The Best of Dustin Hoffman: 20 Essential Roles

From 'The Graduate' to 'The Simpsons,' looking back on the best of the actor's big-screen and small-screen work

'The Graduate' (1967)

Hoffman had been making his bones as an actor for a few years when Mike Nichols caught him in an Off-Broadway play; after contacting him, the former-comedian-turned-director mentioned he had the young man in mind for a part in his new movie. Hoffman managed to get a look at the source material, Charles Webb's novel about a college graduate who has an affair with an older woman, and told the filmmaker that the blonde, blue-eyed Benjamin Braddock was not a good fit. In a 2015 interview, he put it more bluntly: "I was the Jewish kid ... and this was not a Jewish part."

Nevertheless, Nichols persisted – and the rest is history. From the first time we see him gliding through LAX to that final what-do-we-do-now scene as he and Katherine Ross ride off into an uncertain future, Hoffman reminds you that the right actor, with the right part at the right time, can change everything. He not only turns Braddock into a fully realized, flesh-and-blood representation of generational anxieties; the 29-year-old also helps tear down the notion that short, ethnic and prominently proboscis-ized guy could not be a leading man or a sex symbol. (You're welcome, Al Pacino.) The comic timing (listen to the way he sells that "You're trying to seduce me, aren't you, Mrs. Robinson?" line), the nebbish-y whimpering tics, the jaded sense that adult life is a scam, the passionate way he goes after Elaine Robinson during the film's climax – it'd be an extraordinary performance if it hadn't made him a star. But it did. After Hoffman saw The Graduate for the first time with his then-girlfriend, the couple ran into a gossip columnist coming out of the theater. "Your life is never going to be the same again," she told him. She was right.