Dustin Hoffman’s New York

Dustin Hoffman, New York City, 1969: An Actor’s Actor. Photo by John Dominis

In many ways, Dustin Hoffman can be seen as a quintessentially New York actor (despite having been born and raised in California). Many of the films Hoffman made through the late 1960s and 1970s not only captured the American zeitgeist, but also created a portrait of New York City. Hoffman, himself a resident of the city from roughly 1958 until 2002, lived through many changes New York underwent and his films capture those changes.

Dustin Hoffman: Dreaming of NYC

“I wanted to go there my whole life,” Hoffman said of New York City (Interview,  Inside the Actor’s Studio). It was 1958 when a 21-year old Hoffman made the move from West Coast to the east, settling in New York City and staying with his friend and fellow actor, Gene Hackman. The two actors met at the Pasadena Playhouse’s School of Theater. In a 1968 interview with the New York Times, Hoffman recalled that when he first arrived, he found New York to be “cold and lonely and terrifying.” “I didn’t go out of the house for three weeks,” he said. “I slept on Gene Hackman’s kitchen floor.” (Watch Larry King’s 1994 interview with Hoffman, and hear the story in more detail.)

Gene Hackman was married at the time and his one bedroom apartment was a bit cramped, especially since Hoffman stayed for a month. Another actor friend was looking for a roommate, so off Hoffman moved to the 6th floor Upper West Side apartment (at 109th between Broadway and Amsterdam) with his new roommate, Robert Duvall (and a few other roommates too).

Greenwich Village in the 1960s: Hoffman’s Haunts

Now, Hoffman was launched in his career as a struggling actor, working a number of different jobs; he was a waiter in a Columbus Circle restaurant, a toy demonstrator at Macy’s, an attendant at the New York Psychiatric Institute, a typist for the temp agency Manpower, and a waiter at the now defunct Greenwich Village nightclub, the Village Gate. (He was fired from the Village Gate, where he made $40 a night in tips, because he “listened to the music too much.” In 1974, Hoffman portrayed comedian Lenny Bruce, who used to perform at the club.)

He also found work in a variety of acting jobs including TV spots, commercials, and Off-Broadway roles. On October 16, 1966, he opened in the production of Eh? (directed by Alan Arkin) at Circle in the Square Downtown Theater at 159 Bleeker Street. The play ran for 233 performances and earned Hoffman critical acclaim.  Meanwhile, he was honing his method acting techniques at the Actors Studio. Soon, he moved to the Village, living on W. 11th Street (in an apartment for $125 per month).

After several more stage roles and TV shows, Hoffman would return to California on the brink of stardom after he was cast as the lead role of Benjamin Braddock in Mike Nichols’ 1967 film, The Graduate. Hoffman’s story about how he bungled his screen test is a legend among actors:


Back to California: As Benjamin Braddock

“Hoffman arrived at the screen test sleepless and paranoid. He mangled Mike Nichols’ directions and enraged Katherine Ross in a love scene by grabbing her buttocks and yanking her close.  As he was leaving, he apologized to her and Nichols.  A New York subway token fell out of his coat, and one of the crew handed it to him, saying “Here kid, you’re gonna need this.” But Hoffman’s confused panic was exactly what Nichols wanted,” Richard Merryman, “Before They Were Kings,” Vanity Fair. March 2004.

As Ben Braddock, Hoffman became an icon for a generation–cynical, uncomfortable, lost, funny, impulsive. He was a young man who represented a cultural shift–from the buttoned down “old school” culture to a more open, freewheeling, “question authority” youth-centric culture. Ben’s story, accompanied by the soundtrack by Simon and Garfunkel, was embraced by millions who saw in Ben their own confused journey within a country that was shifting gears in the revolutionary sixties. Clearly, Hoffman also identified with the film’s lost generational aspect, as seen in this 1969 interview where he reflects on his own life and interest the arts.

Hoffman was paid $17,000 for his role in The Graduate, netting only about $3,000, after he paid both his rent for his NYC apartment and his digs in California (which he had to pay for during filming), according to Hoffman. As the film was being cut, Hoffman was back in New York collecting unemployment.

no more unemployment? Terry O’Neil Photo

The Graduate was a blockbuster, earning Hoffman his first Academy Award nomination. (Ironically, despite Hoffman’s paltry salary, the film is ranked the 21st highest grossing movie of all time, when adjusted for inflation.)

Hoffman later said he knew he was a bona fide movie star after a woman recognized him on 5th Avenue, approached him, lifted her T-shirt, and asked: “Will you sign me?”

As he was enjoying his new-found success, his agent suggested that he read the book, Midnight Cowboy, which was about to be made into a movie. Director John Schlesinger initially poo-poohed the idea that the kid from The Graduate (too clean cut and straight laced!) could play the street hustler, Enrico Salvatore “Ratso” Rizzo. But Hoffman’s immense talent was unmistakeable; he created the character Ratso (particularly after seeing a man who served as a model for the character on 42nd Street one day) and he got the part.

Midnight Cowboy (1969) opened to (some horrified) audiences, many of whom were outraged and disgusted at the film’s seedy, graphic, and even borderline pornographic content. (The film was originally released with a rating of “X” by the newly established Motion Picture Association of America; awards and rave reviews by critics, however, caused the rating to be changed later to “R.” )

Street Scene: John Voight and Dustin Hoffman
New York Zeitgeist: “I’m Walking Here!”

From outside of Tiffany and Co., to the Plaza Hotel, to Times Square and the city’s crowded streets, the movie captures New York in 1968 (the year it was filmed). The pulse and energy of the city streets are preserved forever, especially since the camera crew sometimes “stole shots,” (set up hidden cameras, miked the actors, and captured real-time action in the city).

On one such occasion, it was the 13th or 14th take (trying to get the timing of the light right) when a cab almost hit Hoffman and co-star John Voight as they crossed the street at 58th and Sixth Ave. The moment became movie history when Hoffman improvised the line: “I’m walking here!” (Hoffman later said that what he almost said was, “We’re filming here!”)

Still Walking Here: Now and Then

Hoffman earned $250,000 for his role; a second Academy Award nomination, and the film won best picture.  In 1968, Hoffman moved across the street into a new apartment in a townhouse at 16 West 11th Street–this one with air conditioning, but costing $400 per month; “It gives me the willies to think about the rent,” Hoffman said at the time.

Hoffman and Ratso

Now married (to Anne Byrne) with a daughter, Hoffman returned to the rhythms of city life, which included playing with his dog, Ratso, in Central Park.

In 1969, he appeared on the game show, What’s My Line. At the time, he was performing as the lead in Jimmy Shine at the Brooks Atkinson Theater at 256 West 47th Street.

Hoffman’s next NYC film, John and Mary (1969) depicted a relationship between two single Manhattanites who meet at the trendy singles bar, Maxwell’s Plum, which had recently opened its doors on First Ave at 64th Street in April 1966. Hoffman’s costar, Mia Farrow, was hot following Rosemary’s Baby, and she still sported the chic coiffure that had caused so much buzz (and generated its own myths).

Swinging Singles: John and Mary (1969) directed by Peter Yates

The film was reviewed with lukewarm praise, but its curious portrayal of two people engaged in a modern-day (cool, romantic-less) courtship was in perfect harmony with the city’s role as a playground for the young and restless in the late 1960s.

New Wave Cinema: A Modern Day Love Affair Set in NYC

John and Mary were characters who “find themselves full of muted desperation,” Vincent Canby wrote in the NYT, “imprisoned by the new First Avenue morality that has supposedly liberated them.”

Just a few months after the film was released, the townhouse next door to Hoffman’s apartment blew up.

It was March 6, 1970, when the explosion occurred at 18 West 11th Street, wrecking havoc on the tranquil neighborhood where Hoffman lived with his wife and daughter in a garden apartment. Members of the Weatherman Underground had set off bombs accidentally while putting them together in their townhouse; three people were killed and a massive hole was blown through the Hoffman apartment.

Then (1970, left) and today, (right) the townhouse at 18 W 11th Street
Revolution: On W. 11th Street, 1970

After the explosion, more than 500 bomb threats were received around the city. The “Revolution” was being televised, and at the same time, the city was plunged into a terrible financial crisis. The grittiness of Midnight Cowboy seemed to be coupled with the shifting morals of John and Mary –New York was undergoing tremendous social and political upheaval.

So who could blame Dustin Hoffman for looking to move up and out of Greenwich Village? He would later find a home in the majestic and luxurious San Remo, 145-146 Central Park West. The building was (and had long been) home to some of the brightest starts out of Hollywood, including Rita Hayworth and Heddy Lamar.

(In 2002, Hoffman put the apartment on sale for $25 million. The 8,000-square-foot apartment consisted of half of the 15th floor and the entire 16th and 17th floors.)


King of New York

Hoffman may have realized the dream of every actor who ever comes to NYC, but the city itself was not exactly living its own dream. Through the latter half of the 1970s, the city was teetering on the brink of bankcruptcy, crime was on the upswing, and many people were looking to leave the city.

Hoffman’s next NYC film, Kramer versus Kramer (1979), poignantly captured that very moment: a time of transition in the U.S., when the country seemed to pause and reflect on the social revolutions that seemed to be sputtering in the wake of so many problems (Vietnam, stagflation, energy crisis, et al).

In the film’s portrait of a marriage dissolving, the very image of the country at the time seemed to be reflected. Here was Benjamin Braddock all grown up; he was a father now, and things were falling apart. He was about to go it alone.

Filmed in various locations around the city, the film was co-written by Hoffman (who chose not to get screenwriting credit with Robert Benton). Hoffman was going through a divorce himself and wanted the film to be a realistic portrayal of a marriage breaking up.

Lonely in New York: Kramer V Kramer (1979)

The result is an exquisitely honest and painful portrayal of a family coming apart. And Hoffman would finally win an Academy Award for Best Actor (see his acceptance speech here, following co-star Meryl Streep’s acceptance for Best Supporting Actress.)

Just a few years later and Dustin Hoffman was yet again on location in the city, portraying a sort of homage to his own career and experiences in NYC in the 1982 film, Tootsie.

On the street again: Tootsie’s New York

Hoffman, portraying out-of-work actor, Michael Dorsey (who portrays actress Dorothy Michaels), must have delighted in the film that brought him, in many ways, home again.  The film not only brought him to various locations around the city, but also back to the days when he had fellow artists as roommates (Bill Murray), spent hours studying scenes (with Terri Garr), worked in a restaurant, and even did some B-Television.

Tootsie was, in a sense, a role Hoffman had been studying for all his life.

An Actor Prepares

And the film made its own cultural sense: by the 1980s, the country was still squarely trapped within the “Me Decade,” (as famously portrayed in Tom Wolfe’s seminal 1976 piece), turning attention away from the social and political ills that had plagued the country throughout the 1970s (A president impeached, a war lost, Three Mile Island, the Iranian hostage crisis, et al) to focus more on issues of self.

The Actor, and those who were fascinated with actors, could find in the play, the film, the role, a place of escape, of introspection. “The new alchemical dream is: changing one’s personality,” wrote Wolfe,”—remaking, remodeling, elevating, and polishing one’s very self . . . and observing, studying, and doting on it. (Me!)”

As an actor, Hoffman had long been in training to remake, remodel, elevate and polish himself. And he did this in a city capable of the very same kind of work; by the 1980s, Manhattan would also be on the verge of a change, ready to be re-made anew after its various manifestations as seedy and greedy (Midnight Cowboy) swinging and loose (John and Mary), and broken (Kramer v Kramer)…

It too could change its image and enter the new era a changed place.

~Jenny Thompson


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