Gene Hackman was born to be an actor. But it took him 30 years to realize it.
Born on January 30,1930 in San Bernadino, CA, he was raised in Danville, Illinois. But he was restless. He dropped out of high school at 16, lied about his age and joined the marines. He was trained as a radio operator then shipped off to China. Those early lessons came in handy when his unit’s announcer was injured and Hackman took over to become a radio dj.
Hackman attended the University of Illinois under the GI Bill. studying journalism and TV production before moving to New York to attend the School of Radio Technique.
He spent the next several years moving from town to town working at various small radio and TV stations as an announcer.
It wasn’t until he was 30 that Hackman decided to pack his bags once more to attend the prestigious Pasadena Playhouse to take up acting . There he met a fellow student named Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman and Hackman immediately stood out from the other students, but not in the way you might expect: they were voted by their peers as “least likely to succeed.”
It didn’t take Gene long to prove them wrong. He took the New York stage by storm, winning a prize as the most promising newcomer in Irwin Shaw’s “Children At Their Games” (quite an achievement, considering the play lasted only one night), and garnered glowing reviews with Sandy Dennis in the comedy “Any Wednesday.”
Hackman’s big break was being cast in the little-known Warren Beatty film “Mad Dog Calls” in 1961. Beatty remembered Hackman’s craft and diligence for years after: in 1967, Beatty, then producing as well as acting, cast him as Buck Barrow, Clyde’s dimwitted sibling in the landmark film “Bonnie and Clyde.” The role led to the first of Gene Hackman’s five Oscar nominations.
Hackman became the consummate character actor, from his Oscar nominated role as the burdened son in the poignant I Never Sang For My Father to the dastardly supervillain Lex Luthor in three Superman movies to the quirky Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, and the pop psychology promoting priest in The Poseidon Adventure.
Pundits in Hollywood have long felt he’d make a powerful director: in fact, Gene was slated to make his directorial debut lensing The Silence Of The Lambs. For reasons he’s never revealed, he dropped out, making way for Jonathan Demme.