A remarkably prolific and versatile talent, Gene Hackman was a successful character actor whose uncommon abilities and smart career choices ultimately made him a most unlikely leading man; in the tradition of Spencer Tracy, he excelled as an Everyman, consistently delivering intelligent, natural performances which established him among the most respected and well-liked stars of his era. Born January 30, 1931 in San Bernardino, CA, Hackman joined the Marines at the age of 16, and later served in Korea. After studying journalism at the University of Illinois he pursued a career in television production, but later decided to try his hand at acting, attending a Pasadena drama school with fellow student Dustin Hoffman -- ironically, they were both voted "least likely to succeed." After briefly appearing in the 1961 film Mad Dog Coll, Hackman made his debut off-Broadway in 1963's Children at Their Games, earning a Clarence Derwent award for his supporting performance; Poor Richard followed before he starred in 1964's production of Any Wednesday.
Returning to films, Hackman earned strong notices for his work in 1964's Warren Beatty's Lilith and 1966's Hawaii, but the 1967 World War II tale First to Flight proved disastrous for all involved. At Beatty's request, he co-starred in Bonnie and Clyde, winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and establishing himself as a leading character player. After making a pair of films with Jim Brown (1968's The Split and 1969's Riot), Hackman supported Robert Redford in The Downhill Racer, Burt Lancaster in The Gypsy Moths, and Gregory Peck in Marooned. For 1970's I Never Sang for My Father, he garnered another Academy Award nomination; the following year, Hackman became a star as New York narcotics agent Popeye Doyle, a character rejected by at least seven other actors. He headlined William Friedkin's thriller The French Connection, winning a Best Actor Oscar and spurring the film to Best Picture honors. Upon successfully making the leap from supporting player to lead, he next appeared in the disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure, one of the biggest money-makers of 1972.
After co-starring with Al Pacino in 1973's Scarecrow, Hackman delivered his strongest performance to date as a haunted surveillance expert in Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 classic The Conversation. After tapping his under-utilized comedic skills in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein, he starred in Arthur Penn's grim 1975 thriller Night Moves; the Western Bite the Bullet followed before he agreed to The French Connection II. While remaining the subject of great critical acclaim, Hackman's box office prowess was beginning to slip: 1975's Lucky Lady, 1977's The Domino and March or Die were all costly flops, and although 1978's Superman -- in which he appeared as the villainous Lex Luthor -- was a smash, his career continued to suffer greatly. Apart from the inevitable Superman II, Hackman was absent from screens for several years, and with the exception of a fleeting appearance in Beatty's 1981 epic Reds, most of his early-'80s work -- specifically, the features All Night Long and Eureka -- passed through theaters virtually unnoticed.
Finally, a thankless role as an ill-fated war correspondent in Roger Spottiswode's acclaimed 1983 drama Under Fire brought Hackman's career back to life; the follow-up, the action film Uncommon Valor, was also a hit, and while 1984's Misunderstood stalled, the next year's Twice in a Lifetime was a critical success. By the middle of the decade, Hackman was again as prolific as ever, headlining a pair of 1986 pictures -- the little-seen Power and the sleeper hit Hoosiers -- before returning to the Man of Steel franchise for 1987's Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. No Way Out, in which he co-starred with Kevin Costner, was also a hit. In 1988 Hackman starred in no less than five major releases: Woody Allen's Another Woman, the war drama Bat 21, the comedy Full Moon in Blue Water, the sports tale Split Decisions, and Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning. The last named, a civil-rights drama set in 1964, cast him as an FBI agent investigating the disappearance of a group of political activists; though the film itself was the subject of considerable controversy, Hackman won another Oscar nomination.
During the '90s, Hackman settled comfortably into a rhythm alternating between lead roles (1990's Narrow Margin, 1991's Class Action) and high-profile supporting performances (1990's Postcards from the Edge, 1993's The Firm). In 1992, he joined director and star Clint Eastwood in the cast of the revisionist Western Unforgiven, appearing as a small-town sheriff corrupted by his own desires for justice; the role won Hackman a Best Supporting Academy Award. The performance helped land him in another pair of idiosyncratic Western tales, Wyatt Earp and The Quick and the Dead; in 1995, he also co-starred in two of the year's biggest hits, the submarine adventure Crimson Tide and the Hollywood satire Get Shorty. Three more big-budget productions, The Birdcage, The Chamber, and Extreme Measures, followed in 1996, and a year later, Hackman portrayed the President of the United States in Eastwood's Absolute Power.