The Lives and Deaths of Dustin Hoffman

The push to see how far his boundaries go – as a human being, as an actor – never stops

"I could always cry when I was acting before, but it was tough for me to cry in life," Dustin Hoffman says. "Now I cry very easily." Credit: ullstein bild/Getty

This story originally appeared in the February 3rd, 1983 issue of Rolling Stone.

Dustin Hoffman's mother was dying. They could see she was dying, but they didn't know how or why or where in her body the death was coming from. It was June 1980, a few weeks after her heart attack, and now she had just suffered a stroke that had paralyzed her entire right side, and she lay there without the muscles to form the words to tell the doctors how to save her.

Into her room rushed Dustin, his hair, crazy from the blade storm of the helicopter he had rented. He leaned down, his swearing face close enough to force his words and maybe even some of his will into her, and he frantically invented a two-symbol language. A smile with the good half of her lips would mean yes. Sticking the tip of her tongue out would mean no.

You got to tell me,Mom,he begged. Is the pain here? The tongue Over here? The tongue again.

He pointed to her legs and got the warped smile. Clots, someone said. She's throwing clots to her legs. Look, her toes are going blue – we couldn't see it before because of the toenail polish.

Attendants readied her for emergency surgery Dustin whirled and grabbed the arms of his father and his only brother and pulled them down close, so that now all four of their faces were huddled. They had never been a close family, and that was the other great agony that Lillian Hoffman had never been able to point to on her

"This is a tough one, Mom," Dustin said. "You really got to fight."

His head swiveled and kissed his father, swiveled again and kissed his brother. "Did you see that, Mom?" he cried. "Did you see it?"

Lillian Hoffman squeezed off a wink, and they wheeled her away.

An attendant offered Hoffman and his wife an empty hospital room to rest in. Yes, Hoffman said, yes. He turned to Lisa, the woman he would make his second wife in four months, as soon as his divorce was official. "We've got to have a baby," he said. "We've got to give my mother a reason to live"

Lillian Hoffman would stiff-arm death for another 16 months. Dustin Hoffman attributes some of her stay to the life conceived that night, a few rooms away.

"Not to be sacrilegious, but from my point of view, God's a perverse motherfucker" – Dustin Hoffman, November 1982

The Aaron Pryor-Alexis Arguello championship fight in Miami will bust out on the Orange Bowl floor within minutes. In the ring, the announcer invites a white-haired gentleman, a boxing legend who once won titles in three weight divisions, up to take a bow. As Henry Armstrong climbs through the ropes, Dustin Hoffman, 45 years old, in his khaki pants, battered red sneakers, blue shirt and black vest with a cigarette-burn hole in the back, hops to his feet at ringside.

"Bravo!" cries Hoffman, clapping his hands above his head. "Bravo!" He turns to take in the celebration of a ripe life that is nearing the step into darkness. Few in the Stadium have joined him.

"Nobody cared about Henry Armstrong," Hoffman says, cringing, a few days later. "Here the man is in his own domain, in a fight ring, and nobody cares. You know, I walked through the Whitney Museum the other day; they had the life and work of Milton Avery on the walls of five or six rooms. I look and I say, yes, I'd like to have that when I'm gone. But then I thought, who cares?"

He is up now, gesturing, walking circles around a coffee table – no, stomping, pulsing with the knowledge that man is just worm food, and suddenly his arm shoots out and his voice explodes "It means NOTHING! Who the hell really cares about Charlie Chaplin? He left a legacy. So what? All it's going to be when I die is a paragraph in 'Milestones' in Time magazine.

"OK. Let's just say I could cash my body of work in, and for it I could get a thunderbolt with my name on it, and it would go off at 5 o'clock every night, and it would be a nice thunderbolt that could make you laugh and make you cry and leave you with insight. It still doesn't mean anything, because I'm not there to see your expression when it shoots across the sky."

He sags onto a sofa, suddenly exhausted, and talks from far away. "And so the work just disappears … the work doesn't mean anything … nothing means anything. …"

There are the three movie scripts in the front of his mind and a deskful in the back. There is the rewriting of scripts with his friend, playwright Murray Schisgal. The morning memorization of Hamlet, a play he may do on Broadway this year. The publicity blitz for Tootsie, the jogging, the reading, the preparation for the multimillion lawsuit this month against First Artists movie company and the jump rope every time he feels himself sag. Sleep is a five-hour intermission between work.

He bursts out of his Manhattan apartment and jogs down Central Park West, his left hand raised to the gray December dawn. It slaps the raised white glove of a black man walking the opposite way. "Lookit that man all duuuuuded up," Hoffman crows to the doorman. "Waltah, mah man!"

He throws his head back, his tightly tied sweatshirt hood reducing it to just nose and eyes and mouth, all alive with the limitless potential of man. "What a day!" he shouts.

Each leg extension seems a ratification of his existence. He is telling stories and addressing ideas as he moves, and just when it seems he is submerged in his body rhythm and his narrative, he points at some subtlety on the streets, some juxtaposition, some small expression on some passing face he might use in some future role.

"Look at her eyes! Did you see them? Did you see the flute she was carrying? The only thing better than a flutist is a cellist"

Far away and straight above, in the crown of a majestic oak, is a cluster of balloons.

Dustin is the sort of man who notices things like that. "Do you see those balloons? Is there a string hanging down? God, I wish there was a string, so I could pull them down and take them to Jake."

Jake is his 22-month-old son. Hoffman's pace quickens to get home. Yesterday he jogged an hour around Central Park tomorrow he will jog an hour through Harlem, but today he has promised Lisa he will be only a half-hour.

Lisa greets him, they hug. No makeup, no jewelry, just jeans and a loose blouse that covers the second pregnancy of their 13-month marriage. Her face has a quiet beauty, but her serenity doubles it. Seeing her, you like her husband even better.

"He's just learning to live in the present instead of being consumed by the past and the future," says wife Lisa. "I think happiness scares him."


"She's straight from heaven," Hoffman says. "For the first time, I can feel life when I'm not acting."

It has taken a wallop to do this. It has taken a one-and-a-half–year stretch from spring of 1980 to autumn of 1981, in which he went through a divorce, started a new family, suffered a series of setbacks in the production of Tootsie, and saw birth and death tighten a three-generational headlock around his mother, wife and baby.

The experience has affected him in complicated, paradoxical ways. A few days after calling God a perverse motherfucker, he says, "I'm praying more than ever now. Just thanking him, thanking him, . . ."

Dustin Hoffman's wife was dying. Her abdomen had suddenly turned hard and sore, and she was beginning to lose consciousness when she lay on her back. There should have been vaginal bleeding to stampede them to the hospital earlier, but the placenta was ripping away from the uterine wall and interrupting the blood's flow. It was March 1981, and her first pregnancy was in its eighth month. They did not know it, but if the placenta continued its tearing away, the hemorrhaging would kill Lisa and the oxygen cutoff would kill the baby.

They telephoned her doctor. Come on in, we'll check it out, he said almost casually.

Lisa packed and got into the shower, and Hoffman jumped in too. "You forgot to take your underwear off, honey," she observed. He hustled her into the car and began weaving and honking and screaming through traffic.

"Slow down, Dusty," Lisa begged."Don't be so dramatic."

At the hospital, they scanned the abdomen and saw what was happening. Suddenly, they were rolling Lisa to the operating room, and an obstetrician was spraying orders, and Hoffman was reeling as a husband and observing as an artist and hating himself for it but doing it all the same.

No husband had ever witnessed a Cesarean section at Santa Monica Hospital. Dr. Amy Rosenman, the obstetrician, asked Hoffman to leave. Hoffman refused. "Then go over there and don't say a word," she ordered, tossing him a pair of something white and soft to put on. He struggled to get one of them on his head. "I think the slippers go on your feet, honey," said Lisa.

"I told him to go sit in the corner," Rosenman recalls. "He didn't make a peep for five minutes, and that's the first time I've ever seen him like that He needs to have control. He told me later it blew his mind that a 29-year-old woman was telling him what to do, was operating on his wife and saving his baby. He learned that there are things in life completely out of his control."

Suddenly, Hoffman saw his wife's guts opened, and a hand wait in, and a hand and a baby came out. Now, nearly two years later, he is reenacting the hand motion, still trying to comprehend what happened. His whole life had been based on the principle that being is doing, that living is moving and gesturing and ranting and laughing and working, and if you slow down, you are finished. He is Still stunned at his deadness when the hand went in and out.

"There was no effect," he says. "There was no crescendo of music, no intellectual gestalt. It was not like the Bible, where you're down on your knees, with a beard, pleading to God." (Hoffman drops to his knees and begs the ceiling for mercy.) "No, no, what it happened, I was hit with a baseball bat.

"They told us later she had an hour to live," he continues quietly. "She told me the only thing she was thinking of was the baby, not herself." Anxiety seizes his face. "It was so opposite of the way I'd feel. My greatest fear is that my home will catch on fire and my children will be caught in it. I'm pretty sure I'd go in and save them, but it would be from the head, not the heart. The whole time I'd be doing it, I'd be saying, 'Isn't there some way we could all get out of this? Maybe the kid could just lose a leg or something...'"

He sits shaking his head. The chasm between his greed to live and her acceptance of death seems almost too great a thing to ponder.

It was not a white-picket fence home. Dustin Hoffman's father was a short man named Harry, who wanted to be a Hollywood movie producer. He did supervise props for Columbia once, but he ultimately became a successful furniture salesman. Dustin's mother, Lillian, used to dance in the aisles at movie houses as a young girl and dreamed of doing it on the stage. She did pass an audition once, but her mother forbade her to take the job.

They climbed into a car in Chicago, two first-generation American Jews driving father and farther from their parents' Eastern Europe and closer and closer to their own America. They climbed out in Los Angeles to a slow-developing surprise. Dissatisfaction had made the drive with them.

Harry had been the man of his house since age nine, when his own father had died. Out of the confusion and pressure, the nine-year–old had carved out a way of coping with life; that there could be others never would occur to him. He was a tough, controlling man,a survivor who beat tuberculosis twice, and yet was able to be so shaken by as small a gesture of love as a birthday gift that he'd have to pinch back the tears.

Lillian dressed and talked young. She spent hours with jewelry and hair dyes and makeup, readying herself for the Hollywood producer's am. She was a feisty, vibrant woman, a satellite to no man except one as forceful as Harry She spent much of her life trying to douse the tension in her home. She hated to cook and had a maid in to do it. They celebrated Christmas, not Hanukkah.

Somewhere, in the lunge between the lifestyles of two continents, Dustin was deposited. He was six and a half years younger than the Hoffman's only other child, Ron, and from the beginning, he felt like a late-arriving stranger at someone else's home movies.

Ron, now an economist for the U.S. Treasury, was an A student, captain of the high-school baseball team and a barrel-chested lineman on the football team. Dustin was too tiny and too skinny, wore braces for eight years and acne forever. He'd sit on the edge of the bathtub while his brother sat on the toilet just to steal a few minutes to talk. The family moved to six different places in the LA. area in Dustin's first 12 years.

He remembers staring into the old chrome toaster on the counter, saying, "Dusty, Dusty, Dusty," trying to make a connection with the face he saw and feeling scared when he couldn't. He found only two ways to connect with others: humor and mime. When the storm clouds came to his father's face, he could sometimes stop the thunder by imitating him. In school, he would choose the ugliest, heaviest girl to dance with and secretly thrill when everyone laughed. It was better than being ignored.

The children said he looked like a rat, with his dark darting eyes, big nose and little body. Dustin converted the insult into a laugh, campaigning for president of his ninth-grade class by pasting a picture of his face overtop the poster face of a biceps-flexing Mickey Mouse. And losing anyway, of course.

He got A's in the occasional courses that interested him,but mostly there were D's and F's and daydreams. Once, he delivered a book report on Jimmy Durante's book, Schnozzola, and as he spoke of the pain in Durante's early years caused by his large nose, tears began to stream down Hoffman's face. He ran from the room.

He graduated and entered Santa Monica City College, and discovered, to his horror, that his young-looking mother had chosen the same campus and semester to make one more search for self. Her grades were better than Dustin's, but her states from Harry were worse. They both quit, sealing off one family argument and beginning another.

He began to sense that acting, where the assignment was to make, harder, getting more fertile. It's like he's insisting life has a meaning, like he's saying, 'OK God, maybe you're going to catch me, but I'm going to be moving awful fast until you do.'"

And in another: "He's becoming more accepting of things, more patient," says Lisa. "I knew there was, a change when he pulled off the wrong exit of a freeway and got lost for 20 minutes and didn't explode. He's just learning to live in the present instead of being consumed by the past and the future.

"I think happiness scares him. He says, 'I don't know of an artist or an actor who's had a good family life.' When I told him I wanted six kids a few years ago, he looked at me like I was crazy. Now he says, 'Have as many as you want.' He's never felt a part of the whole familial chain before this."

Hoffman is mulling this over. "I could always cry when I was acting before, but it was tough for me to cry in life," he says. "Now I cry very easily. Life can be so great and yet everything is sad because it's going to be over. It hit me in the shower the other night, watching Jake rock from one foot to the other, going, 'ul-ul-ul-ul.' It was so great to watch him, but under the best of circumstances, it's still dying. It's why religion is so important, why I pray more now.

"I want to decide when it's a good day to die. But the emotional knowledge I have of death tells me I can't. So now I want to have my dance before it's over. You start to clock things more, to delineate more between what's really important and what isn't. The fuller my life gets, the less wasted time and energy I spend arguing and fighting. You can pour more into your work and make it better. My smile doesn't fade as fast anymore."

He is aware of the maxim that the happy artist is a barren one, but he pushes it away. "No," he says. "You get all that tension for the first forty years, you've got enough of it." But when he's asked if that new shine in his psyche makes him more capable of portraying happiness, the actor's insecurities rush back. "Why, don't you think I do happiness well? Could you see that in my work?"

There is, nonetheless, a deepened humanness that Hoffman is discovering. (He has seen that change is the only thing that is absolute, that is immortal," says Marvin Belsky, a close friend. "That is why the kind of roles he takes will keep changing so dramatically, and why there must be so much arc within each of those roles."

The demands of Tootsie, in which Dustin Hoffman plays Michael Dorsey who plays Dorothy Michaels who plays soap-opera figure Emily Kimberly, were of a complexity that would have intimidated most actors We will never again see Hoffman playing the type of role he did in All the President's Men, in which the character shows no personal growth. And we will never see him machine-gunning out the movies three to a year.

He screamed louder than ever during Tootsie's filming, and this will not change, because 'knowing that he will die means that everything he commits to must be irrevocably good. The change comes when he stops screaming. The neck muscles loosen quicker now and die anger does not poison the rest of the work and the home life anymore. Lisa watched the rushes with him each night during Techie, offered suggestions, and then they set upJake in a highchair, all of their eyelids drooping with happy fatigue, and they ate and talked and made faces.

He plans to do more stage acting now, starting with Hamlet, because no director can walk into the middle of the soliloquy and alter the knit of his forehead. And yes, they are videotaping plays for cable TV now, and the celluloid is one more hedge against mortality, one more chance to create a life that is more manageable than the one Dustin Hoffman was dealt.

Dustin Hoffman walked into his mother's hospital room on an October day in 1981. He had staged a wedding ceremony for his mother a few days before his actual one, had delivered a new baby to her, held two-hour phone conversations with her, wrestled the heart attack and stroke to an uneasy truce and finally established a relationship with her, after four decades.

"Did you hear the news?" she asked him.

"What news, Mom?"

"I've got the big C now. I'm gonna die"

Over the catch in his throat, Hoffman managed the two hardest lines of his life. "We'll be joining you in just a minute, Mom. We'll be there in a finger snap."

A day later, she died. A year later: "I've been writing a screenplay in the privacy of my mind ever since that day, about what happened to my mother and my wife and my child. If only I could write that, if only I could direct that, if only I could make that movie the way it is in my head, Allen, then I'd be. …"