Acting His Age continued

Hoffman confers with director Ulu Grosbard on the set of STRAIGHT TIME

The underrated STRAIGHT TIME (1978) was a pivotal film. Hoffman portrayed a criminal sympathetically but with near-documentary precision; far from being a "son," his character "was more like the anti-father." Fittingly, Hoffman produced the movie, cast several of the major roles (including then-unknowns Gary Busey and M. Emmett Walsh) and even directed for a few weeks. "But after looking at the rushes, I said, 'You're fired.' "

Hoffman called in Ulu Grosbard, who'd been his mentor during his early days in New York, and a close friend. But Grosbard, who had previously held the rights to the book on which the film is based, had his own ideas, and in the ensuing tug-of-war over whose vision would end up on the screen, their friendship collapsed.

By the end of his next movie, AGATHA (1979), about the famous detective writer, Hoffman was suing his film company, First Artists, for breach of contract, and his manager for collusion, part of a web of intersecting interests Christie herself would have admired.

Next, while playing a divorced father in KRAMER VS. KRAMER (1979), he ended a 10-year marriage to his first wife, Anne Byrne. Soon afterwards, his mother lapsed into what would become a terminal illness. As they drew closer, Hoffman found in her the character he eventually turned into TOOTSIE (1982). And "Death of a Salesman," which Hoffman performed on Broadway for 18 months, was so suggestive of his own upbringing that upon first seeing the play performed, he confessed that "I felt my family's privacy was being invaded."

For all the critical acclaim Hoffman received for these efforts (Best Actor nomination for TOOTSIE, Oscar for KRAMER, Tony for Salesman), one can only endure so many epiphanies in a row. Returning to film, he was ripe for something fun, something light, something like . . . ISHTAR.

Hoffman had reservations about the movie before it began, but mindful of his "difficult" reputation, decided that "I wanted to work. I'm always being criticized for not taking a job and being a color on someone's palette."

He's still ticked off about the hoopla surrounding the movie, particularly that which focused on Ishtar's budget (reported anywhere between $34 million and $50 million) and the combined salaries of Hoffman, Warren Beatty and director Elaine May (between $7 million and $15 million).

"How can you open any movie when the audience has heard so much negative stuff about it first. 'How dare they spend that kind of money?' And who's saying it? Siskel and Ebert, God bless 'em, who are probably the highest-paid film critics in history. But it's all right for them to make millions while kicking the shit out of us .

"I don't mind saying that I like that movie. I don't think it's great, but I'm not sorry I made it, or even of the experience I went through. In many ways I can't even evaluate it, because it's the only movie I've ever been on that was attacked like that. Before ISHTAR, I never realized there was this desire to kill a film. That was sobering."

Hoffman sighs. "And it's all OK, because ... it's not cancer and it can only hurt you so much.

It is time for Hoffman to call his wife. They have a "date" that night. He married the former Lisa Gottsegen, whose family works in the manufacture of plastics, in 1980. They have four children, and Lisa wants six. Hoffman says that's fine with him, "but it means we'll have to renovate." Fathering a brood while in his 50s isn't every guy's idea of a good time, but Hoffman says he's always wanted a big family. "I just hope when I'm an old fart they won't hold it against me."

How much his kids have altered his priorities is another question. "I'm to the point where there's a little pain involved if I'm not with them. It's the anxiety I used to getI still getif I'm not doing my work as completely as I should. One doesn't have to circumvent the other," he muses. "It just means you have no other life!

"I don't want to mischaracterize this," he adds. "Because I won't ever be what I really want to be in this area, unfortunately." As if to underscore the point, Hoffman can't remember his home phone number. He calls his office to find it out. "We did change it recently," he says.

What really worries Hoffman about his personal life is the same thing that drives him in his work: He hears the clock ticking. "When I say to Lisa's father I'm middle-aged, he says to me, 'You're not middle-agedhow many people do you know who live to be 102?' And that's the shocker. You realize the game is limited."

He recalls that Mario Puzo married the woman who was his first wife's nurse when she was dying of cancer, "Which isn't uncommonmy father did that too. She had written a book about cancer patients. I asked her once, 'Was there a common denominator among the people you were with?' She said it was anger. Not anger that they were going to die, but anger at what they hadn't done in their lives, those things they could have done. "So there's that feeling, at 51: I don't want to be angry."

Not far from his home in Malibu sits Pepperdine University, and on mornings when he's not working, Hoffman plays tennis there with the women on the team. One day not long ago, a professor came by and invited him to talk to his film class. There were about 40 kids in the room, asking questions, to which Hoffman responded by using examples from his movies. For the last question, he began to talk about THE GRADUATE. About halfway through, he noticed the looks on their faces and got a funny feeling. Finally Hoffman asked if anyone there had seen THE GRADUATE.

"Nobody'd seen it," he recalls, trying hard to laugh about it. "And a chill went through me. I went blank for 10 minutes; I started sweating. My wife, who was sitting in the back of the class, later told me I was saying things like, 'Gee, it was kind of a big movie for its time. I think you'd like it. You might connect with it.' But they'd never heard of it. I went home that day kind of shaking. And thinking, it's over. Twenty years. You just wake up one day and it's over."