LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles -- Laughter is not something you expect from Dustin Hoffman, who probably shares with Robert De Niro the Serious Pre-eminent Actor of his Generation title, the mantle of successor to Brando and who, perhaps even more than these lofty predecessors, helped turn the scowl and various other forms of facial anguish into veritable art forms. His demeanor is as forbidding as his talent.
This first becomes apparent when you watch how Mr. Hoffman, 54 now, enters a room and then interacts. The door opens. He stumbles through with a clunky gait, bows slightly, shakes hands, sits down and before even introducing himself (after two Oscars, entirely unnecessary), cuts right to the chase.
"Well," he demands in that famous golf-cleats-on-glass gravel, "what did you think of the movie?"
He leans forward in his hotel room Queen Anne chair perch. "Are people liking it?"
Then, shockingly, comes a guffaw. It seemingly begins down in his size-7 Reeboks, snakes up his boyish body, literally explodes from his thin-lipped mouth and makes you realize -- purposefully so, it seems -- that here is an actor who thrives on defying categorization or stereotyping at every turn. He's made a career out of it.
"And hey," he adds, "did they like my shoes? This is the second time in my career I've worn high heels, you know."
The first time was "Tootsie," of course. The new movie is "Hook," Steven Spielberg's twist on the Peter Pan fable, which opened nationally last month. Robin Williams plays the grown-up Pan, Julia Roberts his fly-size muse Tinkerbell and Mr. Hoffman the terrifying bogyman of NeverLand, Captain Hook.
"Hook," in case you haven't heard, is a big deal. The second most expensive movie ever made (it cost an estimated $70 million to mount, behind only "Terminator 2's" reported $100 million budget), the film boasts outrageously lavish sets, non-stop action-adventure sequences and a preopening public awareness that most filmmakers and actors would die for. Not that the latter is of any consequence to Mr. Hoffman -- he wants the public to be caught up in his work itself, not the marketing of his work.
"All the hype that this movie has gotten . . . that's very scary," he sighs. "There is such an expectation for this movie. You wish the audience could just walk into a dark room knowing nothing about it and experience it purely. I personally feel that I -- we all, Robin, Steven and myself -- have to live up to so much."
Hype aside, Mr. Hoffman believes that the world, in his words, will eat "Hook" up. "When I saw it for the first time," he says, eyes widening in amazement, "I couldn't believe it. Every day I was there, and I had no idea. I don't know how Steven did it. I think it's as good as it gets for this genre."
The wondrous reflections continue as Mr. Hoffman begins to dissect and explain his character, which he says ranks among his favorites. As he talks about his beloved monster, his shoulders relax, his eyes cease to narrow suspiciously and he grows positively ebullient.
"For me, Captain Hook is right up there," he says with a smile. "I have certain parts that I feel I've nailed, work which makes me say to myself, 'Now this is why I do what I do.' Like
with Ratzo in 'Midnight Cowboy,' with the Rain Man, with Dorothy in 'Tootsie.' And now, this.
"Actually," he continues, "it's funny because doing this part reminded me of doing 'Tootsie.' You put the make-up on, and suddenly you are that person. As soon as I got that costume on, I was launched. Hook emulates himself after Charles II, you know. That's what it said in the James Barrie book, which we tried to be faithful to. Hook is a combination of a gentleman and a rogue."
Hook's strange, clipped accent, he says, is a spoof of William F. Buckley's pretentious honk.
"I tried to call him, to warn him. I couldn't get through. And then I was quoted as saying, 'He's like Hook because he sounds educated and yet at the same time is very scary.' And Buckley answered the quote, and he said something I thought was so wonderful. He said to a reporter, 'Dustin's right, I am very, very scary indeed.' "
During the filming process, rumors were rampant in Hollywood that Mr. Hoffman was his old temperamental self during shooting. Spy magazine recently wrote that he went so far as to even try to direct his own scenes.
Mr. Hoffman refutes his reputation for being difficult, which has haunted him ever since the shoot for 1976's "Marathon Man," when he and Laurence Olivier tangled over acting styles. (Olivier was from the "just do it" school, while Mr. Hoffman lives his characters and frets and worries over every mannerism, every character tick.)
"Spy magazine is what, like the Enquirer now or the Globe?" he says testily. "These papers wrote that I terrorized poor Julia Roberts, drove her off the set in tears, and I didn't even have a scene with the girl! I did all my scenes with a Barbie doll, and her footage was edited in later.
"And Steven and I got along wonderfully," he adds. "He's a wonderful director. There were no fights. The media latches onto an idea and won't let go."
Recapturing one's lost youth, according to Mr. Hoffman, who has four children, is essentially what "Hook" is all about. In the beginning of the film, Mr. Williams' Pan has grown up and forgotten about his childlike side. He's become -- gasp -- a workaholic parent. He's able to recapture his zest and heart only after traveling back to NeverLand, where he again steps into his gravity-defying green booties and learns for a final time about the power of happy thoughts and selfless love.
Mr. Hoffman says "Steven, Robin and I are all terrified about the thing that Pan finally grapples with, which is the prospect of growing old and looking back and saying, 'I blew it with my kids.' But I do that now, to a degree. I am incapable of being in the moment with them, with anyone, really, because with me, it's all about the work. I've always been that way. I get lost in it, and I have trouble feeling that relaxed and stimulated in my real life. Because for me, every role brings me a little bit closer to who I really am."