NEW YORK -- In Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven," due in theaters Friday, Gene Hackman has the plum role of Little Bill Daggett, a frontier lawman willing to kill to keep his community free of killers.
Mr. Hackman could not care less about the advance scuttlebutt -- a virtual consensus among American film critics -- that his portrayal is among the year's more appealing Oscar bait.
"I doubt I'll even watch the thing," the celebrated actor shrugged during a visit heralding the opening of "Unforgiven." "I'm too self-conscious to care much for watching my performances. The awards are fine, the nice houses that come with a successful career, the acclaim and all that -- but the only thing I'm in this business for is the thrill of making a scene work.
"If I didn't get that thrill out of it, I'd have no use for making pictures.
"About every third or fourth movie I'll do is of really serious, personal interest to me," said Mr. Hackman, reinforcing a point he had made in a 1985 conversation. "I've got to say this picture, 'Unforgiven,' is one of those third or fourth pictures in the cycle. It has so much to say about the issue of violence, about the myth of heroism, that I found a lot of my own attitude toward violent entertainment articulated in the characters and their situations."
Director and leading player Clint Eastwood had expected Mr. Hackman to balk when offered the Little Bill role. During the past decade, and especially since a scary patch during the latter 1980s when Mr. Hackman came perilously near to suffering a heart attack, Mr. Hackman has declined assignments involving violence in attitude or action. Mr. Hackman said the "Unforgiven" screenplay's use of violence as a villainous presence is what sold him on the job.
"Well, I would hardly say I regret having done 'The French Connection,'" Mr. Hackman said of his most remarkably vicious character impersonation. "But I have regretted not letting more of my career go toward comedy, or toward romantic portrayals. I loved the 'Superman' assignments, on account of the comic villainy I was allowed to do there, and the spoofing good humor in 'Young Frankenstein,' and the idea of myself as a romantic leading man -- well, let's just say 'Twice in a Lifetime' was a very real pleasure.
jTC "Then, too, now that my kids have grown into people who will exert an influence on my career, they've been encouraging me to bypass the kinds of violent portrayals that I might've routinely accepted, oh, 10, 15, 20-odd years ago.
"That influence, my family's influence, by itself, is what caused me to move away from 'The Silence of the Lambs,' which I had been invited to direct and star in -- either as the senior FBI man, or in the Dr. Hannibal Lecter role -- in order to steer clear of the horrific nature of the story.
"Regrets about 'Silence of the Lambs?' No. It seems to have fared just fine without me, and I've done well by landing the role in Clint's picture, which indeed has its horrific moments."
Mr. Hackman, 61, said he arrived at the decision to become an actor
about age 7. California-born but reared in Danville, Ill., he made moviegoing his key pastime as a child and learned early on the movies' tactic of blurring the line between reality and fantasy.
"It was an Errol Flynn picture that did it," Mr. Hackman said. He doesn't remember the title of the Flynn film, which probably would have been 1938's "The Dawn Patrol" or 1939's "Dodge City," or maybe even "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (1938).
"Anyway, I'm watching this Errol Flynn picture, and all of a sudden I'm Errol Flynn. Then the movie's over, I'm leaving the auditorium -- still being Errol Flynn -- and I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror in the theater lobby.
"And I stop cold. I'm looking at myself in the mirror, and I'm this little kid -- I'm no more Errol Flynn than the man in the moon -- and then I ignore the mirror image, and I'm still Errol Flynn -- at least, that's how I feel -- and that's where and when it dawned on me: If the movies can engender this powerful illusion of realism, then regardless of what I look like, I can be anybody I want to be. I became fascinated with acting, got a job working in a theater when I was old enough, about age 14, and never really wanted any other career."
An abundance of jobs, yes, but only one career. A hitch in the Marines, a dalliance in commercial art, journalism, even television-station management distracted Mr. Hackman until his early 30s, when he became a student at the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse school.
"I wasn't the most promising student at acting for the stage," Mr. Hackman said, "but then, neither was my best friend from those days, Dusty Hoffman." His and Dustin Hoffman's prominence among two generations of Hollywood leading men demonstrates tellingly that star power cannot be defined by academic standards.
"It's like Dusty was telling me recently, though," Mr. Hackman said. "He said, 'Man, the stardom just isn't as much fun as the scuffling for jobs.' And he's right."