Dustin Hoffman paced the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, about to relive the worst nightmares of his early adolescence. Director Mike Nichols was getting ready to shoot a scene in which Benjamin, with growing panic, attempts to book a room for his first tryst with Mrs. Robinson. The concierge was to have been played by William Daniels, but when Daniels lobbied Nichols to give him something more to do in the movie, the director bumped him up to the role of Benjamin’s father, and Buck Henry stepped behind the reservations desk instead.
”Have you ever done anything like this?” Nichols said to Hoffman while they rehearsed the scene.
”I don’t think so,” Hoffman said, feeling himself start to freeze up.
”Let’s think,” Nichols said, persisting. ”Did you ever go anywhere that unnerved you?”
Hoffman reached into his memory. ”When I was a kid, I could never buy rubbers if it was a female behind the counter,” he told Nichols. ”I would go into a drugstore, and if it was a man, I could ask him, Could I have some prophylactics? But many times, just as I got to the counter, the man would move away and a woman would be there. And in mid-sentence, I’d have to think of something else.”
”Okay,” said Nichols. ”When you’re going to get the room, you’re walking in to get rubbers. And Buck is a female pharmacist.”
Hoffman didn’t need much help to access his anxieties. Weeks into shooting, he was so nervous that he even worried about his ability to manufacture nervousness on camera. The more he opened up to Nichols, the more ammunition he gave his director to get under his skin and toy with his blackest fears. ”I get to you sometimes, don’t I?” Nichols asked him. ”You just kind of clam up when I do.”
”In New York I blow my top when things aren’t going right,” said Hoffman. ”But here I go to the other extreme.”
”That’s no good. Just tell me to go to hell,” said Nichols.
”I can’t do that,” said Hoffman. ”You’re the director.”
The shoot at the Ambassador that day was turning out to be particularly hard for Hoffman. ”I had been having a difficult time with my parents,” he says, ”but they wanted to come watch, and I finally acquiesced. I figured it would be okay — there would be a lot of people there, and they could stand behind a rope.” Hoffman’s father, Harry, was a movie fan; in the early 1930s, before his son was born, he had worked at Columbia Pictures as a prop master and set decorator. ”I never heard about any of that stuff growing up,” says Hoffman. ”But later I found out that he had really wanted to direct after watching Frank Capra work.”
Before the scene started, Hoffman excused himself to go to the bathroom. He stared at himself in the mirror, wondering, probably for the hundredth time, why Nichols had cast him. When he came out, he saw his father standing next to Nichols, chatting with him. ”It was the nightmare thing every kid experiences,” says Hoffman. ”He had gone under the rope! I went over to them and he was saying, ‘Mike, you know, you’re not shooting this right….”’
Hoffman went through the epic production of The Graduate, which shot for almost 100 days, on a razor’s edge between elation and terror. He was thrilled when he came up with something that made Nichols laugh. ”He ruined more than a few takes by cracking up,” says the actor. ”But I guess he wasn’t laughing enough, because once we started shooting, I never thought I was doing a good job. I’ve heard and read since then that he wanted to keep me in a constant state of tension, but I think he had really bitten off more than he could chew. He knew he shouldn’t have cast me, and I think that’s what was plaguing him.”
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