Why Gene Hackman Initially Turned Down Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven

There are some actors who you just know, regardless of what movie they are in, will always be utterly compelling to watch on screen. If the movie is great, they match the material. If the movie is a pile of garbage, their disinterest and resentment of what they are doing makes for its own unique magic. A perfect example of this is Gene Hackman, one of the most reliable American actors of the last 60 years. He was such a consummate performer that often his work was taken for granted. Over the course of his career, he was only nominated for five Academy Awards. No nomination for "The Conversation." No nomination for "Superman." No nomination for "Hoosiers." No nomination for "The Royal Tenenbaums." The Academy should be embarrassed by the collective lack of respect he received nomination-wise.

Thankfully, Hackman had a pretty good batting average with winning the awards for which he was nominated. Out of his five nominations, he took home two wins, both of which were for performances in the movies that won Best Picture in its year. The first was as Popeye Doyle in William Friedkin's "The French Connection," playing someone in law enforcement who took a bit too much pleasure in his power. The second was for Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven," playing ... someone in law enforcement who took a bit too much pleasure in his power. Spelling it out like that makes it seem like he didn't have range as an actor, but even between these two performances, he created two characters incredibly dissimilar from one another.

Gene Hackman's performance as Little Bill in "Unforgiven" beautifully (in a horrific way) shows the sadism that comes with carrying a badge and believing in your own endless authority. It's a terrifying character that rings all too true today, exposing the lies of the mythic cinematic Western archetype of the headstrong sheriff. Amazingly, Hackman nearly turned down the part that would win him his second Academy Award, which seems ludicrous. You read Little Bill on the page, and there's so much wonderful material to dig into. But he had some voices close to him saying they would rather he pass on it.

Sometimes you want to please your kids

In the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, Gene Hackman was on a little run of action films. Whether they were straight action pictures, such as "The Package" or "Company Business," or action comedies like "Loose Cannons," there were just a number of years where you could see movie posters featuring Hackman and a gun. There were two people who were not that thrilled with these career choices he was making: Gene Hackman's daughters. It's not that they weren't happy with him making kind of junky movies. What upset them was the level of violence in these movies.

"Unforgiven" is a very violent movie. Of course, it is about the toll of violence on the soul, but it is violent nonetheless. According to "Unforgiven" writer David Webb Peoples, in an interview with the New York Daily News, Gene Hackman nearly passed on the part of Little Bill at the behest of his daughters:

"Things could have been different. Gene's daughters didn't like all the violent movies he was doing ... He was at a stage in his career where his family was more important than his work ... And God bless Gene; he listened to Clint and together they produced something awesome."

Thankfully sense prevailed, and he agreed to do the movie. If you read that series of events, you may be assuming that his children were, you know, children. Maybe teenagers. No, perplexingly enough, his kids were fully grown when "Unforgiven" was released. His daughters were 30 and 26 years old. Look, I don't want to be rude, but if you are that old, you should be able to understand what your father's work is. Complaining about violence in movies at that age makes you sound a little silly, especially for a movie like "Unforgiven," where the whole point is about how bad violence is. If anything, they should have been happy with the film's message. I hope they came around on it as their father did.

"Unforgiven" not only marked his second Oscar win, but it was Hackman's final nomination before his retirement, which is approaching 20 years now. Here is some alternate history to think about. Imagine Hackman passes on "Unforgiven." He doesn't get that second Oscar. I think the likelihood of him getting a nomination and even winning for "The Royal Tenenbaums" increases exponentially. If the multiverse is real, that's definitely a timeline, right?