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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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‘Papillon’ (1973)

Hoffman’s character in this seminal based-on-a-true-story prison-break drama – the forger Louis Dega – is merely a blip in the autobiography of French convict Henri Charrière; because the film’s producers wanted another marquee-level name next to Steve McQueen in the film, they decided to flesh out the sidekick role to get the actor on board. A smart move all around: It’s impossible to imagine this classic film without Hoffman playing the beta to McQueen’s alpha, who’s protected by the gent with the butterfly tattoo and who helps facilitate a way off of the “inescapable” penal colony Devil’s Island. The actor has said he based some of the mousy Dega’s tics on Max Trumbo, the famed screenwriter brought in to make the part meatier. That heartwrenching goodbye scene, however, is all Hoffman. 

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‘Lenny’ (1974)

Watch old footage of Lenny Bruce, and the first thing you notice is the stand-up comic’s livewire energy – a restlessness and ability to toggle roles in the middle of routines. So naturally Hoffman’s take on the groundbreaking comedian in Bob Fosse’s biopic fairly bristles with electricity; he rips through Bruce’s controversial bits on racial epithets, relationships and other taboo subjects like a man possessed. It’s the offstage scenes, however, especially his exchanges with Valerie Perrine’s Honey Harlowe, that show the character work he put into this part. The doubt, the self-destructiveness and Bruce’s doomed phase as obscenity charges ground him down – Hoffman brings all that as well. The shoot was apparently a wild one that wore the star down, but the result earned him a third Oscar nomination and cemented his reputation as an actor willing to run himself ragged for a role.

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‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)

Hoffman and Robert Redford as Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post investigative reporters who took down a President, in one of the best movies of the Seventies – to quote one half of this dynamic duo, what more do you need?!? The short, dark-haired actor and his Golden Boy counterpart made for a great double act in Alan Pakula’s definitive Watergate drama; they supposedly learned each other’s lines so that they could finish each other’s sentences during scenes. More importantly, it’s a tribute to both actors that you believe these guys as shoeleather journalists, doggedly trying to figure out that facts and “follow the money.” Hoffman became close with Bernstein during the filming of the movie and picked up a number of his subject’s mannerisms; the reporter, meanwhile gave him his real wristwatch to wear to help him get into character. 

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‘Marathon Man’ (1976)

“Is it safe?” Hoffman is a Columbia grad student who gets tangled up in some nasty business involving his government black-ops brother (R.I.P. Roy Scheider), some valuable diamonds, a femme fatale and an ex-Nazi with a penchant for dentistry. The actor trained hard to get into shape for the part of a guy training for competitive endurance sports – it’s not called Marathon Man for nothing, folks – and who ends up running for his life. And while John Schlesinger’s thriller is best known for that harrowing scene of Hoffman getting impromptu molar work courtesy of a villainous Sir Laurence Olivier, it’s also notable for the anecdote surrounding the filming of the scene, in which the younger star showed up having, like his character, not slept for days. “My dear boy,” the elderly thespian said, “why not try acting?” Hoffman noted the press distorted the story somewhat but still confirmed the exchange took place, adding that his Method experiment “was [also] an excuse to go to Studio 54.”

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‘Straight Time’ (1978)

Fresh out of prison, Max Dembo wants to leave his past behind him and lead a normal, square life. But thanks to his shitheel of a parole officer, social prejudices against ex-cons and the lure of going to back to what he knows best, our man is destined to fond himself liberating cash registers and falling back into less-than-legal endeavors. Anyone familiar with felon-turned-screenwriter/novelist (and future Reservoir Dog “Mr. Blue”) Eddie Bunker’s semi-autobiographical source material No Beast So Fierce probably wouldn’t picture Hoffman as the book’s hardened career criminal. Which, frankly, only makes his work here that more impressive, with the actor playing up the part’s feral, more fatalistic aspects: Dembo can’t catch a break, and other than Theresa Russell’s understanding girlfriend, he’s got nothing going for him. Hoffman lets you feel the frustration, the feeling that the deck is stacked against him – and then gives you the moment that Max simply gives in to his fate. Not even that mustache can distract you from what he’s pulling off here.

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‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ (1979)

Hoffman won his first Oscar for playing a workaholic who, after his wife leaves him, must learn to be a single father to his seven-year-old kid. The fact that Hoffman was, by many accounts, going through his own marital discord at the time may have helped play into how raw the performance is – the movie is still brutal to watch long after the Op-Ed pieces it inspired about the era’s “divorce epidemic” lined bird cages. And where’s no denying that the movie tilts fully in favor of his role over Meryl Streep’s conflicted mother (it’s first and foremost a post-feminist male weepie), the imbalance of sympathies doesn’t make his tough exchanges with the actress or his remarkably tender scenes with youngster Justin Henry any less impressive. It’s hard not to watch him sprinting through uptown Manhattan, son in his arms, to an emergency room and not get a lump in your throat.

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‘Tootsie’ (1982)

Question: What do you do when you’re a broke New York actor and can’t get a job because you’re so difficult? Answer: Invent a female alter-ego and go out for a popular daytime soap opera. The novelty notion of seeing Hoffman done up in drag might have been enough to get an audience into the theater … but that’s not why this is considered one of the best comedies of the 1980s (even though the star didn’t consider it a comedy) and one of the actor’s best performances. His character Michael Dorsey playing a man playing a woman playing a fictional hospital administrator, and Hoffman allows you see how the transformative experience of becoming Dorothy Michaels makes him not just a “better man” but a more sympathetic human being. All this, and it’s hilarious too – easily the strongest showcase for the star’s comic timing since The Graduate. And anyone who worked with him during that period will probably whistle faux-innocently if you ask them whether Hoffman’s “A tomato wouldn’t sit down!” argument in his agent’s office is drawn from real life.

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‘Death of a Salesman’ (1985)

This TV-movie adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Pulitzer-winning play was treated like a major event: One of the great American theater roles, played by one of the era’s great American actors. For a generation that caught this prestigious CBS presentation on the small screen, Hoffman was the Willy Loman – it was his Emmy-nabbing performance you thought of when you thought of the tragic “underappreciated prince” of punctured 20th-century hopes and dreams. And while his fellow cast members from the 1984 Broadway revival all turn in top-notch turns – especially John Malkovich and Avatar‘s Stephen Lang as Loman’s sons Biff and Hap – it’s the star’s stooped, shuffling, screaming turn as the defeated everyman that hits deepest here. (The line-reading of “I’m short, I’m ugly” is delivered with a sense of pathos that Hoffman makes you feel is personal.) Attention must be paid.

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‘Rain Man’ (1988)

Make all the “one minute to Wapner” jokes you want. The fact that Hoffman’s portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, an autistic adult accompanying his slick-salesman brother (Tom Cruise) on a road trip, has become so instantly recognizable (and synonymous with the condition, for better or worse) doesn’t detract from the commitment on display here. The star observed patients and consulted with neurologist Oliver Sacks on how to play Raymond as realistically as possible; he recalled to James Lipton how he’d been having a hard time locating the character until he found “an in-between place” during an improvisation and suddenly felt he’d started to understand the world this man might live in. Watching it now, you still notice the sideways vacant stare, the tics, the repeated “yeahs.” But you also lock in to how well Hoffman is setting Cruise up as a scene partner, and how heartbreaking sequences like Raymond’s trauma flashback and his brother teaching him to dance register for a viewer. It earned Hoffman a second Oscar.

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‘Dick Tracy’ (1990)

You can debate the merits of Warren Beatty’s cartoonish take on Chester Gould’s comic-strip detective all day long – what’s unassailable, however, is what a blast Hoffman’s incomprehensible hood is to watch. Mumbles is just one of Al Pacino’s Richard III-riffing Big Boy rogues-gallery of grotesques, but Hoffman turns this extended cameo into a glorified goof: His transformation of repeated I-didn’t-do-its into a blurred string of slurred consonants (“Idiadoihidiadoihidiadoihidiadoih”) is hilarious. We’ll take the back and forth of him and Beatty during an interrogation scene over most of Ishtar.

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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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