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Gene Hackman, Marine Corps veteran and Oscar-winning actor turns 94

From "Hoosiers" to "Superman" and about 100 other films, Gene Hackman has had one impressive career. But before he was winning Oscars, he served in the Marines.
Joel Searls Avatar
a screenshot from the film Hoosiers with Gene Hackman and his basketball team
Screenshot, Hoosiers. Photo via IMDB.com.

Gene Hackman, one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, turned 94 years old on January 30. His career took flight in the late 1960s in Hollywood with his Oscar-nominated supporting role in the award-winning and box office hit Bonnie and Clyde. His career launched in the 1970s with him still performing at high levels well into the 1990s and 2000s. He retired from the industry in 2004 at the age of 74. He earned two Oscars for his work, one for Best Actor as Popeye Doyle in The French Connection and the second for Best Supporting Actor as “Little” Bill Dagget in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Before he met with fame in Hollywood, Hackman served in the Marine Corps from 1946 to 1951 and earned the rank of corporal.

Young Marine Cpl Gene Hackman

The cast of Bonnie and Clyde from left to right; Gene Hackman, Estelle Parsons, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and Michael J. Pollard. Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Hackman joined the Corps at the age of 16 and had the MOS of field radio operator. His duty stations included China, Hawaii and Japan. He served in China before the Communist Revolution in 1949. Hackman left the Marines in 1951 and started toward his long journey to being one the greatest actors of all time. In 1956, he officially began his acting career and studied at the Pasadena Playhouse. He encountered early rejection and met classmate and future star Dustin Hoffman. Hackman and Hoffman eventually moved to NYC to reinvigorate their careers. While there they met fellow struggling actor and future star Robert Duvall. The three of them enjoyed a rich friendship with much camaraderie.

Hackman with co-star Valerie Perrine in Superman. Photo courtesy of imdb.com

During this period, Hackman supported himself with odd jobs and continued to press forward through rejection toward his goal. He booked roles in TV shows such as Route 66, Naked City and The F.B.I. that helped further his career. He worked on Broadway and in Off-Broadway plays to further his skills and abilities. He earned supporting roles in films such as Hawaii, First to Fight and A Covenant with Death before his big break in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. His next career-moving role came in William Friedkin’s The French Connection which starred Hackman and Roy Scheider as NYPD cops on the trail of drug smugglers. This role solidified Hackman in American pop culture and as a serious, centered and hard-working actor.

Denzel Washington with Hackman in Crimson Tide. Photo courtesy of imdb.com

Throughout the 1970s, Hackman sailed through starring roles and supporting roles in blockbuster and award-winning hits directed by top-level directors. Titles include The Poseidon Adventure, The Conversation, A Bridge Too Far and Superman. Hackman played Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor in three out of the four original Superman films. He leaped into the 1980s with his trademark vigor in popular films such as Uncommon Valor, Hoosiers, Superman II and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Bat*21 and Mississippi Burning. For Mississippi Burning, he earned an Oscar nomination for his role as FBI agent Rupert Anderson investigating the disappearance of three civil rights workers; Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner. The 1990s opened more doors for Hackman to show his acting chops in such films as Unforgiven, The Firm, Get Shorty, The Quick and the Dead, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State. Many of these opportunities paired him with superstars of the time such as Clint Eastwood, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Shelley Winters, Sharon Stone, John Travolta, Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and many more.

Clint Eastwood and Hackman with their Oscar wins for Unforgiven. Photo courtesy of imdb.com.

By the early 2000s it appeared Hackman’s acting work would continue with films such as Under Suspicion with Morgan Freeman, The Replacements with Keanu Reeves and Behind Enemy Lines with Owen Wilson. He also got to work with Hoffman in Runaway Jury in 2003. The acting train slowed to a halt for Hackman on July 7, 2004 when he announced his retirement in a rare interview with Larry King. His only time out of retirement was to narrate two Marine Corps films which are The Unknown Flag Raiser of Iwo Jima and We, the Marines. Hackman retired with 102 film and TV acting credits to his name with many more stage credits as well. All in all, Hackman has lived a great life, especially for a man who joined the Corps at 16 and served in some dangerous places across the globe. He has left a legacy of excellence on screen and is proud of his Marine Corps service. Happy 94th, Devil Dog!

Will Smith with Hackman in Enemy of the State. Photo courtesy of imdb.com