Dustin Hoffman

He says he was a loser who only felt comfortable when he failed. But despite decades of shooting himself in the foot, Dustin Hoffman still became an Oscar-winning A-lister. For the first time, he reveals why he sabotaged his career by turning down some of the finest roles in cinema. By Ariel Leve

He could have been in Schindler's List, but he turned it down. He said no to Steven Spielberg and missed out on Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

He did the same to Samuel Beckett, he said no to Ingmar Bergman, and he said no to his hero Federico Fellini. And yet he wanted to work with all of them - desperately. So why?

Dustin Hoffman doesn't want to go there.

"It's personal," he says . Later, when pressed, he'll say: "I don't want to start crying." He'll talk about self-sabotage and fear. How, when he was a struggling actor, he was afraid to take the part of Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate and initially turned it down. Spurning dream roles was a habit. He also refused, at first, the one that won him his best-actor Oscar in Kramer vs Kramer. But he won't say why - yet.

Hoffman, 69, is an entertainer, genial and affable, and unlike other actors in his pantheon - De Niro and Pacino - he is neither evasive nor remote. He is accessible.

Even with all his money, celebrity and success, he still appears to be "one of us" - not the tallest or handsomest or smoothest - just someone we can relate to._He has charm and panache, he's comfortable on chat-show sofas, and comes across as sincere and personable. Audiences adore him. He loves to tell stories, has the natural timing of a comedian, he doesn't do tantrums, doesn't sulk or bristle. But there is another side to Hoffman. When he appears in the restaurant at the Dorchester, wearing a blue windbreaker and sipping a Starbucks iced coffee, he is what we've come to expect: relaxed and avuncular.

The cluster of publicists who have delivered him fade away. He shakes my hand and looks me in the eye. The warm smile that crinkles his eyes around the edges sets a familiar tone, making it easy to tell him the story of how we met once before, in 1984.

It was the opening night of the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman. He had just triumphed as the tragic Willy Loman, and at the after-party - amid the air-kissing, back-slapping and congratulations - he was introduced to me, and complimented a bashful and awkward 16-year-old girl on her dress. His attention was as focused and genuine then as it is now.

His eyes widen. He wants to know more. I tell him I had a crush on him, fuelled by his role in Kramer vs Kramer. I'd seen the film after my parents had divorced and I related to it.

What makes Hoffman so engaging is his curiosity. During lunch I have to resist answering his questions. Kramer vs Kramer, he explains, was the first time he made a film in which his real life paralleled his work. "I was getting a divorce, and any divorce is painful. When you wait until you're 30, 31, to get married, you figure you know yourself and it isn't hasty. So when it failed it was devastating."

He initially turned down the Kramer role.

"I read it and said, 'This is not my experience - I don't want to do it.' " The director, Robert Benton, persevered. "He said, 'How can we find some common ground? I said, 'Let's go in a room for a couple of months. I don't want to get into the facts of my marriage/divorce, but I want to show the truth about it.' "

When Hoffman speaks, his hands are in constant motion, conducting the orchestra of his thoughts. He is frank and open. The control mechanisms usually in place with most Hollywood heavyweights to ensure privacy and maintain an image are absent.

After meeting for three months and dissecting the truth about divorce, he says he and Benton discovered "the spine" of the film. With Kramer, as well as what he was living through at the time, it was this: that a marriage doesn't end because the love ends. "What makes divorce happen is that you can't be in the same space any more, for whatever reason - but the love stays. And that's the killer. That's where the vehemence and anger and rage comes from."

The result of their forensic examination of his divorce resulted in an authentic portrayal. But Hoffman has often paid a price for his diligence: the stigma of being "difficult". On the set of Marathon Man, Laurence Olivier, exasperated by him, is said to have exclaimed: "Why doesn't the boy just act? Why does he have to go through all this Sturm und Drang?" Sydney Pollack, who won the Oscar directing Hoffman in Tootsie, said: "I'd give it up if I could have back the nine months of my life I spent with Dustin Hoffman making it."

But what's been said isn't necessarily the whole story. "I know it's written that I'm difficult," says Hoffman. "Barry Levinson - who I did four films with - told me that every press person comes up to him and asks, 'How do you work with that guy?' and he says, 'I've done nothing but extol what a privilege and fun it's been.' But not one interviewer has ever printed that. Look, the medical metaphor I use is, it's like you're on a table for brain surgery and you're being wheeled in and the guy leans in and says, 'Hi I'm your brain surgeon and don't worry - I'm not difficult, I'm not a perfectionist.' " He laughs. "I am no different from the focus puller - you're either sharp or you're not." So he's a perfectionist? "I'm not looking for perfection. I'm looking for - is it right or wrong?"

Hoffman denies his "difficult" reputation. However, there have been many regrets. In particular, those opportunities to work with Fellini, Beckett and Bergman. When talking about turning down Fellini, his voice registers outrage at his own foolish decision. "It was City of Women. He was my favourite director, by the way, and I said I'll do any movie with him and I'll do it for free."

But Hoffman had a condition. He wanted the director to record the sound while the film was being shot rather than dubbing it in a studio. "Fellini said, 'I don't use direct sound.' So I said, 'I'll pay for it. Whatever it costs to do direct sound, I'll pay for it.' And he said no."

Hoffman pauses, takes a sip of water. "I turned him down? To look back now and think I could have spent three months with one of the great - I don't want to start crying here - but one of the greatest film artists of all time? I don't care if he was doing doo-doo for 12 hours every day."

So what was the real reason for turning him down? Silence. Shrewdly, he launches into a story about turning down Ingmar Bergman.

His first wife was about to have a baby. But this is not the real reason, and when the conversation is brought back to Fellini, he feigns ignorance. Because the real reason for turning down Fellini is the reason he turned down great roles, including ones in Close Encounters and Schindler's List. And it wasn't because he was difficult. Hoffman is said to have turned down more great roles than any other actor. He doesn't want to say why, but he will. "It's personal. You'll ruin your whole article."

But eventually he yields. "I failed everything growing up," he says. "I was convinced I was failing for a reason. I wasn't intelligent or like most people. I could barely get through school.

I was considered in my family to be a loser.

"My brother, who is older, was an A student - captain of the football team and the baseball team, and I was the comedian. And someone saying, 'Boy, you're a real comedian,' is like someone saying, 'Boy, you're a real loser.' "

Hoffman was born on August 8, 1937, in LA, where he was raised in a Jewish family. His mother, Lillian, was a part-time actress and his father, Harvey, sold furniture.

"I started junior college in Los Angeles because I didn't have the grades to go to university and I didn't want to go into the military. So in my first year of junior college I'm failing and I don't know what to do. I don't want to get a job, I want to be a student, and a friend says, 'Take acting, because they don't flunk you - it's like gym, nobody gets an F.'

"I took it and suddenly it was the first thing I ever did that wasn't painful. Where I held focus. And suddenly, rehearsing with somebody - learning lines - hours could pass by. And I begged my parents to let me go to this acting school, because I knew I couldn't fail."

Hoffman enrolled in the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theater Arts, and met Gene Hackman. "They kicked him out after three months because he had no talent," he adds._It was the 1950s, and a controversial acting teacher, Barney Brown, became his mentor.

"He told me, you can have a life. He didn't say anything about success. He said, 'Whether you direct, write, act or stage-manage, you're in the right place.' And he said, 'Go to New York and understand one thing - nothing is going to happen to you for 10 years. Give yourself 10 years and nothing is going to happen.' It was true. "I found work where I could fail with dignity. Because 90% of us didn't get jobs."

So Hoffman had found something he could do where he didn't feel the pressure to succeed. And nobody would call him a loser because his profession was populated by out-of-work people. After acting school, he moved to New York with just $50. He slept on Gene Hackman's kitchen floor until he met Duvall and they became roommates.

From 1958 to 1967, Hackman, Hoffman and Duvall did odd jobs and struggled to get by. Hackman carried furniture up and down tenement stairs; Duvall did the night shift at the post office; Hoffman worked at the New York Psychiatric Institute as a hospital assistant. "It was one of the most illuminating experiences I ever had. You see all the devils we have and just see it out of control. The only thing that frightened me was, I had to hold people down while they were given shock treatments, but after a few months I said, 'I can't do it any more.'"

At the time, he was reading One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and couldn't get over how close the script mirrored life at the psychiatric institute. "You went in there normal and came out crazy in those days. You came out worse."

Of course, the experience informed his work. He recalls: "To this day, Bob Duvall says it was one of the best times of when we were all living together. Because I'd come home and they'd say, 'What did so-and-so do today?' " Hoffman would act out the characters he'd met there. He tells me how Hackman would see six films a day on his day off. "He'd spend his entire day in the cinema. It was a place where the homeless went, because for 35 cents they could sleep there all day. He was in there at 10am and he heard one homeless guy in the balcony saying, 'You're sorry? You're sorry? What do you mean, you're sorry? You piss all over my date and you say you're sorry?' "

It is impossible not to get sidetracked by Hoffman's stories, and now the publicist has returned. "Here comes trouble," Hoffman says. She signals that time is up and tells him: "Lisa is waiting." Lisa is Hoffman's wife. They have been married since 1980 and have four children (Hoffman also has two daughters from his first marriage). However, he stays with me. I ask him what it was like choosing a profession where he felt secure in failure. He lets out a long, deep sigh. "It's very painful for us to feel we deserve a life. That's the toughest thing. That we deserve to have a life. That can take a lifetime."

His latest film, Stranger than Fiction, reflects this. That there is the life we lead and then there is an idealised life - the life we might wish for. But I want to stay on the highway of his life. What he's finding so hard to talk about is this: for years he was uncomfortable with success, was afraid he didn't deserve it, afraid he'd be exposed by it and put back in the pigeonhole marked "loser". It was a label conferred by his father, a man who made his son feel a failure all his life but accepted the rewards of his success. He was the tragic figure Hoffman used as inspiration when he played Willy Loman, a proud but flawed man who masqueraded as a success while achieving little. Hoffman discovered that his father would borrow money from friends to lend to others so he would appear rich. So Dustin settled for a profession in which there was safety in numbers in failing. The avoidance of success, sabotaging opportunity, was his security blanket.

"Working with Fellini? That destabilised everything. That makes liars out of my parents. Because I believed what they told me. I should not have turned down Fellini. If he wants you to do it in mumbo jumbo, if it's the worst script you've ever read, you do not turn down the great artists. I turned Beckett down! I didn't show up for a meeting at a bar in Paris. I got too scared. It was to do Godot. They called me up and said he waited there for an hour! That's the title of my autobiography - I Turned Beckett Down. But I just froze." He tells me how he made excuses, claiming he hadn't realised the appointment had been confirmed. "I look back and I can't call up Federico now and say, 'I changed my mind. Will you work with me?' "

Hoffman was repeating the pattern that first arose with The Graduate. How could an unknown turn down the hottest director of the moment? "It was like a bad dream for me. And it came at a time when I was beginning to get work off-Broadway as an actor and I'd just been in a hit and I'd gotten awards and I thought for the rest of my life my dream will come true: I will be an off-Broadway actor for the rest of my life."

And that would have been enough. More than enough. Steady employment was the goal. "If God had come down at that moment and said to me or Gene Hackman or Bobby Duvall,'Sign a contract here that says "You're never going to be successful, you're never going to have a lead, you're never going to be rich and famous, you will never be on Broadway, you will never be in the West End - you'll be not even off, but off-off-off-Broadway, but you will never see a day without work" ' - we would have signed on the dotted line in a New York minute."

All along, in spite of success, Hoffman continued to sabotage himself, because he never believed he deserved it. But how much, really, has it hurt him? He was nominated for seven Oscars, and won on two occasions. Success came anyway. And that's the irony: no matter how much he damaged his chances, he worked consistently, and talent will out. It just took a couple of decades before he realised he deserved his success and learnt to enjoy it.

"Someone once said to me, 'Some of us choose to live with a lifeboat just a little bit out of our reach.' I'd like to reach a point where I no longer bullshit myself. I think that's the natural human condition - to lie to yourself. Because the truth is painful."

Stranger than Fiction is now on general release.