Interview by Milton Hoffman
This conversation originally aired on WBAI FM in New York City in 1971 and comes to us from the Pacifica Radio Archives.
The Animated Transcript
Milton Hoffman was a longtime radio producer at WBAI-FM New York.
A man’s thoughts, a man’s feeling are kind of what seem to be the attractive thing, not somebody’s face, or somebody’s famosity, just the fact that someone is famous isn’t something to be adored. The people that come up and grab you and touch you, and the people that kind of go haywire are the people who have come from another time, from a time of myth, heroes, of movie stars.
There’s an ambivalence about being a star. Well, I’m a star, so I lead a double life being a star. In those kinds of times, where you come out to support someone, or you want to pay tribute, I’m aware that I’m a public display. It’s like when the bombing took place next to the apartment in which my wife and children and I lived in, I upstaged the bombing, whether I liked it or not. I happen to run in and get a painting, and that was in all the papers. The fact that I live next door seemed to be more important than the dynamics really of what had taken place.
When I walk down the street today, I am molested least by young people. Youth itself is today more famous than anybody, than any single person. There is a sense of self. They’re their own movie stars. I mean, it’s sad, that there are a whole bunch of people who are at an age now, and will live a few years and die, who did not experience any kind of sexual freedom, outside of getting married, and turning out the lights, and making kids, and talking dirty with their friends, and have tremendous antipathy toward marijuana, which they think of as, “Gee, these kids are going out, smoking, and making love.” It’s pure envy.
I know that when I was an adolescent it was a very, very painful time for me. I had a lot of trouble in school. I had tremendous bouts with passivity and had I been brought up today and been involved with marijuana or been … It could be dangerous. People used to call them growing pains, but certain pains of emergence should be dealt with. I don’t think you solve a problem by saying, “Everybody, turn on.”
I grew up on the coattails of an aggressive society. I carried a knife taped to my leg. I never used it, but it was there, and thought of gang warfare as being really quite glamorous and exciting, and dragging your car next to another guy, and evil eyeing him, see who could evil eye out the other one. Getting the girl was based upon how tough you were, not what an egghead you were.
Kids on the street, if they recognize me or something, sometimes they say, “Hey Ratso,” or something like that. A lot of them have yelled the same thing, which is …
“I’m walking here. I’m walking here.” That wasn’t in the script. That was an accident. We were walking across the street, and a cab came by and threatened to ruin the shot. At that moment, I was not Ratso, I was just myself trying to save the scene. Because I had been saying the lines with John Voight, I said it through the character. Maybe that’s what acting’s all about. I felt connected with the role. It was a side of myself that I’d always felt a little bit like Ratso. I like to think that Ratso Rizzo lives, but he’s a conglomeration of street life. He’s a conglomeration of maybe several lonely people. He’s lifted a little bit.
There are traits in my own personal character which I don’t feel are admirable, which I feel are unattractive. I’ve tried to bring out unattractive aspects of me in roles that I’ve played, and sometimes achieve that. I can’t apologize for anything I’ve done. I did as much as I could do at that time in my life with the part, as much as I knew about acting, or about myself, I did. I tried as hard as I could, and I couldn’t do better.
We all defend ourselves against shock. We don’t like to be shocked. I think if you walk into a room and someone scares you, you go through the shock, and then you very quickly try to put down the shock and say, “Whoa, boy, well you scared me. You scared me.” You try to nullify its effect by becoming very rational. It’s funny because when I’m reviewed now, I’m reviewed like I’m an old man. A reviewer that likes me will say I’m my usual, admirable self. I get the feeling they’re talking about some aging actor who’s done dozens of films, and I’ve just been around three years. I’m thought of as a veteran. I’m no longer a newcomer. I’m kind of establishment I guess.
Hoffman On Using Drugs
“I just happen to kind of person that has never been involved in drugs of any nature in a habitual sense. I’ve smoked marijuana and I’ve gotten drunk. In fact I smoked marijuana first when I was 18 or 17 which was 1956 or something. It was a very frightening thing but I remember then it was a very interesting experience and yet, it was available because i used to play piano in a jazz… It was very available. Yet it wasn’t something I wanted to do daily. I just am not that type of person. I never liked to drink that much daily. Yhere are people that do and I have nothing against it. The only danger I see in drugs is the wipeout of individuals. That I don’t like. I think that does take place.”
“I think there is a small percentage of youth, let’s say, you are actively involved in change. There is a large percentage of youth that jump on the gravy train, as is true throughout history. All kids today, let’s say, will flash a peace sign, or a power fist sign, because that is the thing to do. Few people, as always, do something, actively. Whether they’re radicals, or whether they’re in Vista, or whether they’re a few years ago out in the Mississippi.
People, as always, identify romantically with change in a superficial and almost a movie like way. At the same time, there’s a whole swim of things that have a different tide which is exciting. The fact that the youth, that a whole aspect of America now questions America in a kind of open and somewhat intelligent way is exciting.”
Wanting to Be a Star
“When The Graduate came out, I think I just protected myself constantly, daily. I played it down within myself, because I think it was frightening to me. But what essentially was frightening to me, I think, was the realization of some hidden dream come true. I’ve often heard actors say, ‘I never wanted to be a star, I wanted to be an actor.’ I used to say that too. Then after The Graduate came out, I realized that I’d always wanted to be a star, that you don’t become a star if you don’t want to be a star. You work very hard at it. Some exploit themselves in different kinds of ways.
When I initially started acting in college, James Dean was the big hero there in films, and Marlon Brando. My secret fantasy was that I would be like James Dean and Marlon Brando. Then I came to New York, and New York kicked that out of me after about three or four years. Then I decided, ‘I don’t want to be like Brando or Dean, I just want to be a really good working character actor. That’s all I ever wanted.’ I convinced myself that that’s all I ever wanted, because that’s all that I hoped to achieve.
Then suddenly, almost by freakish accident, I’m cast in The Graduate at a time when my career was first getting started off Broadway, and for the first time I was getting Broadway scripts and thinking that I’m going to work in the theater, I will have a life in the theater, I’ll be able to do character roles. Suddenly, The Graduate came along and thrust me into … past this hidden dream, which I had had initially. That was something I found very hard to cope with.”
The Full Interview
The Bombing Next Door
A bomb accidentally exploded at 18 West 11th Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village on March 6, 1970. The homeowner’s daughter, Cathlyn Wilkerson, was a member of the radical group, the Weather Underground, and they were using the basement of the house to assemble nail bombs. One of the bombs exploded, killing three people in the group.
Wilkerson and another woman, Kathy Boudin, survived and escaped after the explosion. Wilkerson was on the run for nearly a decade before she turned herself in and was sentenced to three years in prison. Boudin was arrested in 1981 after an armored-car holdup that left three dead.
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