Character Witness: Gene Hackman: Harry Caul vs. Popeye Doyle

Gene Hackman

This is Character Witness: One actor, two film roles. You’re the judge and jury, telling us which portrayal was the best. The most memorable. Or iconic. Or simply your favorite.

But before you pass judgment, here’s a few words defending the “character” of each…

The case for Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle

According to The French Connection director William Friedkin, Gene Hackman was not a great fit to portray Eddie Egan, the real-life Popeye Doyle. When out on patrol with Egan preparing for the role, Hackman was repulsed by what he saw on the streets. He also was uneasy using the racist language Egan spouted regularly. So it probably comes as no surprise that Friedkin did not want Hackman for the lead role in the first place. Friedkin “settled” for Hackman only after all his other choices did not pan out—including New York columnist, Jimmy Breslin, who had never acted before! I guess it worked out fine. That year it won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, and you guessed it, Best Actor.

The case for Harry Caul

Gene Hackman wasn’t any more comfortable playing Caul than he was Popeye Doyle. In the DVD commentary for The Conversation, director Francis Ford Coppola said Hackman was a very different person than Caul. Hackman was quite affable while Caul was an awkward loner. To get into character Hackman grew a wimpy mustache, donned dowdy spectacles, and dressed in drab, out-of-date clothes. The role wore on Hackman but the performance it elicited was spot on. Roger Ebert gushed that Caul is “one of the most affecting and tragic characters in the movies.” And, according to Coppola, Hackman considered it one of his favorite performances.


Now that you’ve heard the arguments for both it’s time to render your verdict!