Life Advice from Gene Hackman

Hackman as the iconic Popeye Doyle in The French Connection.
Hackman as the iconic Popeye Doyle in The French Connection.Getty Images

Have you ever cheated death?

I was in a reconnaissance battalion in the Marines, training at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when the Korean War was heating up. One night I was on my motorcycle, going to an automobile race, and I slammed into a farm tractor that had no lights. Never saw him. Broke my right leg, my left knee, my right shoulder. I have a 10-inch scar on my knee from the impact. I wanted desperately to go with my battalion to Korea, but I was recuperating in the hospital for four months. Even though they were in reconnaissance, they were put on the line and suffered heavy casualties. So that crash may have saved my life.

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What should every man know about money?

For me, money was a passage forward. I had a really tough time as a young actor in New York. So when I earned a little money — literally just enough to eat and have a roof over my head — it gave me the confidence to get into acting classes, to make a step with my career. It was extremely important to me.

What should every man know about women?

Keep listening. And nodding. The message is in there somewhere.

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What role does vanity play in a man’s life?

Let me tell you a story. By the time I fully recovered from that motorcycle crash, I was finishing up my enlistment and had let my hair grow out a bit. An officer stopped me and asked, “Why is your hair so long?” I said, “I’m being discharged the day after tomorrow, sir.” He said, “OK, I’m going to give you a choice: Either cut your hair or join the Reserves.” I’d had a brush cut for four years and thought my long hair was cute. So I joined the Reserves. Two months later they called me back into the Marines.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I was doing a film in the late ’60s with a veteran actor, Melvyn Douglas. I came from the New York school of acting and was kind of independent. We had a very complex scene together and I was doing my own thing, and it just wasn’t working. We stopped at one point, and he said, “Gene, you’ll never achieve what you want unless you really apply yourself.” It was a fairly simple thing, but I took it to heart. It changed the way I approached acting — that it wasn’t all about me.

What book should every man read?

For Whom the Bell Tolls. I read it in the late ’60s, and I liked the adventure of it and the story of a man doing what he felt was right. The way it depicted the hideous quality of war made an impression on me. When a book affects us in a way that is revolting yet very clear, that’s a mark of a good writer. I think of Hemingway’s writing when I’m writing.

What’s the best cure for a hangover?

Exercise. Just sweat it out.

What’s the best cure for heartache?

A hot date.

How should a man best face his fears?

I think how you face your fears defines you. Whether you manage to live with them or try to disguise them or combat them, it’s important for you to recognize what you do.

What one thing do you want to do before you die?

I’d like to be a better writer. I’ve been at it for 15 years, but trying to write when I was acting was difficult. The new book is a western, which was a natural for me because I live in the mountains above Santa Fe. It’s a story of revenge and of a young man coming of age. I tried to keep it fresh, not copy from what we’ve seen in movies, but inevitably that happens because those scenes are so indelibly written in your mind.

This interview first appeared in the July 2011 issue of Men's Journal.

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