Gene Hackman

Occupation: Actor
Date of Birth: January 30, 1930
Place of Birth: San Bernadino, Calif., USA
Sign: Sun in Aquarius, Moon in Aquarius
Relations: Father: Eugene (newspaper pressman); mother: Lyda; wife: Betsy Arakawa (classical pianist); ex-wife: Faye Maltese (bank clerk); kids: Christopher, Elizabeth, Leslie (all with Maltese)
Education: Attended the University of Illinois


AT the top of the short list of veteran performers who can elevate any movie's IQ simply by appearing in it is the name of actor Gene Hackman. Blessed with sheer personal gravitas of such magnitude, many actors might be content to get by on presence alone, but the hard-charging Hackman never phones it in, even though he doesn't always get offered A-list material. Fellow old hoss and longtime pal Clint Eastwood, who directed and starred opposite Hackman in both Unforgiven (1992) and Absolute Power (1997), eschewed hyperbole when asked about his venerable co-star: "Gene charges a lot of money for what he does  and he gives you your money's worth. And that's the most you can say about anyone, whether they're a waiter or an actor." Indeed.

The elder of his parents' two children, Hackman was born at the onset of the Great Depression in San Bernardino, Calif., and raised in rural Danville, Ill., where his father took a job as a press operator at the Commercial News, laboring in the shadow of his own father and brother, both of whom worked "upstairs," on the paper's news desk. The tension of this situation eventually wore down the senior Hackman, who left his wife and sons in 1943, making a lasting impression on 13-year-old Gene by driving away without a word  just a casual "so long" wave from the driver's seat. Years later, in an interview with Reader's Digest, Hackman reflected, "Maybe I am an actor because of that gesture of my father's. Maybe because it was so & precise. It was all I ever needed to understand about acting."

Though he never acted as a child, the seeds of Hackman's eventual career ambition were sown deep: Among his earliest memories are those of watching the comedies of '30s screen star Jack Oakie, and he later became a devotee of the dashing Errol Flynn. During his high school years, Hackman was too shy to have anything to do with acting  too shy, he later insisted, to even get a date  and mostly kept to himself when not at the gym, where his height made him a natural for the school's basketball team. Frustrated by his inability to meet girls and feeling pressured by his mother to be a father figure for his younger brother, the timid teen dropped out of school and sought refuge in the Marine Corps. At 16, he was too young to join up without parental consent, so he lied about his age and wound up posted to China in 1946, just three months after enlisting.

For the next six years, he served overseas in Shanghai, Japan, and Hawaii, and actively pursued athletics whenever he was off-duty, participating in football, track, and swimming competitions. It was during his stint in the Corps that Hackman took his first steps toward forging a career in showbiz, when he accepted an assignment as a broadcaster on the Armed Forces Network, willing himself to succeed in spite of the deep-seated reticence that had characterized his high school years. Though honorably discharged in 1952, he was busted down from corporal three times during his term of service. Having successfully completed a high school equivalency course while a Marine, Hackman briefly enrolled at the University of Illinois with his eye on obtaining a degree in journalism.

Six months later, he dropped out and hitchhiked to New York, where the Montgomery G.I. bill covered his tuition at the School of Radio Technique. That instruction led to radio jobs in Florida and Illinois that held Hackman's interest only slightly more successfully than journalism had, and he briefly returned to New York to study commercial art with the Art Students League. He eventually drifted out to California, and finally gave rein to his long-held interest in acting by enrolling at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he and classmate Dustin Hoffman mostly impersonated Marlon Brando and were ultimately voted "least likely to succeed." Once more, Hackman headed back to New York, followed by Hoffman, who slept on the kitchen floor of Hackman's apartment for several months. In between off-Broadway roles, Hackman paid the rent by working as a soda jerk, shoe salesman, furniture mover, waiter, truck driver, and doorman. He also met and married bank teller Fay Maltese, by whom he eventually fathered three children.

After several years of stage work and small TV and film roles, Hackman sounded two important professional notes in 1964, when he had his first big hit on Broadway with Any Wednesday, and delivered a small but arresting turn in the Warren Beatty starrer Lilith. So impressed was Beatty that he offered Hackman a plum part in his landmark 1967 crime drama Bonnie and Clyde. Playing the role of outlaw Buck Barrow, brother to Beatty's Clyde, Hackman delivered a searing, shocking portrayal, playing his extended death scene on all fours  he later claimed to have drawn inspiration for that scene from seeing bulls die at bullfights. The haunting performance was good enough to win Hackman the first Oscar nomination of his career, and to pave the way for his true breakthrough performance four years later in William Friedkin's The French Connection. The mild-mannered, even-tempered Hackman had to continually nerve himself up for his scenes as Connection's crude, mean-spirited narcotics cop Popeye Doyle, but he eventually buried all traces of his true-life personality so thoroughly that he took home a Best Actor Oscar.

With roles in over 40 films during the next 20 years, Hackman polished his reputation as both a powerful lead and a seamless supporting player, delivering particularly excellent performances in The Conversation (1974), Superman (1978), Hoosiers (1986), and Mississippi Burning (1988). During that period, he also endured a pair of personal trials: His long-estranged father, with whom he never reached a full reconciliation, died of a heart attack in 1973; and his nearly 30-year marriage to Maltese ended in divorce in 1985.

In an industry notoriously driven by trends, a single powerful performance can dictate the course of an actor's career for years, and typecasting finally caught up with Hackman following his brilliant portrayal of a corrupt sheriff in Unforgiven, which brought him the second Oscar of his career, in the Best Supporting Actor category. By the late '90s, he had become ensconced as one of Hollywood's most reliable screen villains, playing a crooked lawyer in The Firm (1993); a murderous gunfighter in The Quick and the Dead (1995); a nuke-happy sub commander in Crimson Tide (1995); an embittered, unrepentant Klansman on Death Row in The Chamber (1996); a scheming, dangerously experimental surgeon in Extreme Measures (1996); and an adulterous, violent-tempered President in Absolute Power (1997). Even his largely comedic turns in 1995's Get Shorty and 1996's The Birdcage had him playing slick, manipulative types.

Since 1981, Hackman has made his home in Santa Fe, N.M., far from the bright lights of Hollywood. A thrill-seeker extraordinaire in his younger years, when his passions included motorcycles, fast cars, and stunt flying, he now indulges in quieter pursuits when not making movies, including impressionistic painting and stone sculpting. While his hobbies may be a bit slower, the pace of his career certainly hasn't slackened: He earned prominent roles in three major 1998 releases, Twilight, Antz (his first work in an animated film), and the Will Smith thriller Enemy of the State, in which he departs from his lately-established villainous persona to portray a sympathetic rogue intelligence agent. Foremost among Hackman's upcoming projects is a big-screen adaptation of The Love Boat, to be written and directed by Savage Steve Holland (Better Off Dead), in which Hackman will star with John Goodman, John Cleese, Ernest Borgnine, and Leslie Nielsen.

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