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Dustin Hoffman reflects on his film career

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He waves a hand in greeting from the coffee-shop door, his head hanging down to signal a mea culpa. Dustin Hoffman is a little late getting to this Brentwood, Calif., eatery on a late-December morning because the brakes are screwy on his brand-new car. Well, not exactly brand-new. It’s a bright orange Volkswagen Thing — the exact set of wheels that his character, Bernie Focker, drives in Meet the Fockers, complete with a ”Honk If You Love Hillary” sticker.

”It came last night,” Hoffman says of his temperamental tangerine vehicle, which he reports he bought from the studio for a thousand bucks. ”And I thought, Oh! I’ll drive it this morning.” Pause for comic effect. ”The driver’s-side door doesn’t open.” Ba-dump-bump. ”The brakes barely work.”

Fockers‘ astounding box office mileage caps a busy year in which Hoffman also showed up in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (as a theater critic), I (heart) Huckabees (as a befuddled existential detective partnered with Lily Tomlin), and Finding Neverland (as a patient stage producer). Flashing a twitchy, conspiratorial upper-bite smile, Hoffman looks so game, so puckish, it’s a shock to realize he’s 67 years old. And to remember he was 30 when he became a movie star in 1967’s The Graduate, playing a 21-year-old. And to grasp it’s been a quarter century since he first collected a Best Actor statuette, on Oscar night 1980, for the divorced-dad melodrama Kramer vs. Kramer.

Having agreed to range through his accomplished filmography to mark the occasion, Hoffman has brought with him a small spiral notebook, and he scribbles in it — all through the conversation. He says he’s been taking notes this way for years. He takes notes about what the woman at the counter is doing with her food (she’s portioning it into a takeout container in unusual ways, he observes). He takes notes about vocabulary words he seizes on unexpectedly and ”must look up someday” — words like scrimmage (which he spells ”scrimage”) and anomaly, which he pronounces ”anamalie” — as in ”I’m an anamalie in this town, I keep my word.” Apprised of his phonetic blunder, he says, ”I’m terrible,” one of many reflexive self-deprecations. ”I could say the word and know what it means, but I can’t say it correctly. Anomaly.”

The term fits Hoffman many times over. He’s at once a character actor and a leading man, an inspired comedian and an accomplished tragedian, an outspoken Oscar critic despite being a seven-time nominee and two-time winner. Here’s what he had to say, over several animated chats, about some of his most notable roles.

THE GRADUATE 1967

At age 29, Hoffman joined Robert Redford, among others, in auditioning for director Mike Nichols to play mopey postcollegiate Benjamin Braddock. Despite the character’s golden-boy description in the novel, Nichols thought Hoffman would be perfect opposite Anne Bancroft, whom he’d tapped to play the alcoholic temptress Mrs. Robinson — even though she was only six years Hoffman’s senior. The Academy gave Hoffman a Best Actor nod, and the idea that a sexy star had to be classically handsome was smashed for good.

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