In August 2021, a photo of 91-year-old Gene Hackman went viral on Twitter with a caption that read: “Goes bike riding every day and remains active and engaged with hobbies, and friends.” It was the first time in a while since we’d really seen the man.
Those who’ve loved The French Connection (1971) and/or The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) were probably wondering why Gene Hackman retired from acting in 2004. The man’s career – with its soaring highs and plummeting lows – lasted over six decades. So, it was something of a head-scratcher. But it was stress that made the aging actor take a step back.
The Reason He Retired From Acting
His final film, 2004’s Mooseport, performed poorly and only took in $14.6 million at the box office. And so, people just assumed that Hackman’s retirement was due to his disenchantment with the film industry. But in a 2009 interview with Empire, he clarified:
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was actually a stress test that I took in New York.” His doctor told him that his heart was in bad shape. He was 74 when he retired from acting. But he’s been busy writing. He is a novelist. “It’s very relaxing for me,” he said.
He’s Done With Acting but Kinda Misses It
With over 100 acting credits under his belt, retirement has left him fulfilled. He hasn’t looked back on his 60-year Hollywood career. Unlike other actors who claim to retire only to keep popping up, Hackman has stayed true to his word. But there are things that he does miss.
“I can’t imagine doing another film,” he told Time in 2011. “But I still have a bit of a wanderlust about it.” Hackman shared how he saw a film crew by his home one time and stopped to ask if they needed an extra. “No, I’m very sorry, sir,” Hackman recalled them telling him.
His Dad Walked Out on Him and His Mom
Hackman, a father of three, hasn’t had the easiest life. He was born in San Bernardino, California, in 1930, and didn’t have an ideal childhood. He was 13 when his dad walked out on him and his mom. Hackman told The New York Times Magazine that the last time he saw his father was when he waved from the car window as he drove away.
“That wave, it was like he was saying, ‘OK, it’s all yours. You’re on your own, kiddo,’” said Hackman. “It was a real adios,” he said. “Maybe that’s why I became an actor.”
His Father’s Punishments Went “Too Far”
“I doubt I would have become so sensitive to human behavior if that hadn’t happened to me as a child — if I hadn’t realized how much one small gesture can mean.” Hackman had a complicated relationship with his father.
He revealed that when it came to punishment, his father “always went too far. Laid it on pretty heavy.” It was because of this he would resort to creating his own sanctuary. He made a cardboard box in the basement, telling GQ, “I made myself a haven. Silly, but it was my space.”
His Neighbor Was Killed in a Murder-Suicide
In addition to his father walking out on him and his mom, there were other tragedies that shaped him into the hardened man he became. After he and his mother moved in with his grandparents in Danville, Illinois, he was impacted by the murder-suicide of a neighbor.
He was young but recalled how he “knew something really bad had happened.” When it came to school, his life wasn’t much better. He mostly kept to himself, telling Vanity Fair that he grew up “shy,” which “is not unusual for actors.” It wasn’t such a bad thing, though, he said.
Shy, but Always Getting in Trouble
“I think because I was shy, I felt insecure, and acting seemed like a way of maybe getting around that.” While he never went to school functions or out on dates, Hackman managed to get in trouble. As a teen, he spent a night in jail for stealing candy and soda from a store.
He then quit school after getting into a physical fight with the basketball coach. A few years after his dad left, he decided to join the Marines. But he had to lie about his age in order to enlist. “I left home when I was 16 because I was looking for adventure,” Hackman told Time.
Becoming a Marine at 16
He served mostly as a radio operator, stationed in places like China and Hawaii. It eventually became clear that he wasn’t cut out for the military; he was showing recurrent issues with authority which led to him being demoted three times for exiting his post without authorization. “I was not a good Marine,” he admitted to Larry King in 2004.
“I made corporal once and was promptly busted.” His service ended when he crashed his motorcycle and badly injured himself, breaking a shoulder, knee and leg. He was deemed unfit for active duty and ultimately discharged.
His Mother Was the One Who Encouraged Him
Hackman seemed to have a close relationship with his mother, Lydia. She would often take him to the movie theatre, which was his favorite place. She was also the one who encouraged him to pursue acting.
Gene told Larry King that he and his mother were at a film once, and she said to him, “I want to see you do that someday.” For Hackman, that was all he needed – “to have to have somebody tell you, or you need to be pushed a bit.” But in 1962, Hackman lost his mother to a tragic event.
She Was Killed in a House Fire
In 1962, when Hackman was 32, his mother died in a house fire. She reportedly fell asleep with a lit cigarette and accidentally set the mattress ablaze. Of course, Hackman was devastated. What made things even harder for him was that she never got to see him in a film.
Although she was the one who supported his dream, she never got to see him actualize that dream. He explained to GQ: “In some cases you pick up on things that your parent would like to see you have done. Unfortunately, my mom never saw me act, so I’m sorry for that, but that’s the way it is.”
Quitting College and Moving to New York
After the Army, Hackman decided to study journalism. He enrolled at the University of Illinois only to quit after six months. At 22, he then headed for New York to embark on a new adventure – a lifelong dream of becoming an actor.
“From the time I saw my first movie as a boy, I wanted to be an actor,” he once said. But almost all beginnings are hard. Those first few months in New York were a struggle. Hackman held up a bunch of low-level jobs while living at the YMCA.
Driving Trucks and Selling Candy
In that period, he drove trucks, worked at a drugstore, moved furniture and even sold candy door to door. The worst of all those jobs, he admitted, was when he had to work the night shift at the Chrysler Building, “polishing leather furniture.”
He also worked as a doorman at a Times Square hotel, and it was there that things started to change for Hackman. One day a man from his past walked past him. It was his former Marine drill instructor. “He never looked at me but muttered, ‘Hackman, you’re a sorry son of a bi**h,'” Hackman recounted to David Letterman.
Working as a Doorman Changed His Life
“That was a turning point for me,” Hackman shared. “I was so embarrassed by what I was doing in New York. And the fact that somebody cared enough to say something like that.” He changed things up and started studying again, but this time in California at the Pasadena Playhouse.
“I was not considered one of their most promising students,” he confessed. He met and became friendly with another acting student, Dustin Hoffman. “He wore a suede vest with no shirt and sandals,” Hackman said of his new friend.
He and Dustin Hoffman Were the Odd Couple at Acting School
In those days, as Hackman explained, most of the students were teenagers fresh out of high school. “I was older than everybody and Dusty was the oddball. We kind of hit it off as soon as we knew each other.” Funnily enough, he said that neither of them was seen as being bound for stardom.
“Neither Dustin nor myself looked like the leading men of that era, especially Dusty because he wasn’t tall,” said Hackman. In fact, he and Hoffman were voted “least likely to succeed” by their classmates.
He Got the Lowest Grade in the History of the School
Hackman was actually kicked out of the Pasadena Playhouse after getting the lowest grade any student had ever received. Either way, he and Hoffman later roomed together in New York. And in 2003, they reunited on the one film they made together, Runaway Jury.
In the movie, the old friends shared one scene together, and Hoffman joked about the pressure. “We were hearing the hype and neither of us liked it,” Hoffman said in an interview next to Hackman. “I mean, we look at each other, ‘What the … you know? It’s just two old guys talking in a bathroom.”
Proving the Naysayers Wrong
Getting such a low grade and being seen as unlikely to succeed only fueled Hackman to prove them all wrong. Back in New York, he restored his focus and began studying acting with George Morrison (from the Actors Studio) who taught him about “method acting” and other techniques.
Hackman improved as an actor but getting that chance to prove himself onstage was challenging. “No one starts at the top in the theatre,” Hackman told Vanity Fair, “and the bottom is a very ugly place.”
His First Oscar Put Him on the Map
Hackman’s breakthrough came in 1964 in the Broadway play Any Wednesday, and that same year he was cast in a film called Lilith, starring Warren Beatty. A few years later, Beatty was casting Bonnie and Clyde and offered Hackman the role of the older brother, Buck Barrow.
That role earned Hackman his first Oscar nomination. With an Oscar nod, he was on Hollywood’s radar. He was now being considered for roles without his knowledge rather than hustling for them. One role he was in talks over was for Mike Brady on The Brady Bunch.
He Never Watches His Own Movies
Don’t ever expect to see Hackman sitting in a theatre watching himself. “I don’t watch my films unless I absolutely have to,” he once said, and it’s because he gets “very nervous” when seeing himself onscreen.
“It’s more my perception of myself, or my desire of what I would like to look like. All I see are the double chins and the bags under the eyes and the receding hairline.” But there’s more to it than just how he looks onscreen. When he sees himself, he has “no idea if it’s good, bad or indifferent. I can’t be objective. I leave it up to other people to tell me.”
He Saw The French Connection Once and Didn’t Really Get It
Hackman hasn’t even seen his most iconic movies. Well, he watched his Oscar-winning performance in 1971’s The French Connection once. It was at the first screening in a “dark, tiny viewing room in a post-production company’s facility” over 50 years ago.
He also said that he didn’t really see what the legacy of the movie might be. “At the time, it seemed to me to be a reverent story of a cop who was simply able to solve and put a stop to a major crime family’s attempt to infiltrate the New York drug scene.”
He Took a Career Dive
After his career-defining role in The French Connection, Hackman’s career took a dive. From the 1970s to the mid-’80s, Hackman said he did four or five films in a row that weren’t commercially successful.
When they didn’t work, he explained, he would think to himself, ‘Well to hell with this, I’ll just do whatever’s given to me. I don’t have to read the script, just tell me how much money they are gonna pay me and I’ll do it.’ He went through a tough lull in his career at that point.
Money Was Tight, and He Was Needy
During those years, he was less invested acting. He admitted that for the roles he did get, he would learn his lines while in the makeup chair in the mornings. This string of movie flops made stardom seem a lot more lackluster.
He was also in some real financial trouble. “I used to have to borrow my daughter’s car to go to interviews in Hollywood. Just a piece-of-s**t Toyota and I’d have to park it a couple of blocks away and walk so I wouldn’t be seen as being that needy,” Hackman told Cigar Aficionado.
Seven Million in Debt
“Yeah, I was in trouble in those days,” he said. He was “six, seven million bucks in debt” since he was spending too much and “had a lot of tax shelters that didn’t work.” He also owed the government four million dollars.
He was barely hanging on, which is why he needed to take any role he was being given – to pay the bills and make it work. Eventually, Hackman got a new agent and things started to change. He started getting handed better films and things were looking up.
His Temper Earned Him the Nickname “Vesuvius”
Hackman gained a reputation in Hollywood for being rather uncompromising. In other words, he was being marked as hard to work with. His clashes with directors were legendary – to the point that he was nicknamed “Vesuvius” for his explosive temper.
In 2011, Hackman, then 81, recognized that side of his personality and admitted that he wasn’t proud of it. “I hate that idea, because it’s the antithesis of the creative spirit and what it takes to be a creative person.” He did, however, do what he says we do sometimes – “what happens in the spur of the moment,” where we “unfortunately, kind of react.”
The Time He Punched a Driver
There was an incident in 2001 that he later referred to as “that traffic thing.” That “thing” was a fender-bender, and one that ended in a fistfight. Hackman and another driver got out of their cars to inspect the damage. Words were said and a brawl broke out.
According to Hackman, one of the things said to him was “an anti-gay epithet,” and it was that comment that led Hackman to start throwing punches. He got a few blows in before the other driver kneed Hackman in the groin. His rep later said, “He’s not a soft guy, he’s an ex-Marine and he can take care of himself.”
His Royal Tenenbaums Costars Feared Him
The Royal Tenenbaums was one film in which Hackman’s temper was so traumatic that his co-stars decided to speak publicly about it. At a 2011 panel at the New York Film Festival, a lot was said about Hackman, who wasn’t there.
Director Wes Anderson and star Gwyneth Paltrow confessed to having been “scared” of Hackman. The story goes that Hackman was particularly annoyed with Anderson, who mentioned that several of the actors got together “at various times” to “defend” him. Anderson’s collaborator, Noah Baumbach, also on the panel, recalled one moment…
He Called the Director a What?
Baumbach remembered a description that Hackman had for the director: “He called you a c***, didn’t he?” Anderson then tried to change narrative: “Can I say something? I kind of feel, through my own fault, we kind of made Gene look bad. Do you think we gave enough balance to him?”
Anderson, probably feeling guilty, decided to throw in some compliments towards Hackman, like how he was “one of the things that pulled everybody into this movie.” Hackman may be a “huge force,” but clearly his anger has been getting the better of him.
The Time He Slapped a Homeless Man
Telling Anderson to “pull up his pants and act like a man” while filming The Royal Tenenbaums was just one in a series of hothead moments in Hackman’s career. In 2012, when he was 82 years old, his temper was tested when a homeless man insulted his wife, Betsy.
The couple was in Santa Fe when a man approached them and started calling her offensive names. Despite his age, he couldn’t just let it fly, so he slapped the man as a way of sticking up for his wife. He then admitted to the authorities that he did indeed slap the man, but no one was arrested.
He Regrets His Temper
Hackman is fully aware of his reputation as a hothead who chews up his directors and costars. He seems regretful of it, though, saying once that he feels estranged sometimes from his colleagues and that it takes a physical and mental toll.
He told the New York Times that he has put his own process ahead of a movie – that he can only reach the truth of a role his own way. Back in his early role in Any Wednesday, a “breezy” comedy, he was fired during rehearsals when the producers told him he was spending too much time laying the psychological foundation.
Fame Ruined His First Marriage
Hackman has found both hardship and success in Hollywood, but it was his fame that tarnished his family relationships. If anyone was most impacted by it, it would be Hackman’s first wife, Faye Maltese, who was with him before he ever became a star.
They divorced in 1986 after 30 years. “We just drifted apart,” Hackman reasoned. He blamed his career for the deterioration, too, saying, “We lost sight of each other. When you work in this business, marriage takes a great deal of work and love.”
Losing Touch With His Son
Around the time of his divorce, he was busy promoting Twice in a Lifetime, a film about a man who left his wife. Hackman didn’t like all the comments made about the comparison. “I don’t want to exploit my children,” he explained, adding that it “made it a bitter experience to go through again in the film. I couldn’t help feel that pain again.”
His career also affected his relationship with his kids. He told GQ that he lost touch with his son early on. Being gone a lot and filming on location, he reasons, probably had to do with it. And he regrets that.
He’s Had Health Issues for Years
Hackman nearly averted a heart attack in 1990 after he checked into a Portland hospital with chest pains. The cardiologist reported, ″We think we got him just in the nick of time.” A year later, Hackman disclosed that his heart problems were going to slow down his career.
“I probably will be cutting down. I have been off for eight months now. I don’t miss it as much as I thought I would,” he said at the time. Little did he know that by 2004, he would retire from acting entirely.
A Recluse in Retirement
Since he left Hollywood, Hackman has been laying low in New Mexico with Betsy. But it might not be all sangrias and lawn chairs for the retired actor. According to an unnamed source, “He’s a sad recluse who rarely goes out anymore with only the occasional sighting of Gene in his pickup truck.”
Apparently, he sees only his wife and not many others. He did tell GQ in 2011 that he would only do another movie if they could shoot it in his own house, “without them disturbing anything and just one or two people.”
The Way He Wants to Be Remembered
Hackman prefers to focus on his writing. He told Reuters, “I like the loneliness of it, actually.” When asked how he wants to be remembered, he replied, “as a decent actor,” and “as someone who tried to portray what was given to them in an honest fashion.”
He always considered himself a “New York actor.” He explained that the term refers to actors who spend years onstage honing their skills, which is something he noticed is increasingly rare in Hollywood.
He Almost Turned Down Unforgiven
Hackman’s second Oscar, in 1993, was for his role in Clint Eastwood’s Western, Unforgiven. As it turns out, he almost turned the part down. According to the film’s screenwriter, David Peoples, Hackman’s daughters didn’t like all the violent movies he was doing.
This happened to be at a point in his life when he started putting his family ahead of his career. Eastwood, the star and director, paid Hackman a visit to convince him that the film wouldn’t celebrate violence. Rather, it would condemn it.
He Promised His Family He Would Stop Making Violent Movies
Hackman apparently made a resolution to stop appearing in violent films, which led him to pass up another role that won Anthony Hopkins the Academy Award: Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.
It was his family’s influence that persuaded Hackman to “steer clear of the horrific nature of the story.” But he doesn’t regret the decision at all. “It seems to have fared just fine without me, and I’ve done well by landing the role in Clint’s picture, which indeed has its horrific moments.”
When Car Racing Was His Hobby
During the ‘70s, there was an elite (and cool) group of actors who loved to indulge in the dangerous hobby of racing cars. Along with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, Hackman also felt a need for speed. In fact, he even went to racing school.
But it turned out to be the factor that made him change his mind about racing. “I don’t think I have the personality to be a real racing professional,” he later admitted. “To be really good, you have to be extremely selfish, which is probably true in a lot of professions, including acting.”
He Couldn’t Watch The Poseidon Adventure
Hackman never watched his 1972 film, The Poseidon Adventure, even though he considered it as his “idea of being a Hollywood movie actor.” He also admitted that he was ashamed of himself when he was working on the film.
He had to have his hair puffed up at the end and slicked over, he described. The producer, Irwin Allen, “was one of those guys who used to comb his hair from one ear across the top of his head, and I just didn’t want to look like him.”
Hackman’s Three Kids
All three of Hackman’s kids, Christopher, Elizabeth, and Leslie, are from his first marriage to Faye Maltese; he and Betsy don’t share any children. Hackman met Maltese in 1955, while he was living with fellow struggling actors, Dustin Hoffman and Robert Duvall.
Hackman met Betsy at a gym. She was a pianist from Hawaii who was 30 years younger than him, and after seven years of dating, they married in 1991. “He wishes he’d been around more for his children,” a source disclosed. “But now he’s close with them and their kids.”
His Writing Career
His second act as an author started out as a co-author. He teamed up with his neighbor and friend, Daniel Lenihan, on historical adventure novels. The first novel, Wake of the Perdido Star, came out in 1999, while Hackman was still making movies.
The second, Justice for None, was released in 2004, just after he retired. Hackman’s and Lenihan’s third novel, Escape From Andersonville: A Novel of the Civil War came out in 2020. “It’s very relaxing for me,” Hackman said about writing. He doesn’t think of himself as a “great writer,” but he really enjoys the process.
Short Little Pieces
There was a time when Hackman would write “little, short pieces,” like audition pieces for actors. His son once thought he wanted to be an actor, so Hackman wrote him a couple monologues. Hackman says that’s where he basically started the whole writing venture.
“Ideas would just pop into my head and I would write them down.” By the late ‘80s, he bought the rights to a then best-selling crime novel. He wanted to adapt it himself, but it proved too difficult. “I could see that I didn’t have the experience to do that kind of thing at that point, so I let the project go, kinda regretfully.”