotel room and shocking myself to death.’

“I definitely did not like that idea, and yet I found that afterward I could appreciate life more by acknowledging the fact that death had been so near that I could smell it and feel it. It’s important for me to feel as alive as I can, and there are things that I do daily to heighten that feeling – running, skipping rope, sweating, dripping. You know you’re alive when you’re working hard, or laughing so hard you fall on the floor, or crying so hard the tears are like waves pounding on the beach, or when you’re in the midst of a rage. And you know you’re alive when you’re making love; when your body is cooking like that, you’ve got to be alive.”

Is there life – with or without sex – after death? Where does Dustin stand on the God problem?


“I’m not a Born Again. Once was enough. I’m still working off the shock of the first birth. I don’t know what’s going on in the God department. Isaac Bashevis Singer, the writer, says there must be a God. Look at the sky on a starry night, he says – how could that be an accident? But, someone asked him, is that God a good God, and if so, how could there be a holocaust? Well, Singer replied, maybe our God is a little God, since Earth is just one tiny planet in the Universe. In our arrogance, we thought we had the original cast, but maybe our God is just a bus-and-truck God. Maybe that’s our God problem.”

Even if we possess immortal souls, I point out, we can’t take our bodies with us when we go.

“I’ve often wondered what to do about that,” Dustin says thoughtfully, almost dreamily. “Should I be cremated or buried in the ground, or do I want to be frozen? Perhaps I should donate my organs to science. Maybe I’ll end up as a skeleton, wired together and put on display in somebody’s study. ‘By the way,’ he’ll say, ‘this is Dustin Hoffman,’ and he’ll give me a shake so that I do a tap-dance. I rather like the idea of hanging around for a while, doing a little tap-dance.”