In 1970, Hoffman’s love survived a narrow escape from death when members of the radical leftwing movement Weather Underground accidentally blew themselves up with dynamite in the Greenwich Village house next door to his.
“I’m on the front page of The New York Times the next day, wearing a moustache that I’d grown for a film and carrying a painting that I’d rescued from the house and these turtles – I put them in my pocket but they only lived for a week. There was a large, gaping hole where my desk had been.” Things could have turned out rather differently, I say. He laughs a deep, rumbling laugh. “Well, it would have been a shorter career.”
Instead, he continued on a career path that has garnered seven best actor Oscar nominations (most recently for political satire Wag the Dog in 1998). He was first nominated for The Graduate and then for Midnight Cowboy but lost out both times. “Jon Voight was also nominated for Midnight Cowboy. It went to John Wayne [for True Grit],” he looks at me, too tactful to say more. He finally picked up the statuette in 1979 for his role in divorce drama Kramer vs Kramer (1979) and again for his remarkable performance as Raymond Babbitt, whose autism is coupled with mathematical genius, in Rain Man (1988).
I ask which acting role he has enjoyed the most. “I don’t think any of them are fun because you never know if they’re going to work. Once in a while you’ll do something and you feel like you nailed it. But I’ve been to openings of movies that I’ve done – The Graduate was one, Rain Man was another, and all the stuffed suits come, and the movie finishes and they’re looking like this” – he pulls a grim face – “and you think you’re in a disaster. But it’s because the wrong people were there that night and there for the wrong reasons.”
By contrast, he says, he recently finished shooting his directorial debut Quartet, starring Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins as a group of retired opera singers, which was an exhausting experience but one that he loved.
It’s time for him to go. “You never know what you have with a movie,” he says, telling me one final story about when he was reunited with Robert Benton, director of Kramer vs Kramer, to make Billy Bathgate (1991). “We were shooting in North Carolina, we had an all-star cast, this great writer-director who won an Academy Award and we think we’re doing a work of art. Next door, just a hundred yards away, this other movie is being made and I can’t even pronounce the name of it. And I say, ‘What’s this piece of shit called?’ ” He is speaking slowly, as if struggling with the pronunciation. “Teenage ... Mutant ... Ninja ... Turtles. How cocky we felt! But it goes through the roof and our movie gets buried.”
Hoffman gets up. “Are you happy or unhappy?” he asks me. I tell him I’m happy. “Good,” he says. “You know, I do remember when you called that time. We had a nice talk.” And then he smiles, we shake hands, and he walks away.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.