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After graduation from the Playhouse, Hoffman, who at 5 ft. 6 in. would always be one of the shortest kids in class, collided with California. "Cowboys were the big thing then on TV, and all the guys at the Playhouse would practice drawing on each other in the hallways. I had to get away from all that."
He got 3,000 miles away, to New York, full of grim expectations. "I used to watch the Dead End Kids on Saturday afternoon, thinking wouldn't it be fun to swim in the East River and play in dirty streets." He never did dive from a pier or play stickball; for three weeks, in fact, he slept on the kitchen floor next to the refrigerator, in the apartment of his former classmate, Actor Gene Hackman (Bonnie and Clyde). "I was too afraid to face the fact that I had to go outside and become an actor," he confesses.
Show Me a Hero
The introvert overcompensated in public. Recalls Hackman, "Dustin wore very long hair, a sheepskin vest with no shirt, leather boots, blue jeans and had a motorcycle—the whole bit." Like all unemployed actors, Hoffman took a variety of offstage roles: attendant in a mental hospital ("Until my dreams got so bad I had to quit"), typist, weaver of Hawaiian leis, janitor at a dance studio.
Nothing succeeds like failure. His type was Out theatrically, but In socially. His ex-roommate, Actor Robert Duvall, remembers that Hoffman "had more girls than Namath ever had. He had a line standing outside his apartment even when he didn't have a name."
It was eventually Hoffman's antiheroism that made him an antistar. "If the hero is defined as an event-making individual who redetermines the course of history," wrote Philosopher Sidney Hook, "it follows at once that a democratic community must be eternally on guard against him." Said F. Scott Fitzgerald: "Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy." Those aphorisms were a long time catching on in America, where the legend of event makers—the cowboy and the gangster, the self-made entrepreneur and the conquering soldier—are dominant dramatic myths.
As comedy grew steadily blacker and as audiences grew steadily younger, hipper and more draftable, the old concepts began to erode. The invulnerables like Peck and Holden and Wayne seemed lost in a country full of people whose destinies were not in their own hands. The nation of cities needed new images, and suddenly Hoffman became an archetype.
In 1967, he was offered the role of Zoditch, a misanthropic 40-year-old Russian clerk in an off-Broadway play, Journey of the Fifth Horse. He won the Obie award as the year's best off-Broadway actor. Typically, the play closed three weeks later. Next came the role of a beleaguered night watchman in the farce Eh?