The Enduring Legacy of Basil Hoffman
Nick R. Murphy
The storied career of veteran performer Basil Hoffman is the stuff of modern legend. With a collection of over a hundred credits in film and television accumulated throughout the better part of five decades, Hoffman’s path as an actor is one to be celebrated and respected by young and old alike. His expertise has paved the way for numerous actors to learn from his mastery. And Hoffman’s journey to reach that mastery is as educational as it is inspiring. It is a journey of enviable experience featuring countless artists who have drawn their own paths of accomplishment along with Hoffman’s.
Basil Hoffman got his start in New York during the mid-1960s after attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. His time on the east coast found him taking the stage in a multitude of plays while at the same time getting started on television with cameo roles on television shows such as THE DEFENDERS and THAT’S LIFE.
But it was not until his arrival in Los Angeles in 1974 that Hoffman began to carve a niche for himself as a hardworking character actor. Forgoing the traditional route of relying on an agent for work, Hoffman pursued casting directors, inevitably retaining legal representation to negotiate his acting gigs. This mode of professionalism landed him a role on an episode of KUNG FU, the judge on the TV movie CAGE WITHOUT A KEY for Buzz Kulik who had directed him on THE DEFENDERS ten years earlier in New York, and as a surly major in Hawkeye’s way on a 1974 episode of M*A*S*H. Parts on COLUMBO, SANFORD AND SON, and THE WALTONS soon followed. Basil Hoffman’s career was off and running, but the best was yet to come.
In 1976, Hoffman snagged himself a notable supporting role in the classic true life political thriller ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, directed by the brilliant Alan J. Pakula. This is where Hoffman established a working relationship with Robert Redford. It was the first of four projects he performed in with the actor/director. The second was THE ELECTRIC HORSEMAN in 1979 under the direction of the late, great Academy Award winner (for OUT OF AFRICA) Sydney Pollack. The third was in Redford’s Academy Award winning directorial debut ORDINARY PEOPLE, and the fourth was in Redford’s sophomore directorial effort THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR. Between those collaborations, Hoffman worked under the direction of a young Steven Spielberg (Academy Award winner for SCHINDLER'S LIST and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) for the 1977 sci-fi classic CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and joined his efforts with Pakula again in 1978’s COMES A HORSEMAN.
Academy Award Winning Director Blake Edwards and Basil Hoffman
Emily Mortimer and Basil Hoffman in "Rio, I Love You"
Steady roles continued throughout the 1980s with parts in Oscar winner Ron Howard’s NIGHT SHIFT, Richard Benjamin’s MY FAVORITE YEAR, and appearances in multiple television shows including SQUARE PEGS, HILL STREET BLUES, L.A. LAW, MURDER SHE WROTE, NIGHT COURT, CAGNEY & LACEY, and DYNASTY to name a few.
Perhaps Hoffman’s most notable television appearance in the ‘80s was as a mysterious stranger named Mr. Steward on a 1986 episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE entitled BUTTON, BUTTON, based on a Richard Matheson story of the same name, and directed by the great Peter Medak. In it, Hoffman’s character gives a poverty-stricken housewife a locked box containing a single button within. Once the box is opened and the button is pressed, two events follow: The housewife will receive $200,000 and someone she does not know will die. It is a sinister enigmatic role borne from a concept that inspired DONNIE DARKO director Richard Kelly to adapt the story into the 2009 thriller THE BOX, which included Hoffman's cameo in homage to his iconic TWILIGHT ZONE performance.
Basil Hoffman’s continual stream of performances maintained momentum through the 1990s. That decade found Hoffman appearing in cult films such as SWITCH from Oscar winning director Blake Edwards and THE DOUBLE O KID starring the late Corey Haim, and on a classic television episode of SEINFELD as an eccentric and insecure toupee salesman.
As his career progressed, Basil Hoffman yearned to teach his knowledge of the craft to aspiring performers. This led him to become a private acting teacher and coach in both New York and Los Angeles. He has gone on to lecture on acting at many prestigious schools including The American Film Institute, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Academie Libanese des Beaux-Arts in Beirut Lebanon, the University of Southern California, and others. In 2008 he returned to Beirut to teach acting and directing in four universities as U.S. State Department Cultural Envoy to Lebanon.
Donald Sutherland, Academy Award Director Robert Redford and Basil Hoffman in "Ordinary People"
Basil Hoffman and Jean Dujardin in "The Artist"
Hoffman’s desire to share his skills has branched out into the literary world as well. He has penned two books on the craft: COLD READING: AND HOW TO BE GOOD AT IT, and ACTING: AND HOW TO BE GOOD AT IT (and The Second Edition) with a foreword by Oscar winner Sydney Pollack. Both books are insightful, instructional, and above all inspirational for any actor willing to absorb Hoffman’s lessons, learned from his own long career experiences.
His appearances in film and television still continue to this day. So far in the 2010s, Hoffman has appeared in the Oscar-winning silent film THE ARTIST, the Coen Brothers comedy HAIL, CAESAR! And the 2016 independent thriller THE PINEVILLE HEIST. And starring with Emily Mortimer in RIO, I LOVE YOU, directed by Academy Award winner Paolo Sorrentino.
A wise teacher with an exceptionally professional reputation, Basil Hoffman is a shining example of an accomplished thespian. He is a teacher of highest regard whose influence has emanated throughout generations. So if one day, you find yourself revisiting old classics, or checking out new ones, keep an eye out because you might find yourself watching Basil Hoffman.