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A RELUCTANT "HERO'

It's kick off your shoes, pop open a beer, forget about Hero time for Dustin Hoffman.

The wiry, ultra-hyper 55-year-old actor has been pitching his new movie for nearly nine hours now. There was a mass press conference this morning. One-on-one interviews this afternoon. There's the foreign press tomorrow. And a ton of television before and afterwards.

Hoffman is tired of fielding questions about Bernie LaPlante, the petty crook he plays in Hero who, against his best judgment, rescues 54 people from a crashed jetliner on the outskirts of Chicago.

Hoffman wants to ask the questions. Like, what's your position on capital punishment? He takes a swig from a bottle of Miller Lite and awaits an answer. He's really serious.

Hoffman, with some prodding, explains he's developing a script about an inmate's wrongful execution.

"If you can think of one innocent person executed in 1,000 who are guilty, then I'm against it," he says, noting he had considered supporting the death penalty until he factored in the possibility of error.

Hoffman has been pursuing the rights to a story about an inmate who was wrongly executed. He wants to play the man's lawyer. Hoffman says he'd like to direct the movie, something he has wanted to do since Straight Time.

That 1978 movie launched his reputation for being difficult: Hoffman originally was set to direct and then sued when the studio hired Ulu Grosbard instead.

"If I don't develop the project myself, I'm not going to be offered. I'd love to put on an Armani suit next time; maybe play a lawyer or a doctor or someone on Wall Street," Hoffman says. "I'm not interested in doing characters. I'm not looking to put on a different nose or a different accent."

Captain Hook and Bernie LaPlante withstanding.

Hoffman says he appeared as the foppish moustachioed pirate in Hook because he wanted to make a movie his kids would enjoy _ he has six from two marriages _ and because he has wanted to act in a Spielberg movie ever since he nixed the opportunity to star in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

LaPlante grew from Hoffman's love of Hero's script and his growing concern over the declining quality of life in America and the ever-growing power of the media.

Hoffman tries, unsuccessfully, to steer the conversation away from Hero. One ploy: "Look, you're wearing patterned socks, too. Aren't they great? Isn't it amazing; the different designs they've got today?"

Then he resigns himself to discussing his character, Bernie LaPlante, whose scuzzy demeanor and mumbling mannerisms resemble Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo from Midnight Cowboy.

"There are similarities. They are both marginal characters. They are both one step removed from the gutter," Hoffman allows, "although Bernie is one step out and Ratso is one step in. I can't avoid the comparison.

"But it's not the same person. It's not the same voice. And it's not the same point of view."

Ratso was a homeless hustler, plying the streets of New York for spare change. No family, no money, no place to sleep. Bernie is a minor felon and a perpetual liar, hoping to forge a bond with his estranged son before being sentenced to jail for fencing stolen goods.

"If you locked Ratso and Bernie in a room, Rasto would eat Bernie for breakfast," Hoffman observes. "Ratso was so much smarter and shrewder. Bernie is a miserable failure. If Ratso had the opportunities in life that Bernie had, Ratso would have gotten away with much more."

This is the understanding Hoffman had when he arrived at the set. But it didn't provide enough texture for him to flush out Bernie's tragicomic character once filming began. Three weeks into production, Hoffman practically shut Hero down.

"I didn't know what to do. What was coming across was just a very unpleasant, bitter, depressed kind of character," Hoffman recalls. "Grim. No fun. It concerned us because we wanted a comedy."

Hoffman talked about the movie with screenwriter David Webb Peoples, who likened the story to Preston Sturges' 1944 comedy Hail the Conquering Hero and Frank Capra's Meet John Does (1941). Peoples (Unforgiven) viewed Hero as a cynical '90s twist on Capra's populist parables, and reminded Hoffman that he was merely a cog in a much larger tale about the media's role in creating modern-day mythical heroes.

Hero concerns television reporter Gale Gayley's (Geena Davis) search for the "Angel of Flight 104," the mysterious stranger who disappears after rescuing her and dozens of others from the shattered aircraft, leaving only a muddied shoe behind. After a massive media campaign, a homeless Vietnam vet named John Bubber (Andy Garcia) shows up, producing the matching loafer, which Bernie tossed in the back of Bubber's car. Bubber instantly is elevated to icon status while Bernie, once again in jail, can only gripe to fellow inmates that he's the hero.

According to Hero's director, Stephen Frears, Hoffman was "trying to solve a problem that most people wouldn't even know existed. He takes some time to sort things out. He's used to rehearsal," which really wasn't possible on this production.

Hoffman, nevertheless, winces when he thinks of Hero's beginning and the difficulty he has had with so many of his best roles.

"They're all hard to play. Everything is hard," he admits, acknowledging doubt has plagued him on nearly two dozen pictures over 25 years. "We reshot Rain Man (which won Hoffman his second Academy Award). We reshot Tootsie (which earned Hoffman his fifth best actor nomination). We reshot this."

Hoffman's first movie, The Graduate, in 1967, made him the most unlikely of stars. Playing the awkward, aimless college graduate seduced by the worldly Mrs. Robinson, Hoffman gave birth to a new breed of screen hero: the less-than-dashing, insecure, sensitive male.

The Graduate won Hoffman his first Oscar nomination. His second came two years later with Midnight Cowboy.

Hoffman reinvented himself in a dozen anti-hero incarnations, including the orphan raised by the Cheyenne in Little Big Man, the meek man hounded to the point of committing unspeakable violence in Straw Dogs, the near-blind prisoner determined to be free in Papillon and the self-destructive comedian Lenny Bruce in Lenny, the movie that earned Hoffman's third Oscar nomination.

"From 1967 to 1977-79, I worked constantly," he recounts, adding All the President's Men, Marathon Man and his Oscar-winning performance as a divorced father in Kramer vs. Kramer to the list. "Then, my first marriage fell apart and my parents got sick and that slowed me up.

"About 1979 or '80, I met my second wife, Lisa, and we started to raise a family. I started to spend time with my parents who were dying _ heart attracts, strokes and cancer _ and then I started working on Tootsie. That took three years."

Tootsie, which came out in 1982, galvanized Hoffman's reputation for being difficult. The movie cast him as an unemployed New York actor who masquerades as an actress in order to find work.

As co-producer and star, Hoffman fought constantly with co-producer and director Sydney Pollack about what the story's emphasis should be. Hoffman wanted to focus on the plight of the actor. Pollack wanted a feminist romantic comedy.

Taking a breather from film, Hoffman recreated Willy Loman for the 1984-85 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman. He won a Drama Desk Award and, later, an Emmy when the play was broadcast on television. He continued his run on stage, playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in London and New York.

Then he spent two years preparing for and co-starring in Rain Man, the story of a smooth-talking shyster (Tom Cruise) who goes on a road trip with his autistic savant brother (Hoffman) in order to snatch a large inheritance.

"All the time, I'm aware DeNiro and Nicholson are going from film to film to film," Hoffman says. "And, I'm thinking, "I should be doing that.'

"

Hoffman says he contemplated the situation and figured, "Nicholson seems to be philosophical when he raises that eyebrow and says, "Some work and some don't.'

"

So, after Rain Man, Hoffman tried pumping out a slew of pictures, including Family Business, Billy Bathgate and Hook.

"And I regretted it. Now I guess I have fallen back to being more careful. It's hard because . . . you can't act unless you have a job. So it's hard to go without work," Hoffman allows.

He glances at his watch. He's late. He's supposed to meet wife Lisa for dinner. And he still wants to swing by the theater to make sure tonight's critics' screening of Hero gets under way smoothly.

Hoffman hoists his blue sports jacket onto his shoulders and several bars of soap fall from its pockets.

"I love the Four Seasons' soap," he says, unapologetically, picking the purloined bars from the floor. "Have you tried it?"

He holds out his hands. "Listen, you take these. I'm coming back tomorrow and can get more then."

Then he disappears in the elevator, leaving his interviewer to contemplate the bounty from the bathroom.

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