When Borat met Abbie: Cohen to portray radical

Chris Bergeron

When Abbie Hoffman wrote "Soon to be a Major Motion Picture," the Worcester, Mass.-bred radical activist could never have imagined he'd be reborn almost 20 years after his death by an English comic chameleon famous for turning "Borat" loose on America.

The Sunday Times of London, The New York Times and several entertainment writers and Web sites have reported director Steven Spielberg has chosen Borat's creator, Sacha Baron Cohen, to play Hoffman in "The Trial of the Chicago 7." It's projected for a 2008 release, 40 years after the riots and trial which divided the nation.

As the news spread, Hoffman's brother, political admirers and skeptical observers of Abbie's antics amid the Chicago riots during the 1968 Democratic convention debated whether Spielberg's casting was inspired or ludicrous.

Several felt Cohen, who starred in the mockumentary "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" relied too much on absurdist humor to ever capture Hoffman's crazy-as-a-fox politics. They disagreed whether the actor, whose anti-Semitic vulgarity as Borat left audiences either roaring or ripping, is the right guy to play Hoffman, often described as the "clown prince" of the radical left in the '60s.

Can an actor famous for inventing fantastic characters like jive-talking Ali G, gay fashionista Bruno and the faux-journalist Borat, who's always looking to "make sexy time," play Hoffman, a complex and conflicted man who urged his generation to make "Revolution for the Hell of It."

Younger brother Jack Hoffman worries Cohen's zany movie persona could obscure his brother's political motives and strategies.

"I'm very concerned with them taking liberties. What happened in Chicago wasn't a Marx brothers comedy. It was scary. You didn't know what would happen next," said the Framingham resident. "Abbie is Abbie, no matter who plays him. There can never be another Abbie on screen."

Three years younger than his brother, Jack Hoffman attended the trial that Abbie and fellow defendant Jerry Rubin often disrupted with politically charged tirades directed at Judge Julius Hoffman. Jack recalled his brother entering the courtroom wearing judicial robes to mock the proceedings. Abbie made an obscene gesture when sworn in as a witness and called the judge "a disgrace to Jews."

Jack Hoffman believes the federal government trumped up charges against Abbie and his co-defendants to silence the antiwar movement, an injustice he believes the Bush administration is repeating.

"I hope Spielberg doesn't think this trial was all hilarity. It was a very serious matter. It was all about stifling dissent," Hoffman said. "It was American injustice at its worse. From the gagging of (defendant) Bobby Seale on down, it was a flagrant miscarriage of justice."

While appreciating Cohen's comedic skills, Hoffman questions how the 6-foot-3-inch Cohen can portray his wiry 5-foot-7-inch brother. "I like Cohen. He's got a ballsy sense of humor like Abbie. But he's almost a foot taller," he said.

Several books revealing Hoffman's self-described "left, progressive" politics and suspicion about big government lay on an end table. They include "Contempt: How the Right is Wronging American Justice" by Catherine Crier, Robert Donovan's "Rights in Conflict" about the Chicago riots, and a thick transcript of the six-month long trial.

After his brother's death in 1989, Jack wrote "Run, Run, Run: The Lives of Abbie Hoffman" with co-author Daniel Simon.

Pop history hasn't been kind to Abbie Hoffman's legacy. In the movie "Forrest Gump," he was portrayed as a political poseur. To digital-age youth, Hoffman seems as distant as Joe Hill and the suffrage movement.

Born Abbott Howard Hoffman in 1936 and raised by first generation Jewish immigrant parents in a blue collar neighborhood, he was a street-wise rebel who was radicalized at Brandeis University. Along with Rubin, he co-founded the Youth International Party, or Yippies, to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam. As the public face of the Chicago Seven along with Rubin, Hoffman was tried for conspiracy to incite a riot, convicted and later acquitted. Following a conviction for dealing cocaine, he spent seven years as a fugitive.

Hoffman resurfaced in 1980 and nine years later, suffering from depression and bipolar disorder, committed suicide by mixing 150 Phenobarbital pills and single-malt Scotch whiskey.

Several people who knew Hoffman from a distance and hold varying opinions about him doubt Cohen can capture his idealism, his role in the "nutty fringe" or his ultimate insignificance.

Holly V. Izard, who organized the 2007 exhibit "To Abbie With Love" at the Worcester Historical Museum, described Cohen as "a very poor choice" to play Hoffman, whom she respects as an idealistic revolutionary.

"(Cohen) is a clown. That man made a stupid movie. Abbie Hoffman deserves better than that," she said. "He might have done clownish things at the trial to make a political point. But Cohen capitalizes on the clownish."

The museum's curator of collections, Izard worries Spielberg's movie will focus on Hoffman's confrontational tactics during the trial, which caused many to lose sight of his "tenacity and commitment" to social change.

"Abbie turned the courtroom into a circus because he was trying to make a spectacle of a trial that shouldn't have occurred," she said. "He had a complex mind and a plan to improve society. Why take a man (like Cohen) who's already played a clown to portray Abbie?"

Like Jack Hoffman, Izard doubts the rangy Cohen can replicate the muscular grace of Hoffman, who wrestled for Brandeis.

Asked to name an actor who could play Hoffman, she suggested Christian Bale who portrays singer Bob Dylan during his Greenwich Village folk singing phase in Todd Haynes' film "I'm Not There."

Izard said she is considering writing Spielberg to express her concerns that a film centered on Cohen as Hoffman "could be a perversion of a very real, very intelligent person."

While retired English Professor Mary Murphy has known Jack Hoffman for more than 30 years, she only knew Abbie as a shadowy presence on Chicago's streets while attending the 1968 Democratic Convention at the invitation of peace candidate Eugene McCarthy.

A Framingham resident who spent most of her teaching career at Framingham State College, she still remembers seeing fires set by protesters burning through the night around Michigan Avenue and Lincoln Park. And she recalled police in riot gear battling protesters.

"I just hope Spielberg doesn't make a mockery of a very peculiar time. There was nothing funny about Chicago in 1968. I think putting (Cohen) in the movie is going to make it a farce," she said.

A longtime Democratic activist, Murphy first met Jack Hoffman when he joined a local Peace Group of McCarthy supporters agitating to end the war.

She believes Abbie's role in "the lunatic fringe" of 1960s politics may have provoked violence that drove middle class voters who harbored doubts about the war into Richard Nixon's camp.

"I think Abbie was an innocent who didn't realize what he was going to do," Murphy said. "I don't think he realized how far he'd gone."

With U.S. soldiers dying today in another unpopular foreign war, Murphy fears an overblown performance by Cohen as Hoffman could discourage younger voters from getting involved in meaningful social change.

"I fear the serious political effort of the '60s might be diminished," she said. "Spielberg and Cohen need to be very careful and not emphasize the antic side of those events. We're a long way from those days and unless you were there you can't have a sense of how frightening it was."

Photographer Stef Leinwohl knows the exact date he crossed paths with Abbie Hoffman, because he remembers police tear gas burning his eyes.

On Aug. 8, 1968, Hoffman and other Yippies were marching down Michigan Avenue when they clashed with police who tear gassed them, he said. "Tear gas burns your eyeballs out of your head. You just go nuts," Leinwohl remembered. "Cops overreacted and pushed protesters through glass windows of a Hay Market restaurant."

A 28-year-old studio photographer who freelanced for an alternative newspaper, Leinwohl photographed Hoffman resting on the pavement beneath an overhead rail line after a running confrontation with police. In his striking photo, Abbie grins as if pleased at the chaos he's provoked.

Lying down beside Hoffman, Leinwohl framed his photo to capture police and National Guardsmen bustling in the background partially obscured by Hoffman's tangled hair.

"Shooting something like that, I was trying to capture the essence of the moment graphically," he recalled with evident pride. "Spielberg has got to see that picture because it captures the drama and awesomeness of everything that was going on." The photo is included in Jack Hoffman's book with the caption "Abbie takes a break from the revolution."

Asked if Cohen was the right choice to portray Hoffman, Leinwohl thought a moment and said with a chuckle, "With the right makeup, Cohen will look like Abbie when Spielberg gets through with him."

Looking back, Leinwohl doubts Yippies took the same risks as his Jewish parents who faced persecution during the McCarthy era because of their involvement in the civil rights movement.

"That whole thing in Chicago was a lot of absurdist theater. Rubin was just a nutty guy. Hoffman seemed more serious. There was nobody very monumental among them," he said. "All of a sudden a lot of bad stuff happened and that was it. That was the end of playing games."


Nov. 30, 1936: Abbott "Abbie" Howard Hoffman born in Worcester

Sept. 13, 1939: Jack Hoffman born in Worcester

1961-1968: Jack Hoffman served in U.S. Army Reserves as a medic

March 26, 1966: Abbie Hoffman led an anti-war protest in Worcester

Aug. 24, 1967: Abbie Hoffman and other Yippies scatter dollar bills at New York Stock Exchange

1968: Jack Hoffman volunteers on Gene McCarthy's presidential campaign and later serves as delegate for Shirley Chisholm

1961-1976: Jack Hoffman works at and eventually manages family business, Worcester Medical Supply

August 1968: Abbie Hoffman and thousands demonstrate at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Hoffman and Yippies "nominate" a pig named Pigasus the Immortal for president

March 1969: Abbie Hoffman and eight others, including Bobby Seale, are indicted for conspiracy to incite a riot. Except for Seale, their convictions were overturned on appeal

1973: Abbie Hoffman is arrested for intent to distribute cocaine. He goes underground for seven years working as an environmental activist under the name Barry Freed.

November 1986: Abbie Hoffman is charged, along with Amy Carter, for trespassing at UMass/Amherst to protest CIA recruiters on campus. He is found not guilty.

April 12, 1989: Abbie Hoffman commits suicide in New Hope, Pa.

1994: Jack Hoffman publishes "Run, Run, Run," a biography of his brother