Gene Hackman was born on January 30, 1930, in San Bernardino, California. He dropped out of high school to join the Marines, and then studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse Theatre. Hackman’s breakout film was Bonnie and Clyde. His famous performances include Popeye Doyle in The French Connection and Lex Luther in Superman. Hackman has received two Oscars. He has since retired from acting.
Actor and writer Gene Hackman was born on January 30, 1930, in San Bernardino, California. An Academy Award-winning actor, Hackman played nearly every type of role imaginable, from politicians to super cops to military leaders to criminal masterminds. As a child, he moved to Illinois with his parents where his father worked as a newspaper press operator. His father abandoned the family when Hackman was in his early teens.
When he was 16 years old, Hackman dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Marine Corps. He lied about his age in order to enlist. During his time in the service, Hackman worked as a radio operator and finished his high school education. After being discharged in 1951, Hackman tried to find his way, living in Illinois and New York while working a variety of jobs. He studied journalism and TV production for a time as well.
Hackman eventually decided on acting and studied at the Pasadena Playhouse Theatre in the 1950s. Dustin Hoffman was one of his fellow students, and the two became friends and shared the dubious distinction of being voted “least likely to succeed” by their peers. Around this time, in 1956, Hackman married Faye Maltese.
Returning to New York, Hackman landed his first off-Broadway role in Chaparral in 1958. He became friends with actor Robert Duvall and even had Dustin Hoffman as a roommate for a time. Struggling for several years, Hackman landed his first film role — a bit part as a cop — in 1961’s Mad Dog Coll. He made his Broadway debut two years later in Children From Their Games, which was quickly followed a role in A Rainy Day in Newark. Hackman was also part of the original cast of Any Wednesday, which debuted in 1964. After seeing him on Broadway, director Robert Rossen cast Hackman in the drama Lilith (1964), with Warren Beatty.
Beatty proved instrumental in Hackman’s big career breakthrough. He helped Hackman land a supporting role in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which starred Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the infamous criminal couple. Hackman played Clyde’s brother, Buck Burrow, who joins his sibling and his lady on their bank robbery spree. The role brought Hackman plenty of critical attention and his first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Three years later, Hackman garnered another Best Supporting Actor nod from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his work on I Never Sang for My Father (1970). In the film, he played a professor trying to forge a relationship with his estranged father (played by Melvyn Douglas) after his mother’s death. Next up was the flick that solidified his status as a bona fide screen star, The French Connection (1971). Hackman played the ultimate tough cop — Detective Popeye Doyle — in this hit thriller directed by William Friedkin, and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor.
After the success of The French Connection, Hackman took on a variety of films. He joined such classic stars as Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall and Shelley Winters for the disaster-at-sea saga The Poseidon Adventure (1972). The next year, he teamed up with Al Pacino for the drama Scarecrow (1973). Hackman went on to star in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), playing a surveillance expert who gets caught up in one of his projects. His portrayal of the measured and precise professional loner Harry Caul is another one of his highly praised performances.
Hackman returned as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection II in 1975, and that year he also starred in Bite the Bullet, Night Moves and the notorious flop Lucky Lady, co-starring Liza Minnelli and Burt Reynolds. He scored a success with his portrayal of super villain Lex Luthor in 1978’s Superman, which starred Christopher Reeve as the legendary man of steel. Hackman reprised his role in two sequels: Superman II (1980) and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (1987).
Reuniting with Warren Beatty, Hackman had a small role in Reds (1981), which was based on the true story of a politically radical journalist named John Reed. He followed that effort by playing a retired colonel who goes to Vietnam to find his son in Uncommon Valor (1983). He earned praise for his performance while the film itself received lackluster reviews.
Hackman continued to explore different genres and types of characters for the remainder of the decade. With Hoosiers (1986), he tackled the role of a new coach who leads a small-town basketball team to victory. He then played a sinister secretary of defense in No Way Out (1987), with Kevin Costner.
Hackman delivered another strong turn in Mississippi Burning (1988). In this historical dramatic thriller based on a true story, he played an FBI agent investigating the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964, a performance that earned him a Best Actor Academy Award nomination. Not long afterward, Hackman experienced chest pains and underwent an angioplasty. He considered retirement for a while, but eventually returned to his craft.
Working with another acclaimed film talent, Clint Eastwood, Hackman netted an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for Unforgiven (1992). In this western, he played a cruel sheriff pursued by Eastwood, who also won an Oscar for Best Director. Taking on a different kind of morally questionable character, Hackman played Tom Cruise’s mentor in The Firm (1993), a film adaptation of a John Grisham novel.
In 1995, Hackman played seasoned combat submarine captain Frank Ramsey opposite Denzel Washington’s Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter in the thrilling drama Crimson Tide. That same year, he starred as John Herod, a vicious mayor of a wild frontier town opposite Sharon Stone, Russell Crowe and the then up-and-coming actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the western The Quick and the Dead. In 1996, he starred in another John Grisham adaptation, The Chamber, as a convicted murderer and racist facing execution. The film struck out with critics and movie-goers alike, but Hackman had better luck that year as a conservative senator in the comedy The Birdcage, with Robin Williams.
The 2000s began with Hackman appearing as Coach Jimmy McGinty in football comedy The Replacements, opposite Keanu Reeves and Jack Warden. That same year also found him starring along Morgan Freeman in the crime thriller Under Suspicion. In 2001, Hackman headlined the ensemble cast of Wes Anderson’s offbeat family comedy The Royal Tenenbaums. Anjelica Huston co-starred as his estranged wife and Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow and Luke Wilson played his adult children. That year, Hackman also starred in Heartbreakers as a wealthy widower targeted by a gold-digging mother and daughter, played by Sigourney Weaver and Jennifer Love Hewitt. In 2003, Hackman got a chance to work with old friend Dustin Hoffman in Runaway Jury, which also starred John Cusack. He played a jury consultant working for a gun manufacturer in a suit that Hoffman’s client has brought against the company.
Hackman’s last film project was the light-hearted comedy Welcome to Mooseport (2004), in which he starred as a former president who campaigns against a local (Ray Romano) to become mayor of a small town. While promoting the film, Hackman appeared on The Larry King Show and said that he did not have another film project lined up, adding that his film career was “probably all over.”
While his acting gigs were winding down, Hackman began a thriving second career as a novelist. He co-wrote four books with Daniel Lenihan: Wake of the Perdido Star (1999), Justice for None (2004), Vermillion (2004) and Escape from Andersonville (2008). He went on to deliver two solo efforts, Payback at Morning Peak (2011) and Pursuit (2013).
Hackman has three children, Christopher, Elizabeth and Leslie, from his first marriage to Faye Maltese. In 1991, he married Betsy Arakawa.