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 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 in 1964, Hackman earned strong notices for his work in 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, Hackman 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.