Dustin Hoffman directed "Quartet," which opens Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. | Getty Images, Ron Sachs
Updated: February 26, 2013 6:15AM
Being 75 caught up with Dustin Hoffman one day in the security line at JFK Airport.
“I walk around thinking my age doesn’t affect me,” the Oscar winner says. “I mean, I did have my ‘Oh my God, I’m turning 40’ moment. The rest became superfluous.”
This brings him to his airport encounter. “There I am taking my shoes off to get through this thing and the lady in charge says, ‘Oh, Mr. Hoffman. You can leave your shoes on.’ I said, ‘Why?’
“She nods to a sign and I look up and it says, ‘If you’re 75 years or older, you can leave your shoes on.’
“At that moment, I thought, ‘Even terrorists have a limited shelf life,’ ” he says with a laugh. Then he adds, “And by the way, it’s the first thing I’ve ever had in common with a terrorist.”
Age is actually the topic of his new film, now receiving critical raves.
Hoffman directed “Quartet,” opening Friday and starring Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon and Billy Connolly. The film is set at a home for retired opera singers and centers on their annual concert to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. Enter diva Jean (Smith) who upsets the plans.
“It’s gratifying to hear that people like it,” Hoffman says of his first major directorial effort.
The film came along in an odd way. He was shooting “Last Chance Harvey” with Emma Thompson a few years ago and spent a lot of time with the cinematographer. “We would discuss the shots as the film went along,” Hoffman says. “One day, he turned to me and said, ‘You should direct a movie. You talk camera so much.’
“I said, ‘Send me a script,’ ” Hoffman says. “The truth is they never send actors scripts to direct unless you’ve really proven yourself.”
But “Quartet” arrived. “I read it on an airplane and I really responded to it,” he says. “It was just serendipity — an accident waiting to happen.”
But directing wasn’t such an accident. “I started out wanting to be a film director when I was 18. At the time, I was just taking acting lessons. Other actors would ask me to watch their scenes for class. I gave them notes that they thought were worthwhile. Someone said to me, ‘You should be a director.’
Hoffman laughs. “I already committed myself to being an actor. I couldn’t quit something I couldn’t even get employment at to try something else I couldn’t get employment at. So, I stayed with acting. I didn’t want to go from one failure to another.”
His film is about the joys and perils of aging. It’s a topic that Baby Boomers such as himself have to take seriously.
“In this day and age, you’re gonna easily hit 100 if you watch your health and you don’t smoke,” he says. “You’ve got a big jump on that number if you take care of yourself.
“I remember my father saying to me many years ago that he was born in 1907, and in those days the average life span was 47 years of age. Now, we’re expanding it a bit.”
In “Quartet,” older people are swept aside and ignored, something Hoffman has witnessed offscreen as well. “The culture makes older people invisible unless they’re someone who has power. Some might call that a prejudice.
“It’s not just in America. Older people get no respect. You can only be hit over the head a certain number of times before you start to believe what people feel about you and your age,” he says. “Of course, as we get older the body becomes more limited. You can get into that or you can do your best to resist it.
“What you can’t do is allow the spirit to become limited. Ironically, the film says that your spirit can actually expand with age.”
Even his heroes changed as Hoffman hit his 70s. “One of my icons is a director from Portugal who just finished a film. He’s 104 years old and he’s still operating.”
“Quartet” had no age limit when it came to casting actors. “This film employs people in their 70s, 80s and 90s,” he says. “Once I got the money people to agree I could use actual singers, I started calling amazing talents whose phones hadn’t rang in 25 years.”
Hoffman is a native of Los Angeles who went to Santa Monica City College, where he flunked many courses. He took acting because “nobody flunks acting.”
The end result of that action was films including classics such as “The Graduate” (1967), “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), “Tootsie” (1982), and“Rain Man” (1988), plus playing Mr. Bernie Focker in the “Meet the Parents” franchise.
After three years of working on “Quartet,” he’s ready to act again. Last year, “I said to my agent, ‘I’d love to get an acting job. I need a fall movie.’ He said, ‘This is your fall movie. You’re the only one who can get press except Maggie Smith, and she’s too smart to leave town to talk to the press.’
“My wife said the next time you direct, you need some young star so you don’t have to run around so much.”
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