December 25, 1992 at 05:00 AM EST

As Little Bill, the sadistic sheriff in Unforgiven, Gene Hackman made heavenly work of a hellish character. His lawman was by turns charismatic and cocky, a bumbling carpenter and a vicious jailer. ”I made him as dark as I could without making him appear unlikable from the very beginning,” says Hackman, who is better known for playing men with troubled consciences. ”Obviously, I’m able to tap into something that gives my character that kind of anger. But I’m always appalled that I can do that.” We, on the other hand, were mesmerized.

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