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‘I Was Building A House’

27 January 2010 @ 19:52

One of our best actors is celebrating his 80th Birthday this week: Gene Hackman.  Mark Steyn has published a wonderful appreciation of the man over at his site.  A highlight:

Three years on, he was offered the role of Dad in The Brady Bunch, the quintessential family sitcom of the Seventies, in which Mike and Carol Brady raise three sons and three daughters in matching tank-tops and bell-bottoms. Had he said yes, Hackman would now be one of those kitsch figures who spend the rest of their lives as a Trivial Pursuits answer… Hackman, aged 40, said no to The Brady Bunch. A year later, he was Popeye Doyle in The French Connection and won the Oscar. He had dodged Mike Brady and become Gene Hackman.

If you didn’t know about The Conversation and Night Moves, you can see why they’d want him for a sitcom dad. He’s like an old-time movie star – not just Jack Oakie, but Spencer Tracy or Jimmy Cagney – fellows with regular, lived-in faces rather than the gorgeous unblemished sheen of more recent male leads, from Newman to Cruise. As a young man, Hackman wanted to be Errol Flynn, but any resemblance stops at the moustache. He rarely gets the girl, and if he does she’s in trouble – a potential political scandal, an inconvenient corpse. But, excluded from romantic roles, Hackman has done just about everything else – not with funny accents or make-up, but with the same old moustache and waiter’s walk. Go back to his early work, beyond Bonnie and Clyde (1967), to Lilith (1964), in which he has one small scene with Warren Beatty, playing an ostensibly good-natured rustic whose hostility is nevertheless palpable. Hackman’s character is the only real person in the picture.

There’s the key: even in a miscast role and/or with a bad script Gene Hackman always came off onscreen as a real human being.  My favorite performances of his are in The French Connection and Unforgiven, with the latter being his best.  Mr. Steyn describes the real Gene Hackman’s personality as ‘the everyman veneer, with something explosive lurking underneath’ and he brought that most vividly to the roles of Popeye Doyle and Sheriff ‘Little Bill’ Daggett.  In the latter role, his death scene with Clint Eastwood is one of the best ever filmed.  So much is said in very few words and by the way the two actors say them.  You have to see the film [one of the greatest Westerns ever produced] to fully feel the impact of the scene, but for those of you who have:

Little Bill Daggett: I don’t deserve this… to die like this. I was building a house.

Will Munny: Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it. [aims gun]

Little Bill Daggett: I’ll see you in hell, William Munny.

Will Munny: Yeah. [fires]

Happy Birthday, Mr. Hackman.

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