When Last Week Tonight host John Oliver interrogated Dustin Hoffman in December about sexual misconduct allegations that were made against him, the exchange lasted an excruciating 20 minutes as Hoffman haughtily dismissed the relevance of the questions at a Q&A celebrating the anniversary of Wag the Dog.
Was Oliver surprised by Hoffman’s reaction?
“I was surprised that he showed up in the first place,” Oliver says, speaking to a small room of press promoting the fifth season of Last Week Tonight, which launches Sunday night on HBO.
Oliver’s questioning took place at a Tribeca Film panel celebrating the 20th anniversary of Wag the Dog that happened to take place in the wake of allegations that Hoffman had groped and made inappropriate comments to a 17-year-old intern on the 1985 set of the TV movie Death of a Salesman.
“This is something we’re going to have to talk about because…it’s hanging in the air,” Oliver said, broaching the conversation at the time.
Hoffman was clearly perturbed that the scandal was brought up, telling Oliver, “It’s hanging in the air?” Hoffman said. “From a few things you’ve read, you’ve made an incredible assumption about me,” he noted, adding sarcastically, “You’ve made the case better than anyone else can. I’m guilty.”
The exchange got testier as Oliver refused to let Hoffman’s dismissal of the questioning lie and move on, especially when Hoffman stressed that the allegation was “not reflective of” who he was—an answer that Oliver ruled insufficient.
“It’s ‘not reflective of who I am’—it’s that kind of response to this stuff that pisses me off,” Oliver said. “It is reflective of who you were. If you’ve given no evidence to show it didn’t [happen] then there was a period of time for a while when you were a creeper around women. It feels like a cop-out to say, ‘It wasn’t me.’ Do you understand how that feels like a dismissal?”
Hoffman then accused Oliver of “putting me on display” and blindsiding him with the discussion in the first place.
In the aftermath of the exchange, which quickly went viral, Oliver was alternately celebrated for holding Hoffman’s feet to the fire and criticized for litigating the topic during what was supposed to be a softball celebration of Hoffman’s film work. Alec Baldwin, for one, blasted Oliver on Twitter for allegedly overstepping his bounds as a talk-show host, saying shows like his are “beginning to resemble grand juries.”
In the weeks following the contentious Q&A, five new allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced against Hoffman, including that he had disrobed and exposed himself to a 16-year-old friend of his daughter and that he had masturbated in front of a different girl when she was 15.
So the question now is what led Oliver to pursue the line of questioning in the first place. He’s repeatedly dismissed the idea that he’s a journalist, yet he clearly felt a certain journalistic responsibility when he was given the opportunity to talk with Hoffman.
“That was a case of doing a favor for that charity at the Wag the Dog screening, then feeling like I had to bring it up,” he says. “We just felt like it would be very weird not to bring it up because it was Wag the Dog, a story about burying sexual harassment and the power that comes with that. So it seemed to me very, very weird not to bring it up.”
Oliver’s shock that Hoffman showed up for the Q&A stems from the fact that Hoffman hadn’t done any press in the weeks since the allegations went public, opting to even skip the red carpet when he was honored at the Gotham Film Awards the week prior.
“It felt like he should’ve been aware that he was going to have to answer to this the next time he answered anything,” Oliver says. “I’m staggered if he honestly thought I wouldn’t bring it up. I don’t know how little he would have to think of me to think I wouldn’t bring that up. That’s pretty insulting.”
As for the assumption that, with moments like this Hoffman interview and especially in the context of the investigative segments of his HBO show, Oliver is blurring the line between comedian and journalist, Oliver still takes issue with the idea.
“I don’t see it that way at all. In that narrow example, I think it’s just the first person who was going to have to talk to him was going to have to ask him the first questions about that. So unfortunately that was me,” he says. But if it wasn’t it was going to be someone else.”
But while it’s true that other journalists would have brought it up, there was something remarkable about the way Oliver pressed Hoffman on the issue, refusing to let him get away with dismissing it or with giving pat, meaningless responses. It wouldn’t be a stretch to speculate that most journalists wouldn’t have been as relentless in their follow-ups.
“I don’t know if that’s true,” he says. “I have to believe that most people would have asked him about it. Then the only reason the conversation kept going was because his responses were pretty bad. I want to try to get him to a point of self-reflection, to try to get something out of the conversation at all, but that didn’t happen. I don’t think there was anything particularly remarkable about what I was asking. I think a lot of things were pretty dispiriting about how he was responding.”
So, did Hoffman say anything to him after the event?
“He said, it was a really fun evening!” Oliver jokes, barely capable of keeping a straight face. “No, of course he didn’t.”