What You Never Knew About Gene Hackman

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There are few people more deserving of the title of "Hollywood legend" than Gene Hackman. With an acting career that spans over four decades, Hackman will certainly go down in history as one of the greats. His long and impressive resume includes roles in films such as "The French Connection," "The Royal Tenenbaums," "The Conversation," and even several iterations of the movie "Superman." It's no wonder he has been called a "screen icon," a "legend," and even "the greatest living American actor." With 102 acting credits to his name, he certainly deserves the praise.

And acting isn't even Hackman's only claim to fame. In 1999, the actor embarked on a new career as a fiction writer, with the novel "Wake of the Perdido Star," which he co-wrote with Daniel Lenihan. Since then, Hackman has written four other works of fiction.

In 2004, Hackman retired from acting — his last novel, "Pursuit," was published in 2013. Nevertheless, his legacy lives on. In 2022, Hackman went viral as fans celebrated his 92nd birthday on social media, making him one of the oldest Hollywood stars around today. It seems that Hackman will always be remembered as one of the Hollywood greats. Here are some things you never knew about the actor and writer.

Gene Hackman liked to direct himself

So, how does one of America's most famous actors create his characters? Well, it turns out, Gene Hackman never liked to have much input from his directors. Instead, he prefers to direct himself. "Since I didn't have a strong father, I don't have any authority problem and I cannot stand to have someone tell me how to modulate a scene," he explained to Film Comment. For Hackman, the ideal directors were always blunt and straightforward. "I'd rather a director say, 'Can you find another way to do this—louder or softer or funnier?'"

Instead of relying on direction, Hackman always liked to make his own choices as an actor. Sometimes, this attitude could lead to tension on set, so it makes sense he's considered an actor who isn't the easiest to work with. "I pity directors who work with me," he laughed. Nevertheless, Hackman remained a hugely popular actor amongst directors. As director Alan Parker put it to Film Comment, "Every director has a short list of actors he'd die to work with, and I'll bet Gene's on every one."

The actor took an 'honest' approach to his work

Even if Gene Hackman didn't always see eye-to-eye with his directors, his work was always exceptional. And that is probably thanks to how he approached his characters. For Hackman, acting was never about coming across well personally. Instead, he was always more focused on doing what the script asked of him and embodying his characters truthfully — even if it meant looking badly on camera.

As Hackman explained to GQ in 2011, he always thought the key to good acting was honesty. "I always try to approach the work [honestly], regardless of how good or bad the script. When I say 'honest,' I say to portray what is on the page," he said, explaining it was his duty to serve the character as it was written rather than his own interests of coming off with a certain "personality or charisma."

It's no wonder then that Hackman is an actor who's consistently received praise for his incisive performances, like being labeled by the Independent as a "brawling genius of film."

Gene Hackman studied acting with Dustin Hoffman

Gene Hackman entered the world of acting a little later than some. In fact, he was 26 when he joined the Pasadena Playhouse Theater's acting school (via the Independent), where one of his classmates was none other than Dustin Hoffman.

The pair, hilariously, were named "least likely to succeed." As Hackman told Film Comment, this was because neither fit the stereotype of a young leading man. "Dustin was thought of as amusing and strange," Hackman recalled. "He was called a 'beatnik' because he wore a leather vest and sandals, which was outrageous then." As for Hackman, he was considered too old to make it in the film industry. Plus, he was already married at the time.

The pair became friends after being lumped together as character actors who would never achieve real fame. "We became very close, and he lived with my wife and me for a while after coming to New York," Hackman said to Film Comment. Of course, in the end, both Hackman and Hoffman proved everyone wrong.

He left home at 16 to join the Marines

Gene Hackman's childhood was not an easy one. His father, who worked at a newspaper printing press, would occasionally beat him. "He always went too far, laid it on pretty heavy," he told the Independent. Then, when Hackman was 13, his father abandoned the family. Just three years later, Hackman left his family, too, and lied to get into the Marines. "I left home when I was 16 because I was looking for adventure," the actor told Time.

As Hackman told the U.S. Naval Institute, he had been inspired to join the Marines because of his girlfriend at the time. When her brother was killed on a mission, Hackman decided to join. "I thought it would be very heroic of me if I joined the Marine Corps," he said. "I wanted to show her that I was proud not only of her, but of her brother, too. When you are a young man, sometimes your motives are pretty obscure and complicated."

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Gene Hackman struggled with filming violent scenes

Over the years, Gene Hackman appeared in all sorts of films — comedies, thrillers, dramas, crime films, and more. So, every now and then, he found himself playing a character who got a little violent. For Hackman, portraying violence was, however, always difficult for him.

One of Hackman's best-known roles was in "The French Connection." In the film, Hackman is seen in several brutal fight scenes. "I'd never had to do anything like that before," he said to Film Comment of the movie role. "True, I'd done my share of fighting as a kid and I'd been in the Marine Corps, but as an actor I'd been taught that relaxation was of utmost importance, and I was not relaxing during that scene."

Hackman felt so uncomfortable, in fact, that the scene suffered as a result. He even suggested to the director that he might need to be replaced by another actor. Luckily, the director ignored the suggestion, and Hackman soon came to understand the violent streak in his character. As he told Cigar Aficionado, "After having worked in the streets of New York for three and a half months, when we went to reshoot the scene, I was very happy to beat the hell out of that guy."

His mother influenced Gene Hackman to become an actor

Most actors and actresses discover their passion for acting long before they begin their careers. For Gene Hackman, it was no different. As he recalled to Larry King on CNN, he and his mother used to watch the films of James Cagney, Errol Flynn, and Edward G. Robinson when he was young. "And my mother and I were at a film once, and we came out through the lobby and she said, 'I want to see you do that someday,'" he said. "And that was all that was needed." Apparently, Hackman was already keen on the idea, but his mother's encouragement is what sealed the deal. As he put it, "You have to have somebody tell you, or you need to be pushed a bit."

Sadly, his mother, who had been his first inspiration, died before she could see him on screen. "I'm sorry for that, but that's the way it is," he told GQ.

He became an author after years of acting

Gene Hackman turned to writing in 1999 when he and his friend, Daniel Lenihan, began writing fiction together. Slowly, he began taking on fewer and fewer acting roles so he could focus on writing. "I was actually still acting while I was writing, so it's been kind of a nice progression to kind of come over full-time to the writing side," Hackman said in a 2008 interview. Plus, he added, "It's also very pleasant when you're writing to be able to sleep in your own bed and to not be out on location somewhere working nights." In many ways, it was the perfect career move for Hackman as he got older.

Not only was writing easier for him to manage, but it was also something Hackman enjoyed. "It's very relaxing for me," he told Empire. "I don't picture myself as a great writer, but I really enjoy the process." And, even though the research side of the job could be stressful, he explained it was nothing compared to the stress of a film set. As he put it, "You're sitting there by yourself, as opposed to having ninety people sitting around waiting for you to entertain them!"

The legendary actor's hero is James Cagney

Gene Hackman first fell in love with acting when he saw James Cagney on screen when he was young. Throughout Hackman's career, Cagney remained an important influence and idol for the actor. "I just thought he was the best, probably because he's the kind of guy that could not be imitated," Hackman told Cigar Aficionado. "Nobody could do what he did."

As a child, Hackman was first struck by Cagney because of how different he was from anyone he'd ever met. "Having been brought up in the Midwest, I didn't know those New York people," he told GQ.

Even when Hackman later became a writer, he was still influenced by his childhood hero. As he told Empire, his character, Marcel La Farge, in "Escape From Andersonville" was actually inspired by the characters that Cagney used to play in the '30s! Clearly, Cagney has been an ever-present figure in Hackman's creative life.

After The French Connection, Gene Hackman's career took a downturn

Looking back over Gene Hackman's impressive resume, it would be easy to assume the actor never struggled to find work. However, after a career-defining turn in "The French Connection," Hackman's career actually slowed down for a few years. "From the 1970s to the mid-'80s after 'The French Connection,' I did four or five films in a row that were not successful commercially, but were thought of as being artistically [okay]," Hackman told Cigar Aficionado. "And then when they didn't work, I thought, 'Well to hell with this, I'll just do whatever's given to me. I don't have to read the script, just tell me how much money they are gonna pay me and I'll do it.'" During those years, Hackman was less invested in his work. In fact, he confessed that he often learned his lines while getting his makeup done in the morning.

Eventually, Hackman got a new agent, and everything changed. "It started a whole string of films that seemed to have been better for me. But it was a very tough time," he told the outlet.

The star only saw one of his most iconic films once

"The French Connection" remains one of Gene Hackman's most famous films to this day. But, even though the role earned him an Oscar, he doesn't have a particularly special relationship with the film. In fact, as he told the New York Post in 2021, ""[I] haven't seen the film since the first screening in a dark, tiny viewing room in a post-production company's facility 50 years ago." He added that he couldn't really see what the legacy of the film might be. "At the time, it seemed to me to be a reverent story of a cop who was simply able to solve and put a stop to a major crime family's attempt to infiltrate the New York drug scene," he said simply.

It turns out, the fact that Hackman has only seen "The French Connection" once isn't all that odd for the actor, since he rarely watches his movies at all. "I don't watch my films unless I absolutely have to," he told Cigar Aficionado. "I get very nervous. It's more my perception of myself, or my desire of what I would like to look like." It sounds like Hackman finds it uncomfortable to watch himself on screen (like many of us!), so we can hardly blame him for avoiding "The French Connection" all these years.

Gene Hackman's role in The Royal Tenenbaums was surrounded by controversy

One of Gene Hackman's last and greatest roles is in Wes Anderson's cult classic "The Royal Tenenbaums." By some accounts, Hackman wasn't exactly an easy person to work with. For one thing, he initially asked for more money. As Anderson said during a panel at the 2021 Tribeca Festival (via Insider), "I hope this is not indiscreet to say this, but Gene objected to the money on the film." And, as the director told Vulture, even though he had written the part for Hackman, the money issue made him hesitant. "He's been doing movies for a long time, and he didn't want to work [60] days on a movie," he said, adding, "You can't pay a million dollars to each actor if you've got nine movie stars or whatever it is — that's half the budget of the movie."

According to some of the cast members, Hackman could also be a challenging colleague. At a 10th anniversary screening, both Anderson and actress Gwyneth Paltrow said they had been "scared" of Hackman on set. Angelica Huston even said that none of the cast or crew had "heard or seen of Gene since this movie" (via IndieWire).

He's had some wild hobbies over the years

When Gene Hackman wasn't acting or writing, he wasn't just sitting around at home. In fact, throughout the years, he has tried quite a few surprising hobbies, which have included, according to The Guardian, "stock-car racing, stunt flying, deep-sea diving and painting." And, as the Independent noted, in the 1970s, Hackman even took part in races at the Sports Car Club of America — one race even lasted 24 hours.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Hackman took part in many races, after first being invited to race in Long Beach in the '70s. "When you're a celebrity, suddenly you're invited to be part of this inner group and it makes you feel like really something," he said.

In fact, he was so good, he eventually had to pick between racing and acting. "Would I have chosen racing over acting? I've thought about it quite a bit," he said. "I have a feeling I wouldn't have stayed in racing. I don't think I have the personality to be a real racing professional." As far as Hackman was concerned, he didn't have the toughness required to become a professional racer. In the end, we think he made the right choice.

He retired from acting because of stress

With over 100 acting credits to his name, Gene Hackman has certainly had a long and busy career. In fact, by the early 2000s, it was all getting a bit too much for him to handle. After what ended up being his last film, "Welcome to Mooseport," Hackman decided to give up acting for good due to his health. "The straw that broke the camel's back was actually a stress test that I took in New York," he told Empire, explaining that stress had taken a toll on his body. "The doctor advised me that my heart wasn't in the kind of shape that I should be putting it under any stress."

After leaving Hollywood behind, Hackman hasn't looked back — though he has remained wistful about his time as an actor. "I can't imagine [doing another film,]" he told Time in 2011. "But I still have a bit of a wanderlust about it." In fact, one time, Hackman saw a film crew near his home, and he even stopped to ask if they needed another extra. "She said, 'No, I'm very sorry, sir,'" Hackman recalled.

Gene Hackman doesn't want to be remembered as a star

Gene Hackman was never someone looking for fame. And once he found fame, he never wanted to show it off. He told Time that he doesn't even know where his Oscars are, let alone display them in his home. Instead, as he put it, "Around the house we just kind of keep it civilian." And, when asked by GQ how he wanted to be remembered by future generations, he 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 [it] that often, to be honest. I'm at an age where I should think about it."

It's clear that Hackman never wanted to be a star — but for fans of the cinema for years to come, Hackman will always be just that.