Dustin Hoffman: Finally, I can say I'm Jewish

By Abigail Pogrebin, November 16, 2006
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Dustin Hoffman used to deny he was Jewish. But success and the influence of his second wife have enabled him to come to terms with his roots

Dustin Hoffman vividly recalls one afternoon, sitting in his apartment on 11th Street in New York City, talking on the phone to Mike Nichols. The director was trying to convince Hoffman to audition for the part of Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate”.

“Mike was asking: ‘What do you mean you don’t think you’re right for the part? Because you’re Jewish?’

“I said, ‘Yeah.’

“Mike said: ‘But don’t you think the character is Jewish inside?’”

Hoffman reminds me that Braddock was originally written as a thoroughbred WASP. “The guy’s name is Benjamin Braddock —not Bratowski,” Hoffman says with a smile. “He’s a track star, debating team. Nichols tested everybody for the part — I think he tested [Robert] Redford, who visually was the prototype of this character.”

Hoffman finally agreed to fly to LA to audition. “That day was a torturous day for all of us,” he says. “I think I was three hours in the make-up chair under the lights. And Mike was saying with his usual wry humour: ‘What can we do about his nose?’ or: ‘He looks like he has one eyebrow,’ and they plucked in between my eyebrows.

“Dear Mike, who was, on the one hand, extremely courageous to cast me, in the end was at the same time aware that I looked nothing like what the part called for.” Hoffman laughs.

We’re having breakfast in a Columbus Avenue restaurant near Hoffman’s apartment in New York City. He arrives in buoyant spirits, dressed in jeans, white T-shirt, and blue blazer. Right away he befriends the waitress — “where did you grow up?” She turns out to be from his childhood neighbourhood in Los Angeles — Orlando Street. “Oh my God,” he says, “I grew up on Flores!”

He orders very specific “loose” scrambled egg whites with one yoke thrown in, plus onions, salsa, and garlic. “Not too dry, no milk, no butter, a little olive oil.” Hoffman shakes his head when I order my omelette. “Omelettes aren’t the best way to go,” he advises me. “Scrambled is tastier. But you go ahead with your omelette.”

Back to 1967 and “The Graduate.” Nichols, who had seen Hoffman in an off-Broadway play, invited him to California to audition. “I flew out to LA with very little notice, and of course hadn’t slept,” says Hoffman. “I was very nervous. And, in my memory, it was an eight-page or 10-page scene in the bedroom, and of course I kept f*****g it up. I distinctly remember Mike taking me aside and saying: ‘Just relax; you’re so nervous. Have you ever done a screen test before?’

“I said: ‘No.’

“He said: ‘It’s nothing. These are just crew people here — you’re not on a stage. This is just film, no one’s going to see it. This isn’t going into theatres.’

“And I nodded and I was so thankful that he was trying to soften me. But then he put his hand out to shake mine, and his hand was so sweaty that my hand slipped out of it. Now I was terrified. Because I knew — that man is as scared as I am.

“I felt, from my subjective point of view, that the whole crew was wondering: ‘Why is this ugly little Jew even trying out for this part called Benjamin Braddock?’ I looked for a

Jewish face in the film crew, but I don’t think I sensed one Jew. It was the culmination of everything I had ever feared and dreaded about Aunt Pearl.”

He is referring to his Aunt Pearl, who, upon learning that “Dusty” wanted to become an actor, remarked: “You can’t be an actor —you’re too ugly.”

“It was like a banner,” Hoffman continues, “Aunt Pearl was right! She’d warned me.”

Hoffman reaches into the bread basket to break off small chips of a baguette. “It was probably one of the more courageous pieces of casting any director has done in the history of American movies,” he continues. “And an act of courage is sometimes accompanied by a great deal of fear.”

Obviously the film went on to become a classic and made Hoffman a star. But even after becoming a Hollywood icon, with memorable roles in such films as “Midnight Cowboy,” “Marathon Man,” “Kramer vs. Kramer,” “Tootsie,” and “Rain Man,” at the age of 69, Hoffman says he’s still being “miscast.”

“Someone told me about a review of this movie I did, ‘Runaway Jury,’ which indicated that I was miscast because the part was a southern gentleman lawyer. Which must mean to that critic: ‘He shouldn’t be Jewish.’ The unconscious racism is extraordinary — as if there are no southern gentlemen Jews. So he implied I was miscast. And I mentioned that to my wife and she said: ‘Well, you’ve always been miscast.’ And she’s right.

“The truth is that you’ve got 200 million people in this country and I don’t know the number of Jews — are there six or seven million? I think there’s 13 million in the world. So in a sense, we’re miscast by definition, aren’t we? That’s what a minority is — it’s a piece of miscasting by God.”

Hoffman grew up unreligious. “My father later told me he was an atheist,” he says of Harvey Hoffman, a furniture designer. Though they celebrated Christmas, one year he decided to make a “Chanucah bush” instead. “About the time I realised we were Jews, maybe when I was about 10. I went to the delicatessen and ordered bagels and draped them around the tree.”

But when it came to Hoffman’s neighbourhood friends, something told him he should deny his Jewishness. “It was so traumatic to me, before puberty, realising that Jews were something that people didn’t like. I have a vivid recollection — literally, sensory feeling — of the number of times people would say to me (whether they were adults or kids): ‘What are you?’”

Hoffman pauses. “It was like it went right through me.” He twists his fists into his belly. “It was like a warning shock — painful. And I lied my way through each instance of that kind of questioning. So here would be the dialogue: You ask me: What are you?”

POGREBIN: “What are you?”

HOFFMAN: “American.”

He gives me direction: “Now you press.”

POGREBIN: “What kind of American?”

HOFFMAN: “Just American.”

POGREBIN: “What are your parents?”

HOFFMAN: “American — from Chicago.”

More direction: “Keep pressing, because they would. They’d ask: ‘What religion are you?’ And I’d play dumb.”

So he knew that being Jewish was something to hide? “Oh God, yes,” he replies immediately. “I didn’t want the pain of it. I didn’t want the derision. I didn’t come from some tough New York community where I’d say: ‘I’m Jewish —you want to make something out of it?’ There was an insidious antisemitism in Los Angeles.”

It is one of the reasons he was impatient to move to New York, which he did, at the age of 21. “I grew up always wanting to live in New York, even though I’d never been here. And what’s interesting is that all people ever said to me, and still say, is: ‘Oh, I always assumed you were from New York!’ Even now, if you look Jewish, you’re from New York. I didn’t know that most of the Jews in America live in New York. But I did know it inside.

“I flew to New York to study acting in 1958. I took a bus from the airport terminal to New York City and they let me off on Second Avenue. It was summer, it was hot, and I walked out of the bus, and I saw a guy urinating on the tyre of a car, and I said: ‘I’m home.’”

He smiles. “The guy pissing on the tyre must have represented to me the antithesis of whitebread Los Angeles — New York City was the truth. It was a town that had not had a face-lift, in a sense — that had not had a nose job.”

Despite the city’s ethnic embrace, when it came to open casting calls, Hoffman learned quickly into which category he fell. “Character actor,” he says with a grin. “The word ‘character’ had a hidden meaning. It meant ‘ethnic.’ ‘Ethnic’ means nose. It meant ‘not as good looking as the ingenue or the leading man or leading woman.’ We were the funny-looking ones.”

I ask whether it frustrated him — being pigeonholed. “Sure. But everything frustrates you when you’re not working.” He pauses. “I think I just gave you the glib answer. I think the non-glib answer would be how quickly you accept the stereotype that’s been foisted on you. ‘They’re right — I’m ugly.’ You learn that early, before you even think about acting. You learn that in junior high school.”

I assume that changed for him when he became a bona fide movie star whom many considered adorable. “I still don’t feel that, by the way.” He shakes his head. One’s self-image, he maintains, is indelibly shaped in adolescence. “You’re really stuck with those first few years,” he says. “That’s what stays with you. It takes a lot of therapy to break through that.”

What about all the women who must have thrown themselves at him at the height of his fame? “It doesn’t matter,” he insists. “If you’re smart, you know you’re interchangeable. It’s like people coming up and asking for your autograph — they’ll ask any celebrity.”

He also says he realised after a while that the shiksa conquest has little staying power. “The cliché from the male point of view is the number of times we men in our youth would talk about girls that we had bedded down. And there was often the comment: ‘What a waste. I mean here she is — a model, gorgeous — and she’s just a lox.’” He laughs. “I mean, you learn. That outward stereotype only goes so far.”

But the short Jewish guy with the nose did choose the trophy wife for his first marriage. “The first wife was Irish Catholic, five foot ten, ballet dancer.” He smiles. “I don’t want to discredit this ex-wife, but the grandmother of my current and lasting wife, Lisa, once referred to my first wife as” — Hoffman dons a husky voice — “‘He married a bone structure!’” He laughs. “I mean, that was the prize.”

I wonder if he himself ever thought about changing his appearance? “No, but my mother asked me to. When I was a teenager, when she got her nose job, I remember she wanted me to get one, too. She said I would be happier.”

I tell him it’s probably a good thing he didn’t. “Oh, but I did,” he jests. “You should have seen it before.”

He says his first set of in-laws — from Chappaqua, New York — were not thrilled about their daughter’s choice in husbands. “I think there was a certain amount of ambivalence on her parents’ part that she was marrying a Jewish guy. I don’t think they were tickled about me before I became famous and I think they were a little more tolerant afterwards.”

Didn’t he feel some vindication once he became prominent — a kind of “I showed them” to his in-laws, to Aunt Pearl, and to all the casting directors who had once dismissed him?

“I can’t say ‘yes’ because I don’t remember that feeling. On the contrary, I tried my hardest after ‘The Graduate’ to defame myself. I was sent scripts for the first time, and I just kept saying: ‘No, no, no.’ I did not want to be a part of this party joke that I was now a leading man.”

Hoffman is almost never still — he keeps tearing at the baguette, adjusting the sugar packets, the flatware. “None of this is simple,” he says.

His second and current wife, Lisa Gottsegen (“We just celebrated 23 years,” he announces proudly), took him on a more Jewish path. “My wife changed everything,” he says. “Two sons barmitzvahed, two daughters batmitzvahed.” They have four children together (he also has two children from his first marriage, one of whom was a stepdaughter).

Their family rabbi, Mordechai Finley, who Hoffman describes as “a red-headed Irishman with a ponytail”, is someone to whom Hoffman speaks candidly about his misgivings about faith.

“I said: ‘Mordechai, can I tell you the truth? I used to live on East Sixty-Second Street — years ago, when I was still married to my first wife — and there was the Rock Church (it’s still there) across the street. And I’d hear the singing and the clapping and I loved it.’ I said to Mordechai: ‘I always wanted synagogue to be like that.’”

Hoffman acknowledges he has not given the time to his Judaism that he has to his acting. “I have no one to blame but myself, because I could have learned it,” he says. “Every one of my kids that has had a bar- or batmitzvah, I’ve had to learn my part phonetically — it’s uncomfortable for me.”

The family observes all Jewish holidays, though Hoffman noticed his son Max did not go to synagogue on Yom Kippur in Providence, Rhode Island, where he is studying at Brown University.

“We called up Max, and the first thing he said was: ‘Good Yom Tov.’ But he didn’t go to services. He just said it to say: ‘See, I know what today is.’”

Hoffman is, in fact, planning to drive up to Brown after our breakfast. It’s parents’ weekend. “My son met a girl who we’ll probably meet and her name is Brittany from Mobile, Alabama. I don’t think that she’s Jewish.” He smiles. “But I don’t care.”

His mobile phone rings. It is Lisa wondering when he is coming home. “Can you give me 10, 15 minutes?” he asks her. “Okay, my dear. I’ll hurry.”

He and Lisa were caught on camera a couple of nights earlier at the Yankee (baseball) play-off game against the Boston Red Sox. “Because the New York fans are so devout, if the Yankee pitcher strikes somebody out, everybody stands,” he says. “Then they sit down. And then they stand for the next guy. And the next. They sit down, they stand up, sit down.” He demonstrates. “And at one point, Lisa said: ‘This is worse than temple.’”

He says Lisa cares deeply about Jewish tradition, while his connection is more unconscious. “I have very strong feelings that I am a Jew.” He punctuates the declaration with his fist. “And particularly, I am a Russian, Romanian Jew. I love herring and vodka. I feel it comes from something in my DNA. I do love these things. And I know I have a strong reaction to any antisemitism.”

He recounts a story that was clearly disquieting. It happened when he took his family to the premiere of his film “Outbreak” in Hamburg, Germany — the hometown of the film’s director, Wolfgang Peterson.

“I said to my wife before we left: ‘Are there any concentration camps around there? Because I think these kids are now finally at the age when they can handle it.’ We found out that Bergen-Belsen was 40 minutes south. That is where Anne Frank was taken.”

They decided to go the morning after the premiere, and Hoffman took an early walk from the hotel to buy some provisions for the drive. “I heard there was a nearby fancy bakery, and I could get wonderful German pastries and sandwiches. And this place had all these little tables, like this,” he gestures around our restaurant, “and against the wall were these beautiful pastries and the waitresses were very attractive German girls in their striped uniforms — it was as upscale as you would come across. And I’m aware of the fact that no one is coming up to me —-because when you’re a celebrity, you’re aware of when you’re being recognised — and they were quite respectful.

“I’m waiting in line to pay, and as I start to pay, a man is sitting at a table — a man in his twenties, short haircut, drinking coffee, well dressed. And he starts yelling: ‘Juden!’” Hoffman pauses. “And the place stops. In my memory, it was like a movie. Suddenly everyone stops like this.” He freezes. “And he repeated it: ‘Juden!’”

Hoffman is inhabiting this character now, shouting threateningly — with an accent: “Dostin Hovvman! Juden!”

“I remember my brain had to do some work, but I had already done ‘Merchant of Venice’ in London and I remembered that Shakespeare had used the word in the play. So I made the connection: ‘Oh, that must mean Jew.’ It was an extraordinary moment. The irony of hearing this when I’m buying German pastries to go to a concentration camp.

“Finally I turned to this guy and he’s just with his coffee — he’s not drunk. And I’m aware of men in overcoats walking over to him” — Hoffman acts this all out — “and they didn’t grab him. He just stood up and they followed him out. And I go back to pay, and there was complete, total denial. All of us. Everyone in the room, including me.”

He pantomimes paying his bill. “‘Thank you very much.’ And I walked out in a kind of haze. And of course, when I get a block away, I think of what I should have done. I should have gone over to him and said: ‘Yeah. And? And? What of it?’”

Hoffman may have drawn a blank in that instance, but he did not hesitate years earlier, when there was an artistic dispute as to how his character in “Marathon Man” should handle an antisemite.

“The big sticking point in ‘Marathon Man’ was the ending,” he explains. “I was called on, as the character, to fire point-blank at the Laurence Olivier character, Dr Szell [a Nazi dentist], and kill him in that last scene. And I said that I couldn’t do it.

“The screenwriter, William Goldman, was quite upset about it, because first of all, how dare I? He wrote the book. ‘Your job isn’t to rewrite — your job is to play it as written.’

“I think we had an outdoor meeting in LA at the home of the director, John Schlesinger. There was me, Goldman, and Schlesinger around the table —-and it got nasty. I said: ‘Go hire someone else’ — Pacino wanted the part — ‘Go get Al.’

“I remember Goldman saying: ‘Why can’t you do this? Are you such a Jew?’

“I said, ‘No, but I won’t play a Jew who cold-bloodedly kills another human being. I won’t become a Nazi to kill a Nazi. I won’t demean myself. I don’t give a f*** what he did. Even though he tortured me, I won’t do it.’

“And we worked it out — it’s in the dialogue. Olivier says” — Hoffman does the German accent — “‘You can’t do it, can you? You don’t have the guts.’ So I don’t shoot. He comes at me, there’s some wrestling or whatever, and I throw the diamonds at him. That I wanted to do. That I dearly loved doing because I believed it. I throw the diamonds at him and they’re all falling in the grate around him, he is losing them. And I say, ‘I’m going to keep throwing them at you until you eat them.’ I say: ‘Essen, essen’ [‘Eat, eat’]. Because I didn’t mind torturing him, but I wasn’t going to shoot him point-blank. I wanted to do what felt like the Jew that’s in me. I want him to swallow those diamonds for all those people that he tortured and he killed. ‘Eat these f*****g diamonds, because that’s what it was all about to you.’”

He describes how Dr Szell ultimately falls and impales himself, and then Hoffman’s character walks to the Central Park reservoir.

“There’s a great moment for me — I mean, it’s just a movie, but nevertheless —-there’s this music playing, and there’s the fence, and I just go” — he re-enacts it — “I wind up my arm and throw this gun over the fence into the reservoir. And I just keep walking. And it’s the end of the movie.”

He pauses. “And that’s important to me, that I didn’t shoot him in the end. Being a Jew is not losing your humanity and not losing your soul. That’s what they were unable to do when they tried to erase the race — they tried to take the soul away.

“That was the plan.” He gets choked up and excuses himself to go to the bathroom. When he returns, neither of us refers to the moment before. He asks if I want to walk with him the few blocks to his home and, as we chat, we end up talking again about the Yankee game he attended a few days ago.

“I didn’t have any identity on —-neither a Yankee hat nor a Red Sox hat,” he says, “and this one woman said: ‘Are you neutral?’ And before I could stop myself, I said: ‘No, I’m Jewish.’”

He chuckles. “That would never have happened a bunch of years ago. Some part of me wants to advertise it now. Finally.”

Last updated: 2:02pm, August 28 2014