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Six Definitive Films: The ultimate beginner's guide to Gene Hackman


“I was trained to be an actor, not a star. I was trained to play roles, not to deal with fame and agents and lawyers and the press.” – Gene Hackman 

In the mid-late 20th century you would’ve been hard-pressed to find an actor quite as proficient as Gene Hackman, a key Hollywood figure who would become the face of several iconic films throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. Working with the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Richard Donner and Mel Brooks, Hackman enjoyed a flourishing career as the leading actor of the industry. 

Pursuing a career in acting from a young age, Hackman joined Pasadena Playhouse in California where he befriended a youthful Dustin Hoffman, with the two actors eventually helping each other to reach cinematic fame. As Hackman told Deseret News, “Acting was something I wanted to do since I was ten and saw my first movie, I was so captured by the action guys. Jimmy Cagney was my favourite. Without realising it, I could see he had tremendous timing and vitality”. 

Despite having been voted ‘The Least Likely To Succeed’ along with Hoffman, the two actors went on to become Hollywood icons, with Gene Hackman enjoying 43 years of acting before his early retirement in 2004. Leaving the industry whilst still on a career-high, the cinematic life of Hackman is littered with consistent success through the 20th century, spilling over into the new millennium.

Let’s take a look back at his six most definitive film roles.

Gene Hackman’s six definitive films:

Lilith (Robert Rossen, 1964)

Moving to New York City in search of a career in front of the camera, Gene Hackman found the industry as difficult to penetrate as many fresh-faced newcomers did, working at a restaurant to supplement his efforts. 

Receiving various bit roles in the likes of TV series Route 66 as well as Off-Broadway plays like Any Wednesday where he featured alongside Sandy Dennis. Whilst these roles were not glamorous, they undoubtedly led Hackman to bigger and better things, with his first major role coming in the form of Lilith from director Robert Rossen where he featured alongside Jean Seberg and Warren Beatty. 

Though only a supporting role, Lilith provided Gene Hackman with the crucial ‘first chance’ he needed to move up in the industry. 

Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)

Hackman’s role in Lilith would truly get the ball rolling for the promising actor, later appearing in the epic Hawaii along with an episode of the TV series The Invaders, until he would play a major role in the influential Hollywood classic Bonnie and Clyde.

Playing a major supporting character in Arthur Penn’s iconic road movie, Hackman featured alongside Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as Clyde’s older brother, Buck who briefly joins the dangerous duo on their murderous spree. Earning the actor an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, if Lilith provided Hackman with his first leg-up, it was Bonnie and Clyde that would throw the actor into the Hollywood stratosphere. 

The French Connection (William Friedkin, 1971)

Once Bonnie and Clyde was under his belt, gaining a foothold in Hollywood became easy for Hackman as he was offered multiple roles throughout the end of the 1960s and into the ’70s. 

Nominated for a second Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1970 for his role in I Never Sang for My Father, it was his following performance in William Friedkin’s The French Connection that would earn Hackman an invitation to the big leagues. Winning the Academy Award for Best Leading Actor for his performance as New York City detective Jimmy ‘Popeye’ Doyle, Friedkin’s film became one of Hackman’s most iconic roles. 

Starring alongside Roy Scheider, Hackman helped to form a brand new definition of the buddy cop crime film. 

Mississippi Burning (Alan Parker, 1988)

With Willem Dafoe, Frances McDormand and R. Lee Ermey, Gene Hackman would revisit the buddy cop crime genre in Mississippi Burning, albeit with a punchier, more politically charged message. 

Released 17 years after The French Connection, Hackman had enjoyed starring in several high profile films in the time since the 1971 classic, consolidating his position at the height of the industry with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation in 1974 as well as Superman: The Movie in 1978. Though both these films helped to further the star persona of Hackman, it was his leading role in Alan Parker’s pertinent story Mississippi Burning that would firmly place the actor in the contemporary sphere of the industry. 

Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)

At this point, the best of Gene Hackman’s career was behind him, though this certainly didn’t mean that the actor was past his best, as he continued to graft terrific performances through the 1990s and into the new century. 

Four years after the success of Mississippi Burning, Hackman saw even more glittering glory with Unforgiven, a revisionist western about a group of outlaws in the twilight of their career. There were certainly some real-life parallels too with Clint Eastwood, a previous icon of the western film, starring alongside Hackman who was also experiencing a slump in career tempo. Playing the sadistic sheriff ‘Little’ Bill Daggett, Hackman earned himself an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor whilst the film itself went on to win Best Picture. 

The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001)

Winding to a halt at the turn of the new millennium, Gene Hackman had a lot to show off for by the time The Royal Tenenbaums was released in 2001, featuring in an ensemble cast along with the likes of Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson and Bill Murray.

Playing the head of an eccentric American family, Hackman’s versatility was celebrated in Wes Anderson’s early classic, with the actor having not been previously known for his comedic chops. Bringing a weighty sincerity to his dominating role as the father of several complicated children, Hackman’s performance perfectly balances comedy and earnestness in his dark, sympathetic portrayal of a man in crisis. 

Though The Royal Tenenbaums was not his final role, later appearing in Behind Enemy LinesRunaway Jury and finally Welcome to Mooseport in 2004, the Wes Anderson classic would mark the final moment of true artistic triumph for the iconic 20th-century actor.