Gene Hackman, one of Hollywood’s most prolific and acclaimed actors for four decades, is born on this day in 1930, in San Bernardino, California.
At the age of 16, Hackman left home to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps for a three-year stint. He then studied journalism and television production at the University of Illinois on the G.I. Bill before leaving to enroll in acting classes at the Pasadena Playhouse. Hackman landed parts in off-Broadway plays and summer stock, and had an uncredited role as a policeman in the 1961 film Mad Dog Coll. In 1964, he made his Broadway debut in Any Wednesday; he landed his first substantive film role that same year in Lilith, starring Warren Beatty.
Hackman again played opposite Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), this time in the supporting role of Buck Barrow, brother of the infamous Clyde Barrow. He earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the role, and would garner another nod three years later, for I Never Sang for My Father. In 1971, Hackman delivered a star-making performance as narcotics detective Popeye Doyle in The French Connection (1971), directed by William Friedkin. The film was a breakout hit with critics and at the box office, winning five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Hackman.
Hackman was one of Hollywood’s most visible actors throughout the 1970s, appearing in both acclaimed films, such as The Conversation (1974), Night Moves (1975) and Bite the Bullet (1975) and flops, such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Eureka (1984). He showed his comic side to great effect in lighter fare such as Young Frankenstein (1974) and Superman (1978), in which he played the superhero’s nemesis, Lex Luthor (he reprised the role in two of the film’s sequels). Among the many films Hackman made in the 1980s were Reds (1981), Hoosiers (1986), No Way Out (1987) and Mississippi Burning (1988), for which he earned a second Oscar nod for Best Actor.
Though Hackman initially hesitated to accept the role of Little Bill Daggett in The Unforgiven (1992), the director Clint Eastwood’s take on the Western, the film’s twist on the classic genre eventually won him over. The film was a huge hit, winning four Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Hackman and both Best Director and Best Picture for Eastwood. Over the next decade, Hackman’s film roles would characteristically run the gamut from Western again in Wyatt Earp (1994) and The Quick and the Dead (1995) to comedic in Get Shorty (1995), The Replacements (2000) and The Royal Tenenbaums (2001); from hard-core action in Crimson Tide (1995) and Enemy of the State (1998) to legal thriller, in the film adaptations of John Grisham’s The Firm (1993) and Runaway Jury (2003).
Though he has not “officially” retired, Hackman said in the spring of 2008 that he no longer wanted to act in films and would instead concentrate on writing. With a co-author, Daniel Lenihan, he has published several novels, including the Civil War-era thriller Escape from Andersonville (2008)