The world of first choices is a fascinating one. Imagine with me, for a moment, a world where Gene Hackman was Mike Brady, for which he was apparently the first choice, but not Popeye Doyle, for which he was apparently the sixth. (No, I don’t know who the other five people were.) You can’t even say he doubtless still would’ve been famous, because who can say if The Brady Bunch would’ve been as successful with Gene Hackman as it was with Robert Reed? And he’s turned down a lot of other roles—for a stretch, he was freely admitting to doing movies for the money and turned down some real classics that didn’t pay as well.
Gene Hackman has an interesting history—he did time for stealing from a candy store, even. He was 26 when he used the GI Bill to attend the Pasadena Playhouse acting academy. He and his roommate, a guy named Dustin Hoffman, got some of the worst grades the academy ever gave, dropped out, and moved to New York to act. Which definitely didn’t happen right away. He had several jobs where people routinely told him he was a loser. It wasn’t until the ’60s that he started getting TV work; I’m frankly shocked that he never did any Perry Mason.
Probably his real breakout role came in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde, a movie I personally hate that nevertheless did very, very well for him. He got his first Oscar nomination for it. Sure, he lost to George Kennedy in Cool Hand Luke, but honestly that was a stacked year for the category, and he was also up against one of his own costars, which usually means neither person will actually win. Further, it probably led to his eventual casting in The French Connection. People may have considered him miscast, but he still won an Oscar.
For decades, his career was, frankly, uneven. For every Superman, there was a Superman IV. And there’s something to be said about the fact that his final film, unless he decides to come out of retirement, was the fairly reviled Welcome to Mooseport. The one thing to be said is that, from what I can tell, Gene Hackman was never considered to be the bad part of a film. Regardless of what they said about him at the Pasadena Playhouse, he won two Oscars.
It also seems that he’s a pretty nice guy in real life. He doesn’t discuss his personal life much, but he apparently loaned Robert Duvall $300 when Duvall had broken his pelvis, which Duvall for some reason still considers the definition of friendship, just because it happened in those early days when the two of them and Hoffman were broke in New York—which is well over $2500 today, too. That’s a lot on the salary of someone who’s working as a doorman at a Howard Johnson’s.