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Why Gene Hackman's "Royal Tenenbaums" Co-Stars Were "Terrified" of Him

The now-retired actor also reportedly berated director Wes Anderson on set.

After the breakout success of his second film, the 1998 comedy Rushmore, director Wes Anderson was determined to up his game, crafting a sprawling family drama about an unusual New York City family filled with characters as emotionally stunted as they are intellectually gifted. And for the patriarch of this eccentric bunch, he had his heart set on one actor: Gene Hackman.

The now-94-year-old actor is known for moody on-set behavior in a career marked by demanding and often stern roles, and working with Hackman proved to be a challenge for his co-stars. More than a decade after filming, some of them opened up about the experience during the New York Film Festival in 2011. Read on to learn why the cast were "terrified" of their onscreen father and felt they had to defend Anderson from him.

RELATED: This Is Why You Never Hear From Gene Hackman Anymore.

Hackman was angry Anderson wrote the role for him.

Gene Hackman in 2001

Anderson had Hackman in mind as he crafted the part of chipper-ly dysfunctional patriarch Royal Tenenbaum.

"It was written for him against his wishes," the filmmaker told The Wes Anderson Collection author Matt Zoller Seitz in an excerpt shared by Vulture in 2013. When Anderson first reached out to offer the French Connection star the role, he passed.

"There was no money," the Asteroid City director said, explaining that the actors were paid scale. When Hackman finally took a meeting with him, Anderson learned he also found the writer and director presumptuous for writing the role with him in mind, telling him, "I don't like it when people write for me, because you don't know me, and I don't want what you think is me."

However, after more than a year of lobbying, Anderson finally got Hackman to budge.

"He was sort of forced to do the movie," Anderson admitted during the NYFF 10th anniversary screening, according to The Hollywood Reporter. "I just kept bothering him. I wore him down. I don't even have that much access to him, so I don't know how I went about that, but eventually he just caved."

RELATED: Joel McHale Says He Dislocated Chevy Chase's Shoulder in an On-Set Fight.

His co-stars found him scary.

Hackman reportedly proved to be a challenge even after he was wrangled to set, however. Anjelica Huston, who played Royal's wife Etheline Tenenbaum, said she found him scary, describing her trepidation over a scene where the characters fought and Etheline was scripted to slap Royal.

"I was particularly terrified because I could tell he wasn't in a very good mood," she recounted at the film festival, per THR. "In rehearsal, I think I slapped his lapel, and then we went ahead and shot it, and I hit him a really good one. I saw the imprint of my hand on his cheek and I thought, he's going to kill me."

Bill Murray, who played Tenenbaum's son-in-law, neurologist Raleigh St. Clair, turned to humor to describe the mood on set amid supposed threats from the actor. "I'd hear these stories, like, 'Gene threatened to kill me today,'" he recalled. "'He can't kill you, you're in a union.' 'Gene threatened to take all of us and set fire to us.' 'It's a union shoot, it's New York, he can't set fire to you.'…"

However, Gwyneth Paltrow, who played Margot Tenenbaum, was quick to defend her onscreen father's reputation. "I loved working with him," she said. "I loved being in the same scenes as him. He was kind of a bear of a guy, but I also found something very sweet and sad in there. I liked him a lot. I think he's one of the greatest actors who ever lived. To be in his presence and watch him do his thing. It's like—you know, you're Gene Hackman, you can be in a bad [expletive] mood."

He told Anderson to "act like a man."

Wes Anderson in 2023
Dominique Charriau/WireImage

If Hackman inspired fear in some of those who acted alongside him, he apparently saved his worst behavior for the director who had once hounded him to appear in his film.

"He told you to pull up your pants and act like a man," Huston reminded Anderson during the panel. And according to IndieWire's account of a separate 10th anniversary reunion for the film, Hackman would insult the director on set, even referring to him by a harsh expletive.

The actors would speak up for him, Anderson admitted. "[Huston, Paltrow, and Murray] did defend me…at various times, but that's making it sound bad," he said, later adding, "I kind of feel, through my own fault, we kind of made Gene look bad."

RELATED: Brad Pitt Was "Volatile" on "Legends of the Fall" Set, Director Says.

Hackman did not keep in touch with his movie family.

Gene Hackman in 2005
Evan Agostini/Getty Images

The film would go on to become Hackman's most acclaimed performance since his Oscar-winning turn in 1992's Unforgiven, but he would hardly celebrate it. Although he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for the performance, he sat the ceremony out. A decade later, Hackman was likewise absent from the retrospective and did not participate in any related events. (He is now retired; his last movie was 2004's Welcome to Mooseport and his last overall credit was narrating two documentaries in 2017.)

"I don't know that we've heard from or seen Gene since this movie," Huston told the crowd, according to THR.

Despite everything, Anderson shared that he was grateful for Hackman's involvement in the picture.

"[Hackman] was one of the things that pulled everybody into this movie," he said during the reunion, according to IndieWire. "Anytime we are together and talk about the movie, we always talk about him. He's a huge force and I really enjoyed working with him. Even though he was very challenging with me, it was very exciting seeing him launch into these scenes."

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more
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