"I guess you could call it retired. I haven't worked for four years now." Gene Hackman, 78, will make no more movies, if Hollywood's gossip columnists are to be believed. Hackman declared this week that he doesn't want to play grandfathers or doddering old men, and says he won't miss movie-making. Audiences, though, are sure to miss him. He lacked the star wattage of Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson, and would probably have remained a character actor, but he brought a craggy intensity to his best roles and seldom, if ever, gave a bad performance.
His crowning moment was in William Friedkin's The French Connection, as Popeye Doyle, the New York detective whose ferocious, testosterone-driven approach to police work made John Thaw in The Sweeney look like PC Dixon. He was every bit as good in the sequel, not least in the scene in which he goes "cold turkey" after being injected with heroin by the villains.
Hackman could do neurosis and vulnerability as well as machismo. Another of his outstanding early performances was as Harry Caul, the professional eavesdropper in Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation. Caul is a buttoned-up, repressed type – the near-antithesis of Popeye Doyle. The critics loved him as the private detective with the messy private life in Night Moves, his second film with Arthur Penn (who had directed him in his breakthrough role in Bonnie and Clyde).
Often, Hackman was asked to play stock types – cowboys, soldiers or cops. As an actor, he was as dependable as the men he portrayed. But when more intriguing opportunities came along, he took them. He was utterly chilling as Little Bill, the sadistic sheriff with no romantic notions about the Old West, in Unforgiven. Nicolas Roeg gave Hackman a chance to play a Howard Hughes-like hero in the underrated Eureka as the Klondike prospector-turned-mogul whose wealth brings tragedy in its wake.
As proven by his recurring role as Lex Luthor in the Superman films, Hackman also knew how to do comic-book villainy. He could convey decency and even idealism – look at his FBI agent investigating racist murders in Alan Parker's Mississippi Burning. He even had some flair for slapstick. His cameo as the blind hermit trying to feed the monster soup was one of the highlights of Young Frankenstein.
Not so long ago, when he starred in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums, it looked as if a new generation of film-makers and audiences would discover him. That, though, hasn't happened. With such worthwhile roles in short supply, he has called it quits.