We all know his performances as convicts, comedians, even cross-dressers. So, looking back, it’s hard to imagine what a shocker it was when a young Dustin Hoffman decided to follow up his role as squeaky-clean graduate Benjamin Braddock with that of tubercular Times Square denizen Ratso Rizzo. On the eve of Midnight Cowboy’s silver-anniversary rerelease, the chameleonic actor reminisced with Entertainment Weekly about walking in Ratso’s shoes. Many people haven’t seen the film in a long, long time. How about you? I have not seen it with an audience since it opened in 1969. What I do remember was that no one was aware of making a hit, which is kind of the mentality today. When you watch it, it’s such an impressionistic film. The first reel, my God, the images-the fantasies and memories-the cutting, and the sound. I don’t know how an audience would respond today. In a sense, audiences are now less sophisticated than they were in 1969. People wanted something new then. I’m not sure that’s now the case.
Were you upset when the Oscar went to John Wayne for True Grit? No, I understood it. I even agreed with it. If (the Oscar) makes sense at all, it makes sense for a body of work, and the Academy wanted to celebrate his body of work. There was a cover on Life magazine I was shocked to see: a sketch of me and John Wayne and the line ”A Choice of Heroes.” He was the traditional hero and I was the antihero. But it was the late ’60s. What’s extraordinary is that neither The Graduate nor Midnight Cowboy mentioned the Vietnam War. It just wasn’t part of those stories.
Was your performance based on observing characters in New York City or did it come mostly from the book and screenplay? I have to credit the book. (Ratso), more than any other character I’ve done, was created head to foot. (James L. Herlihy’s) book was very specific about Ratso growing up in the Bronx, an Italian raised in a Jewish neighborhood. I can remember to this day how his walk is described in the book; it said, ”It was like the fourth wheel in a carriage being off.”
How did you do that walk, anyway? I did put pebbles in my shoe, so I wouldn’t have to think about it. When you’re stepping on stones all the time, you don’t have to worry about limping, because you’re just protecting your foot. After a while, I just had it. About 10 years later, I ran into a boyhood friend of mine who’d become an orthopedic surgeon, and he confronted me. He said, ”You know, that walk of yours, there’s no pathology for that limp.” I said, ”Well, what are you going to do?”