Hackman was born in San Bernardino, California, the son of Eugene Ezra Hackman and Anna Lyda Elizabeth (née Gray). He has one brother, Richard. He has Pennsylvania Dutch (German), English, and Scottish ancestry; his mother was born in Lambton, Ontario. According to a plaque in a city park, he worked for a time as a dog catcher for the local animal shelter. His family moved frequently, finally settling in Danville, Illinois, where they lived in the house of his English-born maternal grandmother, Beatrice. Hackman's father operated the printing press for the Commercial-News, a local paper. As a teenager, Hackman knew Dick Van Dyke, who was friends with his older brother Richard. His parents divorced in 1943 and his father subsequently left the family.
Hackman lived briefly in Storm Lake, Iowa and spent his sophomore year at Storm Lake High School. However, he left home at age 16 and lied about his age to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. He served four and a half years as a field radio operator. He was stationed in China (Qingdao, and later in Shanghai). When the Communist Revolution conquered the mainland in 1949, Hackman was assigned to Hawaii and Japan. Following his discharge, he moved to New York and worked in several jobs. His mother died in 1962 as a result of a fire she accidentally set while smoking.
In 1956, he began pursuing an acting career; he joined the Pasadena Playhouse in California. It was there that he forged a friendship with another aspiring actor, Dustin Hoffman. Already seen as outsiders by their classmates, they were later voted "The Least Likely To Succeed." Determined to prove them wrong, Hackman moved to New York City. A 2004 article in Vanity Fair described how Hackman, Hoffman and Robert Duvall were all struggling California born actors and close friends, sharing apartments in various two-person combinations while living in New York City in the 1960s. To support himself between acting jobs, he was working as a uniformed doorman at a Howard Johnson restaurant in New York when, as bad luck would have it, he ran into a despised Pasadena Playhouse instructor who once told him he was not good enough to be an actor. Reinforcing "The Least Likely To Succeed" vote, the man said to him, "See, Hackman, I told you you wouldn't amount to anything." From then on, Hackman was determined to become the finest actor he possibly could. The three former roommates have since earned 19 Academy Award nominations for acting, with five wins.
Hackman got various bit roles, for example on the TV series Route 66 in 1963, and began performing in several Off-Broadway plays. In 1964, he had an offer to co-star in the play Any Wednesday with actress Sandy Dennis. This opened the door to film work. His first role was in Lilith, with Warren Beatty in the leading role. In 1967, he appeared in an episode of the television series The Invaders entitled The Spores. Another supporting role, Buck Barrow in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, earned him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. In 1968, he appeared in an episode of I Spy, in the role of "Hunter", in the episode "Happy Birthday... Everybody". In 1968, he starred in the CBS Playhouse episode "My Father and My Mother" and the dystopian television film Shadow on the Land. In 1969, he played a ski coach in Downhill Racer and an astronaut in Marooned. Also that year, he played a member of a barnstorming skydiving team that entertained mostly at county fairs: The Gypsy Moths. He nearly accepted the role of Mike Brady for the upcoming TV series, The Brady Bunch, but was advised by his agent to decline in exchange for a more promising role, which he did.
In 1971, he was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award again, this time for 1970's I Never Sang for My Father, working alongside Melvyn Douglas and Estelle Parsons. The next year, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as New York City Detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle in The French Connection, marking his graduation to leading man status.
He followed this with leading roles in the disaster film The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974), which was nominated for several Oscars. That same year, Hackman appeared in what became one of his most famous comedic roles as the blind hermit in Young Frankenstein.
He later appeared as one of Teddy Roosevelt's former Rough Riders in the Western horse-race saga Bite the Bullet (1975), as well as in that year's sequel French Connection II. In 1975 he also appeared in the highly regarded—but little viewed—film Night Moves, receiving a BAFTA nomination for lead actor. He appeared in the star-studded war film A Bridge Too Far (1977), as Polish General Stanisław Sosabowski. Hackman showed a talent for both comedy and the "slow burn" as criminal mastermind Lex Luthor in Superman: The Movie (1978), as he would in its 1980 and 1987 sequels.
By the end of the 1980s, he alternated between leading and supporting roles, earning another Best Actor nomination for Mississippi Burning. He had a memorable part as a Secretary of Defense trying to cover up a homicide in 1987's No Way Out opposite Kevin Costner.
During this decade, he also was in Reds, Under Fire, Hoosiers, Power, Uncommon Valor and Bat*21. A 2008 American Film Institute poll voted Hoosiers the fourth-greatest film of all time in the sports genre.
In 1990, the actor underwent an angioplasty, which kept him from work for a while, although he found time for Narrow Margin—a remake of The Narrow Margin (1952). In 1992, he played the sadistic sheriff "Little" Bill Daggett in the western Unforgiven directed by Clint Eastwood and written by David Webb Peoples which earned him a second Oscar, this time for Best Supporting Actor. The film won Best Picture. In 1993 he appeared in Geronimo: An American Legend as Brigadier General George Crook. He co-starred with Tom Cruise as a corrupt lawyer in The Firm (1993) and appeared in a second John Grisham story in 1996, playing a convict on death row in The Chamber.
In 1995, he played an inept Hollywood producer-director named Harry Zimm in Get Shorty and the villainous fast-draw champion John Herrod in The Quick and the Dead opposite Sharon Stone, Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, as well as submarine Captain Frank Ramsey in the film Crimson Tide with Denzel Washington.
In 1996, he took a comedic turn as conservative Senator Kevin Keeley in The Birdcage with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. He also co-starred with Will Smith in the 1998 film Enemy of the State, where his character was reminiscent of the one from The Conversation.
He played a U.S. president who is responsible for a killing in 1997's Absolute Power, re-teaming with director-star Clint Eastwood.
Hackman starred in the David Mamet crime film Heist, as an aging professional thief of considerable skill who is forced into one final job and the comedy Heartbreakers alongside Sigourney Weaver, Ray Liotta and Jennifer Love Hewitt. He had a small part as Arnold Margolese in Gore Verbinski's The Mexican. He also had a leading role as the head of an eccentric family in the ensemble cast film The Royal Tenenbaums and in yet another Grisham legal drama, Runaway Jury, at long last getting to make a picture with his longtime friend Dustin Hoffman. Hackman's final film to date was Welcome to Mooseport (2004), a comedy with Ray Romano, in which he portrayed a former President of the United States.
In 2003 at the Golden Globes, Hackman was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award for his "outstanding contribution to the entertainment field."
On July 7, 2004, Hackman gave a rare interview to Larry King, in which he announced that he had no future film projects lined up and believed his acting career was over. In 2008, while promoting his third novel, he confirmed that he had retired from acting. When asked during a GQ interview in 2011 if he would ever come out of retirement to do one more film, he said he might consider it "if I could do it in my own house, maybe, without them disturbing anything and just one or two people." In 2016 he narrated the Smithsonian Channel documentary The Unknown Flag Raiser of Iwo Jima.
Together with undersea archaeologist Daniel Lenihan, Hackman has written three historical fiction novels: Wake of the Perdido Star (1999), a sea adventure of the 19th century; Justice for None (2004), a Depression-era tale of murder; and Escape from Andersonville (2008) about a prison escape during the Civil War. His first solo effort, a story of love and revenge set in the Old West titled Payback at Morning Peak, was released in 2011. A police thriller, Pursuit, followed in 2013.
In 2011, he appeared on the Fox Sports Radio show, The Loose Cannons, where he discussed his career and novels with Pat O'Brien, Steve Hartman, and Vic "The Brick" Jacobs.
His first wife was Faye Maltese. They had three children, Christopher Allen, Elizabeth Jean and Leslie Anne Hackman. The couple divorced in 1986 after three decades of marriage. In 1991, he married Betsy Arakawa. They have a home in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Hackman competed in Sports Car Club of America races driving an open wheeled Formula Ford in the late seventies. In 1983, he drove a Dan Gurney Team Toyota in the 24 Hours of Daytona Endurance Race. He also won the Long Beach Grand Prix Celebrity Race.
Hackman is an avid fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and regularly attended Jaguars games as a guest of then-head coach Jack Del Rio. He is friends with Del Rio from Del Rio's playing days at the University of Southern California.
In January 2012, the then-81 year old actor was riding a bicycle in the Florida Keys when he was struck by a car. Although it was at first reported that he had suffered head trauma, he sustained only minor injuries.Children From Their Games by Irwin Shaw at the Morosco Theatre (April 1963)
A Rainy Day in Newark by Howard Teichmann at the Belasco Theatre (October 1963)
Come to the Palace of Sin by Michael Shurtleff at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (1963)
Any Wednesday by Muriel Resnik at the Music Box Theatre and the George Abbott Theatre (1964–1966)
Poor Richard by Jean Kerr with Alan Bates and Shirley Knight at the Helen Hayes Theater (1964–1965)
The Natural Look by Leonora Thuna at the Longacre Theatre (1967)
Fragments and The Basement by Murray Schisgal at the Cherry Lane Theatre (1967)
Death and the Maiden by Ariel Dorfman with Glenn Close and Richard Dreyfuss, directed by Mike Nichols, at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre (1992)
Hackman, Gene, and Daniel Lenihan. Wake of the Perdido Star. New York: Newmarket Press, 1999. ISBN 978-1-557-04398-6
Hackman, Gene, and Daniel Lenihan. Justice for None. New York: St. Martins Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-312-32425-4
Hackman, Gene, and Daniel Lenihan. Escape from Andersonville: A Novel of the Civil War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-312-36373-4
Hackman, Gene. Payback at Morning Peak: A Novel of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc, 2011. ISBN 978-1-451-62356-7
Hackman, Gene. Pursuit. New York: Pocket Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-451-62357-4