Wednesday, January 16, 2013


This morning, I heard Terry Gross interview Dustin Hoffman on her National Public Radio show, Fresh Air.  I feel like I've grown up with the actor, in a way.  When I was in high school, one of the hit films with young movie-goers was Mike Nichols' The Graduate.  He played the lead role.  A film that electrified my heart and soul was the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1969, Midnight Cowboy.  What a great, compassionate love story that originally X-rated urban drama was.  What a brilliant performance he gave as "Ratso."  When I was a university graduate just starting my professional TV career, an interview with Hoffman helped me get New York City attention that eventually led to my first New York City TV job.  I was invited to fly to Manhattan attend the entertainment press junket for the movie, Tootsie.  I'd see the film and interview its stars for my ABC affiliate.
I do not have to tell you how extraordinary and funny he was as Michael Dorsey, the actor who's so desperate for employment that he becomes "Dorothy Michaels."  I was nervous going into the interview.  That nervousness evaporated as soon as I sat down.  I could tell there was a sunny glint of playfulness in Hoffman's eyes.  He said, "How'd I look?"  I answered, "Like early Maureen Stapleton."  We had this sort of Wimbledon match-type banter about looks and gender roles that was funny and also focused the attention on his film performance.  I opened by asking if he could now agree with this quote:  "Being a woman means having to learn how to dance backwards."  He was a terrific interview.  I loved the movie, now considered a classic.  I loved Bill Murray as his wise-cracking roommate/best friend and struggling playwright.  If I wasn't doing television, I wanted to make movies.  I knew I'd never be the leading man.  That was fine.  I wanted to do the kind of sidekick roles that went to actors like Eve Arden, Thelma Ritter or Oscar Levant.  That Bill Murray role was exactly the kind of part I wanted to play.  But, at that time, minority actors were still crashing into color barriers in an attempt to land sophisticated, well-written parts like that.  I'm so glad things changed.  It'd be different today.
Tootsie opens with a surprise party for Michael Dorsey, the good but difficult actor who is currently working as a waiter.  In one scene, Michael is playing the piano at his party.  I asked him about that specific piece of music.  I knew he'd written it.  Hoffman told me he lobbied to have it used as the movie's love song.  "It Might Be You" was used instead and it brought Tootsie an Oscar nomination for Best Song -- one of the several nominations the movie got.  Hoffman's composition is called "Shoot the Breeze."  It's a song he wrote...with Bette Midler.  With Hoffman on piano, they performed it on her NBC special in 1977.  This Dustin Hoffman & Bette Midler composition is a beauty.
Midler special was called Ol' Red Hair Is Back.  Yes, back in the day, she was a redhead.  Today, my two young nephews know her as the funny blonde grandmother in the new Billy Crystal comedy, Parental Guidance.  I did love "It Must Be You" in Tootsie.  I also love "Shoot the Breeze."  That number on Midler's show makes me long for a return of the network comedy/variety specials.  Those gave us some fabulous entertainment.

I bet you didn't know that Rain Man and The Rose wrote a song together, did you?

Tootsie brought Hoffman an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.  He lost to Ben Kingsley for playing a character he was once considered to play -- Gandhi.  Hoffman was recently one of the Kennedy Center Honorees.  Today, he talked to Terry Gross about his old films and his new movie, Quartet.  The light comedy/drama stars Maggie Smith.  Hoffman isn't onscreen with her.  He's graduated to role of movie director.

How did my 1982 interview of him helped my career?  During it, a mature gent with a cane entered the room and sat down.  He was in plain clothing and he had a very cool, seasoned vibe about him.  I've previously described it as a Gandalf-like gravity.  The cameraman motioned to me that he was OK to sit in.  The visitor enjoyed my lively interview with Hoffman.  He felt I stood out in the crowd of entertainment reporters.  Also, let's face it, I was one of the very few black folks in the junket.  Hoffman called him by his first name.  After I'd finished my interview, this gentleman took me by the hand into the hotel suite's adjoining room for a short talk.  He wanted to quote some of my interview in his piece.  He was Arthur Bell, noted columnist for The Village Voice.  He had a  weekly column called "Bell Tells."  He was doing a cover story on Hoffman for the paper.  Mr. Bell looked me straight in the eyes like a tall kindly uncle and made me promise that I would concentrate on getting a job in New York City.  He said, "You need to be here."

That big sweet journalist did indeed quote me and put my name in his Village Voice feature on Dustin Hoffman.  That was 1982.  My name was noticed by some people in Manhattan.  In 1985, I left WISN TV in Milwaukee to take a job at WPIX TV in New York City.  That interview with Hoffman helped.  So did the late Arthur Bell.  It also helped that I'd done my homework.  Let that be a lesson to you.

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