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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

Happy 80th birthday, Dustin Hoffman! From the moment he first made his dent on the public consciousness as Benjamin Braddock, the confused young man/symbol of the generation-gap Sixties of Mike Nichols’ The Graduate, he helped signal a sea change in screen acting. Yes, the movie became a cultural touchstone and a classic, turning the then–30-year-old into a sensation almost overnight. But after that movie, short, ethnic and handsome performers could be considered leading men. Character actors could become movie stars. He helped change the game.

And had Hoffman only played that part and Ratso Rizzo, the downtown scuzzball of Midnight Cowboy, he’d still have carved out a small corner in film history. But in the nearly 50 years since that one-two punch, he’s given us some of the most memorable turns in American movies: Watergate muckrakers and Judge Wapner-loving savants, existential detectives and enraged divorcees, psychopathic gangsters and profane stand-ups, two-bit crooks and first-rate schnooks. It’s an impressive, incredible back catalog.

So in honor of the man entering eighth decade, we’re looking back on what we consider the 20 essential Dustin Hoffman roles – from his Oscar-winning performances to small-screen one-offs like his memorable Simpsons guest appearance. Is it safe to say the star is a national treasure? Yes, it’s safe. It’s very safe. It’s so safe you wouldn’t believe it.

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‘Billy Bathgate’ (1991)

It’s surprising to think it took until the early Nineties for someone to cast Hoffman as Howard “Dutch” Schultz – it’s the sort of complex part that that seems tailor-made for him like an Italian suit. In Robert Benton’s adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel, the Jewish gangleader is the devil sitting on the shoulder and whispering into the ear of a young man (played by Loren Dean) drawn into the glamorous world of Thirties mobsters and the molls who love them. “You’re my prodigy!” he tells the innocent, right before the organized-crime figure offs his partner (Bruce Willis) and takes up with the man’s wife (Nicole Kidman). Naturally, a life-threatening love triangle ensues. Hoffman is all coiled menace until he isn’t; once he loses his cool, heads get bashed and bullets get fired. This feels like a dry run for the star’s character in the HBO show Luck several decades down the line: A man who values loyalty, plays his cards very close to his chest and trusts no one.

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‘The Simpsons’: ‘Lisa’s Substitute’ (1991)

The name in the credits is listed “Sam Etic” – but you’d know that voice anywhere. Hoffman lent his celebrity pipes to this classic, popular Simpsons episode in which Lisa develops a crush on her substitute teacher Mr. Bergstrom – the kind of left-of-center educator that dresses up as a cowboy to get kids’ attention, reads Charlotte’s Web aloud and suggests his own derisive nicknames. (When it’s mentioned that there were no Jews riding the range in the 1830s, he issues a correction: “There were a few Jewish cowboys … big guys, who were great shots, and spent money freely.”) As with most good things, her dream professor’s tenure eventually comes to an end, but not before Bergstrom gives her a self-affirmation note that simply reads, “I am Lisa Simpson.” There’s so much humanity and humor that Hoffman puts into this animated Mr. Chips that you can see why the smartest Simpson would swoon over him; the part also proves that Dustin can do a crack, albeit highly footnoted rendition of “Home on the Range.”

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‘American Buffalo’ (1996)

Hoffman takes on another great American theatre role for the screen: Teach, the two-bit bottom-dweller of David Mamet’s drama about three men, a rare coin and a highwire confidence scheme. The New York Times called his grimy portrayal of the poker player-turned-criminal “the spiritual descendant of Ratso [Rizzo]” from Midnight Cowboy, and you can practically smell the sewer-funk emanating off of Hoffman’s greasy-haired, dirty-fingernailed gambler who thinks he’s stumbled on to a sure thing. The star handles the banter between himself and co-stars Dennis Franz and Sean Nelson almost as well as he does Mamet’s poetically profane dialogue – it’s an underrated turn into a sometimes overbaked adaptation, motormouthed and manic to a T.

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‘Wag the Dog’ (1997)

You don’t need to know that Hoffman is doing a partial riff on veteran producer/Hollywood schmoozer Robert Evans to savor Barry Levinson’s genius satire on politics, entertainment and the ever-decreasing line between the two. But it certainly doesn’t detract from the in-joke aspects of this comedy, either. Recruited to produce a war (“More like a ‘pageant,'” corrects Robert De Niro’s Beltway fixer) his Beverly Hills bigwig is drawn into manufacturing an international incident to distract from a President’s sex scandal. Everything goes better-than-according-to-plan, thanks to his showbiz know-how … but his moviemaker is a creature of ego, and his need for credit eventually seals his fate. There are moments that feel like Hoffman is taking personal revenge on every Tinseltown aristocrat in tennis shorts who’s screwed an actor over. Plus he gets to say lines like “They told me I couldn’t remake Moby Dick from the point of view of the whale … and I made this lame turkey fly!” Both the performance and this prescient movie have aged beautifully, even if the laughs now seem to get stuck in your throat.

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‘I Heart Huckabees’ (2004)

David O. Russell’s beautifully bizarro “existential comedy” casts Hoffman as one half of a detective team (along with Lily Tomlin) who are hired by a young man to investigate why he keeps experiencing these metaphysical moments of uncertainty. A damaged firefighter (thank you, Mark Wahlberg!), a department store head and a former pupil of the couple start to throw their own oddball Zen mantras into the mix. And then things get truly weird. Blessed with a shaggy hairdo that instantly gives him an absent-minded-professor vibe, Hoffman isn’t just game for playing with the director and co-writer Jeff Baena’s Philosophy 101 brain teasers; he seems positively giddy to be involved. And his monologue about “blanket truth,” in which he outlines how we’re all interconnected under the surface, is a keeper. 

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‘Luck’ (2011-2012)

Created by Michael Mann and David Milch (a man extremely familiar with playing the ponies), this HBO series quickly came and went after numerous animals were repeatedly injured on-set. What’s disappointing is that viewers never got to see how the story of Hoffman’s Ace Bernstein, a low-level gangster who did a three-year bid for some associates, played out. Released back in the free world, the dapper older gent goes to see a man about about a horse – and starts looking into investing in a racetrack that could be turned into a gambling goldmine. It’s a juicy part for the actor, who relishes in playing the silences, the slow-burn staredowns and the occasional outbursts – slam those palms down on the desk, Dustin! – as well as the rapport between his character and the late Dennis Farina’s man Friday. Well into his seventies, the man could still bring the heat.

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