Dustin Hoffman stars in a new TV series about horseracing, Luck, which hopes to prove that it's not just youth and good looks that can pull in the punters. Edward Helmore reports.
A quarter of a century after his only previous appearance on the small screen, Dustin Hoffman returns to TV playing a cool, criminally minded gambler in a new HBO drama about the thoroughbred racing business at California's art deco Santa Anita Park.
HBO executives are not the only ones hoping Luck is a wager that pays out: the success of the series would help to challenge the argument that audiences will only embrace youth and beauty. Other long-in-the-tooth actors cast in the show include Nick Nolte, 70, playing a trainer known simply as the "The Old Man", Michael Gambon, 71, and Dennis Farina, 67, who starred in director Michael Mann's 80s series Crime Story.
Whatever the odds, Mann clearly believes age is no hindrance, and indeed may be a dramatic advantage in settings that require the weight of character and time to present effectively.
Mann, best known for hits like Miami Vice and the movie Heat, has not restricted himself to actors in Hoffman's age group for the project. But it's Hoffman, 74, who will drive Luck to a finishing-line win or otherwise. The star of The Graduate and Midnight Cowboy hasn't accepted a TV role since playing Willy Loman in a 1985 adaptation of Death of a Salesman.
In search of the cultural edge, Hoffman plays Chester "Ace" Bernstein, a cool-headed gambler out for revenge against those who set him up for a three-year stretch inside, but also as vulnerable to the frailties of age and in fear of the onset of dementia.
Critics who reviewed the pilot on US television late last year described Luck as "a beautiful hour of television" and as "an entrancing mixture of beautiful horses, stumble-bum gamblers, exciting races, and a tightly controlled yet open, emotional performance by Hoffman".
Critics have also welcomed Hoffman's return to a character role, after his recent splashing about in comedic waters with the Fokkers and Kung Fu Panda films.
Tipping the odds toward making Luck a winner, the series was written by David Milch, the writer behind Hill Street Blues and Deadwood.
Luck is nothing if not closely observed: Milch is a horse-racing aficionado who knows the sport both as a winner (he's an owner with two Breeder's Cup winners to his name) and as a loser - he counts gambling as among his compulsions.
The US magazine Entertainment Weekly says Milch's love of interconnected groups of owners and trainers, winners and losers, schemers, compulsive railbirds and romantics is "perfect" for a drama set at a racetrack.
The short-burst intensity of racing, coupled with the slow-paced plotting of characters like Bernstein who plans to take control of the track to turn it into a slot-machine casino - a fate facing several historic tracks across the US, including New York's Belmont - appears ideal for an HBO character drama.
But beyond bringing the richly drawn world of racetrack characters and thoroughbred bloodlines to the screen, racing authorities are quietly hoping the series may draw new interest in racing itself, which has suffered decades of declining attendances and purses.
Officials at Santa Anita Park, situated under the shadow of the San Gabriel mountains in Arcadia, outside Los Angeles, say they hope the exposure will bring a larger attendance to the winter and spring meets.
"A lot of it is about the horse-racing game itself," spokesman Pete Siberell told the LA Times.
"It's deep and it challenges you to catch up.
"We're hoping it will get people interested in the game, the beauty of horse racing, and also want to see Santa Anita for themselves."
Who: Dustin Hoffman
When and where: SoHo, Mondays 8.30pm from February 13. Encores Sundays 9.30pm from February 19
- TimeOut / Observer