Filmmaker Robert Greenwald “Heavily Into Production” On Documentary About Abbie Hoffman, Activist And Counterculture Icon

Director Robert Greenwald
Courtesy of Matthew Carey

EXCLUSIVE: It’s been more than 40 years, but filmmaker Robert Greenwald remembers the call that came in from a man on the run. The caller, one of America’s most famous fugitives, used an assumed name.

“Robert, it’s Barry,” the man said in a gravelly voice. It wasn’t long before Greenwald discerned he was speaking with Abbie Hoffman, the “radical” leftist whose conviction in the celebrated Chicago Seven trial had been vacated. But a pending drug charge had prompted Hoffman to go on the lam.

“He would never say ‘Abbie’ [on the phone] because he was underground and assumed all the phones were tapped,” Greenwald recalls. “But I figured out pretty quickly that ‘Barry’ was Abbie.”

Abbie Hoffman in 1969
Abbie Hoffman in October 1969 AP Photo/Harvey Georges

After that initial call Greenwald and Hoffman got to know each other and met up on occasion, in less than clandestine circumstances. Sometimes the setting was Venice Beach, not in a darkened café, but out in the sunshine, on the sand.

“He did come and play volleyball. It was a semi-famous volleyball game in Venice with different people who were progressive,” Greenwald tells Deadline. “Anita [Hoffman’s wife], Lenny Weinglass, the lawyer, and several people.”

Greenwald, the director of more than two dozen fiction and nonfiction films, has set to work on a documentary about Hoffman, the iconic counterculture figure who took his own life in 1989.

“We’re heavily into production,” Greenwald notes, speaking with Deadline at the offices of his company, Brave New Films, in Culver City. “The name of the film is I Am Abbie Hoffman, because we’re going to basically have him tell his story because he wouldn’t trust anybody else to do it.”

Greenwald can draw from voluminous archival sources for his film on Hoffman, co-founder of the Youth International Party (aka the Yippies) and key member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Abbie Hoffman with reporters in 1969
Abbie Hoffman with reporters in Chicago, Nov. 8, 1969 AP Photo

“We’ve gotten access to libraries–to the Brandeis Library that has a lot of his stuff,” Greenwald says. “We have an arrangement with them, the University of Connecticut, the University of Texas, and then individual people have these insane, wonderful collections.”

Hoffman represents a documentarian’s dream, in many respects, because whether underground or above ground, he could not resist the spotlight. Some material will come from WBAI and the late radio host Bob Fass, who frequently welcomed Hoffman as a guest.

“Fass recently died and his wife has helped us with so many of the tapes that Bob had because Abbie would do an action and then he’d go on the radio and talk about it instantly,” Greenwald says. “They’re really a goldmine in terms of bringing Abbie to life in a sense and having him be the main force of telling his story.”

Director Aaron Sorkin and Sacha Baron Cohen on set of 'The Trial of the Chicago 7'
Director Aaron Sorkin with actor Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman Niko Tavernise/Netflix

Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning 2020 drama The Trial of the Chicago 7 introduced a new generation to Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger and the others who were prosecuted for allegedly conspiring to incite a riot outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. As that film demonstrated, Hoffman in particular deftly bated the judge presiding over the trial, and turned the proceedings into absurdist theater.

“Just the general awareness that the film brought to many other generations… is exciting from the documentary point of view,” Greenwald observes, “because we don’t have to tell everybody who he is.”

Greenwald cast Vincent D’Onofrio to play Hoffman in his 2000 fictionalized film on Hoffman, Steal This Movie. Sorkin chose British comic actor and provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen to embody Hoffman, a choice Greenwald applauds.

“It’s appropriate that he played Abbie because he’s a genius,” Greenwald comments. “All the interviews I read [showed] his commitment to Abbie and his really wanting to get inside Abbie, inhabit him… and try to make sure Abbie’s contributions were clear.”

Hoffman brought a fervent yet paradoxically humorous approach to activism, including his opposition to the Vietnam War. In a famed 1967 anti-war protest, he and others staged an exorcism outside the headquarters of the Department of Defense, vowing to levitate the star-shaped building.

“We’re going to raise the Pentagon 300 feet in the air,” he pledged. Whether he was serious, satirical, or under the influence of LSD can be debated. It was but one of many impish acts carried out by Hoffman to skewer capitalist society and politics.

“Running a pig [named ‘Pigasus’] for president or, throwing dollars onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange is genius,” Greenwald muses. “He was an equal opportunity jester and a puncturer, appropriately, of so many.”

Director Robert Greenwald
Director Robert Greenwald in his offices in Culver City, Calif. Courtesy of Matthew Carey

Greenwald says he wants Hoffman’s “amazing sense of humor” to come through in the film, as well as something under-appreciated about him.

“Abbie was fundamentally an organizer. He was not somebody who felt, ‘Click your fingers, put up money for a terrible TV ad for a hack politician, and the world will change,’” Greenwald says. “He believed in organizing and that was actually a very serious part to him. He was critical of fellow travelers who were maybe looking for an instant fix… It’s a side of him that we haven’t seen.”

Greenwald’s spacious office is lined with posters from his many films, including 2004’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism and 2005’s Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price. His 2004 documentary Uncovered: The War on Iraq argued President George W. Bush intentionally misled the American people to build a case for invading Iraq. Greenwald’s anti-war views and progressive politics have long been consistent with the thrust of Hoffman’s work.

“When I did the Walmart film, I was constantly saying to the team, ‘This is not about a bad employer,’” Greenwald remembers. “This is about a system based on, “It’s okay to squeeze anybody for another dollar of profit.’”

If Hoffman’s spirit provides the guiding force for the upcoming documentary, there’s also a physical reminder of him in Greenwald’s office, a sort of carrot-topped totem: an Abbie doll dressed in an American flag-style shirt. Hoffman has kept it close by for years.

Abbie Hoffman poster
A poster on Robert Greenwald’s wall announcing a 1989 memorial service for Abbie Hoffman Courtesy of Matthew Carey

“Abbie always had money problems, understandably… At one point, somebody was trying to make money with this doll,” Greenwald explains. “Somebody–I don’t know if they convinced him [to okay the doll]. I’ve heard five different versions–convinced him, didn’t convince them; he agreed, didn’t agree. But there was a doll being sold in order to make money. How much money? Did he ever get any of it? Still not clear. But I just thought it was perfect in terms of his critique of capitalism… I never let go of it.”

There are many more colorful stories of Hoffman that could make it into the film—like going under the knife to disguise his appearance while on the run from authorities (he eventually surrendered himself in 1980 on the drug charge and served four months in jail).

“He had plastic surgery… Several people who were closer to him said they couldn’t tell the difference,” Greenwald laughs. “He was such an amazing combination of the activist but tremendous love of being center stage. You could imagine plastic surgery was a mixed bag for somebody who had this genius, really a genius for getting attention and using it for good, if you believe in progressive causes.”

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