A rare 1971 interview with Dustin Hoffman, in which the actor discusses fame, sex, drugs, gang violence, growing pains and playing Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy, is the latest archival tape to be animated for PBS’ ongoing Blank on Blank series.
The wide-ranging clip begins with Hoffman’s ambivalence about fame and becoming a recognizable figure, which took an absurd turn when he “upstaged” an accidental Weather Underground bombing in the building next to his apartment. But despite his rising profile, Hoffman noted that young people — whom, a few years removed from The Graduate, would have been his target audience — cared the least about him.
“Youth itself is today more famous than anybody, than any single person,” Hoffman said. “There is a sense of self. They’re their own movie stars.”
While he chastised the older generation’s attitude towards youth culture’s acceptance of sex and drugs as “pure envy,” Hoffman didn’t necessarily identify with the freewheelers himself. He discussed his difficult adolescence and — while cleverly animated in a scuba suit, à la The Graduate — he posited that marijuana would not have helped him.
Hoffman’s teenage years, rather, were fraught with violence: “I grew up on the coattails of an aggressive society,” he said. “I carried a knife taped to my leg. I never used it, but it was there, and thought of gang warfare as being really quite glamorous and exciting, and dragging your car next to another guy, and evil-eyeing him, see who could evil-eye out the other one. Getting the girl was based upon how tough you were, not what an egghead you were.”
Hoffman returned to the peculiarities of fame, noting that when he was recognized, fans often called him Ratso and repeated his famous Midnight Cowboy line, “I’m walking here!” That scene was famously improvised when a rogue cabbie threatened to ruin the shot, and as Hoffman recalled, in that moment he was himself, but said the lines through the character.
“Maybe that’s what acting’s all about,” Hoffman mused. “I felt connected with the role. It was a side of myself that I’d always felt a little bit like Ratso.” He added: “There are traits in my own personal character which I don’t feel are admirable, which I feel are unattractive. I’ve tried to bring out unattractive aspects of me in roles that I’ve played, and sometimes achieve that.”