Jewish Journal

Abbie Hoffman’s America

by Naomi Pfefferman

Posted on Aug. 10, 2000 at 8:00 pm

Vincent D'Onofrio plays Abbie Hoffman in "Steal this Movie"

Vincent D'Onofrio plays Abbie Hoffman in "Steal this Movie"

In the late 1970s, Robert Greenwald met a vibrant neighbor named Anita at a volleyball game near his home in Venice Beach.

That neighbor was Anita Hoffman, wife of 1960s counterculture hero Abbie Hoffman, a fugitive since his arrest on cocaine charges in 1974.

The two '60s veterans became friends, hosting low-key barbecues for their children, says the 50-year-old producer-director who has just made a film about Abbie called "Steal This Movie!"Greenwald remembered the Hoffmans and their guerrilla-theater tactics from the '60s: Abbie flinging dollar bills onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange; and nominating a pig for president during the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Anita found him simpatico.

So it was not long before the budding TV director began to receive cryptic, insistent telephone calls from a man who called himself Barry Freed, actually Abbie on the lam. The calls erratically continued over the next two years as Greenwald forwarded the fugitive limited amounts of cash. When the filmmaker finally met Abbie in the back room of a Hollywood Moroccan restaurant in 1980, he found Hoffman boisterously holding court with his wife, his mistress and a large entourage. It was nine years before Hoffman, who suffered from bipolar disorder, would commit suicide at age 52 via a massive overdose of Phenobarbital.

Greenwald, like Hoffman, felt the connection early on between his Jewishness and his commitment to social action. His grandfather, a Russian immigrant, was an organizer for the barber's union, and young Robert often accompanied his father and grandfather on Saturdays to hear the labor movement speeches in New York's Union Square. Greenwald went on to make a number of socially-relevant TV movies, including "Forgotten Prisoners: The Amnesty Files" and "The Burning Bed," starring Farrah Fawcett. Hoffman's Jewishness prompted him to want to change the world, perhaps for a different reason. It was his encounter with anti-Semitism while growing up in Worcester, Mass., that led him to vow to fight injustice, initially by joining the first wave of Northern civil rights workers to arrive in the South.

When Abbie was around 11, Greenwald notes, his father tried to check the family into a motel; the sign outside said "vacant." "But when the clerk heard the name, 'Hoffman,' he insisted the motel was full," Greenwald says. "Abbie was just a kid, but he knew right away that that was anti-Semitism. His father never made a stink about it, but Abbie was infuriated. An activist was born.

"Steal This Movie!" began, about five years ago, when Greenwald was surprised to learn that his two grown daughters enjoyed the music of the '60s but knew absolutely nothing about the politics. A movie was in order, he decided, and what better tourguide of the '60s than Abbie?Greenwald tracked down Anita, who was living in Petaluma, Calif., only to find that she was dubious about a film.

Even after she relented, Vincent D'Onofrio ("Men in Black"), who plays Abbie in the film, says the actors were nervous the week Anita came to visit the set in Toronto in 1998. Only Greenwald knew she was dying of cancer; she had previously telephoned him with the news, urging him to finish the film before she died.D'Onofrio was anxious for another reason: "I was playing the man that Anita had been in love with," says the actor, who early in his career portrayed a homicidal Vietnam soldier in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket." To make sure he "got" Abbie, he ran archival footage of Hoffman all day long in his trailer. D'Onofrio recalls another visitor to the set, California State Senator Tom Hayden, a member of the Chicago Seven, who arrived to watch his son, Troy Garity, portray him in the film. During a 1 a.m. break between shooting scenes of the 1968 Democratic Convention riots, Hayden stood on a flight of steps, surrounded by prop tanks and police cars, and gave a rousing speech about the '60s and its relevance today. "I couldn't take my eyes off him," D'Onofrio recalls. "We all gave him a standing ovation."

Garity, the son of Hayden and actress Jane Fonda, said he discovered something unexpected about his father on the set that evening: "The recognition of his vanity," the 26-year-old actor quips. Apparently Garity had looked to his father for approval after a take in which the character of Hayden is hauled away by the police. But his dad only shook his head. "He said, 'They never would have taken me so easily,'" Garity recalls. "I said, 'Hey, man, we'll redeem your honor in the editing room.'"

Anita, for her part, hugged Greenwald before leaving Toronto and stated, "This is the movie Abbie would have wanted.'" She never got to see a cut of the film. In November 1998, she called Greenwald to tell him that the cancer had worsened and that she didn't expect to live much longer. She died Dec. 27, 1998 at the age of 56. The filmmaker, who attended her Los Angeles memorial service, is grateful he was able to fulfill his old friend's last wish. "She told me that one of the most important things she wanted to happen before she died was to know the movie would be completed," he says.

"Steal This Movie!" opens Aug. 18 in Los Angeles.

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