It is very rare for an actor to turn down the opportunity of working with one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. That is definitely true for Martin Scorsese, who has been described by actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill as a true visionary who can create cinematic magic with a camera. However, that wasn’t the case when Scorsese was just starting out as a promising filmmaker on the meteoric rise to the very top.
According to multiple reports, and confirmed by the actor himself, Dustin Hoffman made the huge mistake of turning down Scorsese in his early years as a director. At that point, Scorsese’s biggest project had been the gritty 1973 cult classic Mean Streets but he was working on something even bigger – Taxi Driver. The film was, however, not necessarily the most attractive prospect.
“At the time I wrote it [Taxi Driver], I was in a rather low and bad place,” screenwriter Paul Schrader recalled. “I had broken with Pauline [Kael], I had broken with my wife, I had broken with the woman I left my wife for, I had broken with the American Film Institute and I was in debt.”
Schrader’s terrible health landed him in the hospital, as he admitted: “When I was talking to the nurse, I realised I hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks…that was when the metaphor of the taxi cab occurred to me. That is what I was: this person in an iron box, a coffin, floating round the city, but seemingly alone.”
Now Hoffman didn’t just turn down a minor part in Taxi Driver. He rejected the chance to play the iconic role of Travis Bickle — a disillusioned taxi driver who prowls the filthy New York City labyrinths at night while reflecting on the emptiness of human existence. Taxi Driver is now regarded as one of the definitive masterpieces of the 20th century and Travis Bickle is regularly cited as one of the greatest characters ever created.
While remembering the terrible decision he made in the past, Hoffman said: “I remember meeting Martin Scorsese. He had no script and I didn’t know who he was. I hadn’t seen any of his films and he was talking a mile a minute telling me what the movie was about. I thought the guy was crazy!… I made so many dumb mistakes. The list is endless.”
The part, ultimately, went to Robert De Niro who turned the performance into a terrifying tour de force. Full of frustration and loneliness as well as a touch of insanity, De Niro channelled everything he had into the part and even worked as a cab driver for a few months in order to get a better understanding of the character’s background.
Scorsese praised De Niro, saying, “Bob (De Niro) was very instrumental because he pointed out to me that the first line of dialogue was ‘Turn off the meter.’ And I did one take, and he said to me, ‘When you say – Turn off the meter – make me turn it off. Just make me turn it off.
“I’m not going to turn it off until you convince me that you want me to turn off that meter.’ So, I learned a lot. He sort of acted with the back of his head, but he encouraged me by not responding to me. And using that tension of the inherent violence, I was able to able to take off and riff some dialogue.”