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Dustin Hoffman - Biography

The actor is known for roles in films such as Rain Man and Kramer vs. Kramer

Dustin Hoffman waves at film premiere
Francesca Shillcock
Senior Features Writer
Updated: 11 July 2023
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Dustin Hoffman is one of the most recognisable faces in Hollywood and has won high praise for his many notable film roles in titles such as Rain Man and Kramer vs. Kramer – both of these films earned him Academy Awards for Best Actor.

"Dustin Hoffman changed the way actors were perceived and what they were allowed to do," says American Film Institute chair Tom Pollock. "He was not an obvious leading man, yet he's been an exceptional one." Dustin Lee Hoffman was born on August 8, 1937, in Los Angeles, to mum Lillian and dad Harvey, a first-generation Russian Jew who worked as a set and furniture designer. He attended the LA Conservatory of Music and Arts, and, in 1955, enrolled at Santa Monica City College to pursue a career as a jazz pianist. He soon found himself switching paths to drama, however, although not as a result of his love for the craft. "I was flunking out," he says.

"I only took acting because my friend said there was this class which was only three credits and nobody flunks acting." While he only lasted a year at the college before dropping out, he had got the bug and in 1961 made his Broadway stage debut and a first TV appearance in an episode of the series Naked City. The next few years were spent treading the boards in New York, both on and off Broadway, and doing occasional TV work until he made his feature acting debut in The Tiger Makes Out, in 1967. That same year his role in The Graduate forever altered the stereotype of a Hollywood leading man and made Dustin an instant icon. In addition to his $17,000 salary, he also earned his first Oscar nomination quite an impressive accomplishment for a guy who once wouldn't even audition for a lead role. "You begin to believe what is said if it's said enough times," he explains. "You go into casting offices and they keep telling you that you're not good-looking, that you're, to put it kindly, a 'character juvenile'. That means you're not the lead. That means you're the funny-looking sidekick." Hollywood should be thankful Dustin refused to be overwhelmed by pretty boy pressure as he went on to give some of the most acclaimed performances in the history of film.

His role in the Sixties hustler classic Midnight Cowboy earned him his second Best Actor nomination in 1969. During the Seventies he was short listed twice nominated for 1974's Lenny and winning a Best Actor gong for 1979's Kramer Vs Kramer. On a hot streak, he was in the running again in 1982 for Tootsie, in which he spent most of his time dressed as a woman. In the second half of the Eighties, Dustin delivered a new project every year, including 1985's self-produced TV version of Death Of A Salesman, which won him an acting Emmy, and the 1987 bomb Ishtar co-starring Warren Beatty. He bounced back the next year, however, winning his second Best Actor Oscar for Rain Man in 1988. At the start of the 1990s, he starred alongside friend Warren Beatty again in Dick Tracy, and since then has taken on roles ranging from an Army Colonel fighting a virus in Outbreak to The Conscience in Joan Of Arc. In 1997 he was short listed for an Academy Award for the seventh time in recognition of his work on Wag The Dog.

In the course of his phenomenal career, Dustin has picked up labels other than Oscar-winner, including perfectionist, driven, and the ubiquitous "difficult to work with" but that doesn't faze him. "I know many stars with similar designations and know they're not any more true than mine," he says. But that's not to say there's not a little truth to the reputation. "I think every person I've ever met in this business who has any ability to question the work and not get fired for it who has enough power to do that is difficult at times," he says, "If 'difficult' means you are refusing to say, 'It's okay the way it is' when it can be better."

The actor's life, however, doesn't revolve around the movie set. Very much the family man, he is the father of six children. Two are from his first marriage in 1969 to ballerina Anne Byrne, who he was with for ten years (he adopted Anne's daughter Karina), and four with Lisa Gottsegen, to whom he has been married since 1980. Despite his stellar run in the business, Dustin doesn't count acting as his first career choice. "I don't really want to be what I am, meaning an actor," he said. "My first choice would be to be the author."

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