Warren Beatty and Gene Hackman’s storied screen careers are like two long lines that intersect at critical points. Both came to Hollywood as the ‘50s turned the corner into the ‘60s, and both got their first tastes of the profession through television – Beatty on the black-and-white sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis; Hackman with bit parts on long-running series like Naked City and Route 66. Both also got to flex more dramatic muscles with prestigious live-television anthologies such as Playhouse 90 and The United States Steel Hour.
Then, in 1964, the two future Oscar winners met for the first time on the set of the moody and experimental mystery, Lilith, starring Jean Seberg. Beatty had already hurtled to stardom with his 1961 movie debut, Splendor in the Grass, for which he won a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer. Hackman, on the other hand, was just starting out in features. “Between takes, during the one good dialogue scene we had together, Warren would ask director Robert Rossen [The Hustler] why he was doing certain masters, tracking shots and set ups,” Hackman recalls. “This being my first film, I was so full of tension. But still, Warren’s interest in the technicalities of filmmaking impressed me.” Making note of Beatty’s curiosity, Hackman could tell that his costar would someday end up behind the camera.
Says Beatty, “There’s a scene in Lilith between me and Gene and Jessica Walter, and I thought that Gene was such a natural, honest, brilliant actor that he made me good in our scene together. I remember thinking, I’m not going to do any other movies without him.”
Beatty (whose latest film, Rules Don’t Apply, opens Nov. 23) did go on to make several other films without Hackman – films like Mickey One, Promise Her Anything, and Kaleidoscope. But those were all jobs for hire. He didn’t have any say in casting. Then, with 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde, when Beatty was the producer of that rule-breaking outlaw romance, he could fill the cast with his actors. He immediately thought of Hackman for the part of Buck Barrow, his on-screen brother and partner in crime. “Actor-producers were rare in those days, says Hackman. “There was no doubt as to who was in charge. And several Hollywood long-time ‘Pros’ on the set openly wondered about this upstart – this so-called ‘producer’ – knowledgeable beyond his years and known by few.” Just 30-years-old when the film was released, Beatty was an upstart. But Bonnie and Clyde happened to be the kind of revolutionary movie that only an upstart could make.
At first, the film’s violent, hail-of-bullets finale was reviled by critics. But soon, they would come around and see the movie for what it was – a masterpiece, a new kind of storytelling. Bonnie and Clyde made Beatty a behind-the-scenes force to be reckoned with, it made Hackman a first-time Oscar nominee and a movie star, and it was nominated for ten Academy Awards. “Time magazine just panned the hell out of Bonnie and Clyde,” Beatty says. “And four months later they put it on the cover. It did disobey rules. There are times when the rules no longer apply.”
After Bonnie and Clyde, both actors would go their separate ways. And, for both, the 1970s were a string of critical and box-office successes (Beatty made McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Shampoo, and Heaven Can Wait; Hackman made The French Connection, The Conversation, and Superman). But Beatty was always on the lookout for the right part Hackman. It finally came with 1981’s Reds, Beatty’s three-plus-hour epic about the American Communist movement. It’s an experience that the two never really talked about afterwards, in large part because Hackman thought that he let down his costar and director, Beatty.
“I think I disappointed him,” says Hackman. “Although he never said so. After repeated takes on one scene – how many, I lost count – he calmly moved on, saying, ‘Print numbers seven and 12.’ The fact that I hadn’t solved the character well enough to get it even close was never brought up.”
When I recently interviewed Beatty at his home in Los Angeles, I read him Hackman’s statement. And when I finished the quote, I looked up to see Beatty quietly tearing up.
“Gene said that? He’s wrong! He got it. He had a temperature of 102 and he flew all the way over to London to do this one scene where he just talks his ass off. He said, ‘I’m not getting this’. And I said, ‘No, you are!’ With Hackman, you just do more takes because who knows? Let’s see what might happen here. But I knew I had it. I’ve never worked with a better actor.”
Did you hear that? Gene Hackman, if you’re reading this, you can stop beating yourself up. You got it.
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—Additional reporting by Sara Vilkomerson