The Big Idea Behind TOOTSIE
During the filming of Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Dustin Hoffman, cast as a man who suddenly finds himself playing both mother and father to his young son, began to speculate what it might be like to play a woman on screen. He brought in his good friend, playwright Murray Schisgal, to start developing a story for Hoffman's imagined female persona, Shirley. Some sources credit Schisgal for the first draft of the script and Hoffman for the original concept.
Other sources say the original idea came from writer Don McGuire who, in the mid-70s, wrote a draft of a comedy to be entitled "Paging Donna Darling," later called "Would I Lie to You?" It was the story of a down-and-out actor working in a drag club whose agent lands him a role as a female character on a soap opera. The part of the agent was meant to be played by comedian Buddy Hackett, the actor by George Hamilton, and Dick Richards was set to direct. Other writers, including Robert Kaufman, had a go at this version.
At some point, the Hoffman/Schisgal idea met up with McGuire's and plans moved forward to develop a screenplay with Hoffman in mind. Hal Ashby, the director of Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979), was then lined up to direct, with Richards taking on the producer function.
Comedy writer Larry Gelbart, best known for the TV series M.A.S.H., was brought in to work on the script. According to Gelbart, he met almost daily with Hoffman for a year to discuss plotline and characters. Gelbart found working with Hoffman stimulating, "almost too stimulating. His mind, when talking script, is like a Catherine Wheel - it keeps going round and round, shooting sparks off in all directions." Despite Hoffman's tendency to jump into a new idea before the two had a chance to process the last one, Gelbart said that for the most part, the actor was "fun to be with."
Gelbart said his initial meetings with Ashby did not go well; he felt the director was not on the same wavelength. Ashby was eventually replaced by Sydney Pollack, who also jumped in as co-producer with Richards.
With everyone off on different projects, it was slow going getting the script finished. Hoffman and Pollack's agents arranged for them and Gelbart to hole up in Connecticut to work on it, but Gelbart refused to leave his family. According to the writer, this soured his relationship with the other two, especially Hoffman. When the three did eventually come together in California for extensive script work, Gelbart said Hoffman accused him of creating "a subtext of contempt for his ideas."
Various other writers were brought in to work on the script, even as it was being shot. Some sources say the final version largely bears the stamp of Elaine May, who did not receive credit for her work. She did, however, receive $450,000 for three weeks work. The final cost of the screenplay alone was around $1.5 million.
The film's final title was taken from a childhood game Hoffman's mother used to play with him, throwing him in the air and saying, "How's my tootsie wootsie?"
The writers tailored the script closely to Hoffman's acting style and his reputation for being difficult and demanding, which became the basis for the Michael Dorsey character.
Although the project was designed specifically for Dustin Hoffman, he refused to play the role until he was sure he had passed a screen test as Dorothy because he wanted to be convincing as a woman and not just a parody drag act. He so identified with Dorothy that when asked during the test if she would ever have children, he broke down crying in character and responded, "I think it's a little late in the day for that." Hoffman later told The New York Times, "I felt so terrible I would never have that experience. Nothing like that ever happened to me. I've been acting for nearly 30 years and I've never had a moment like that before in my life."
Pollack hired Jessica Lange for the female lead and Hoffman brought in Bill Murray, who reportedly improvised many of his lines. Hoffman kept at Pollack to take on the role of George, even sending him flowers with a card that read, "Be my agent, Love, Dorothy."
by Rob Nixon