Wendy Riss Gatsiounis was a struggling playwright working a temp job in New York City in 1991 when she got what she hoped would be her big break. Her play “A Darker Purpose” had been given a staged reading at the Public Theater, and she had scheduled a meeting with Dustin Hoffman and “Tootsie” screenwriter Murray Schisgal to discuss adapting it into a feature film for Hoffman to star in. “It was a huge thing,” she told Variety.
But, Riss Gatsiounis said, the two meetings that took place at the Rockefeller Center office of Hoffman’s Punch Productions led to confusion and self-doubt after Hoffman allegedly propositioned her and attempted to persuade her to leave the office and accompany him to a store in a nearby hotel. Riss Gatsiounis was in her 20s; Hoffman was 53.
A spokesperson for Hoffman declined to comment. Schisgal told Variety in a statement: “Dustin Hoffman and I took many meetings with writers and playwrights over many years. I have no recollection of this meeting or of any of the behavior or actions described.”
According to Riss Gatsiounis, the first meeting began with Schisgal asking whether she had a boyfriend or husband. Hoffman cut Schisgal off. “Dustin Hoffman was playfully like, ‘Murray, shut up. Don’t you know you can’t talk to women that way anymore? Times are changing,’” Riss Gatsiounis said.
The tenor of the meeting became more professional. Hoffman and Schisgal asked if Riss Gatsiounis would be willing to rework her pitch for a movie version of “A Darker Purpose” with Hoffman in mind. The play — and Riss Gatsiounis’ original movie pitch — featured a protagonist in his 20s. Riss Gatsiounis agreed and spent the next three weeks on the rewrite.
She then had a second meeting with Hoffman and Schisgal to give them the revised pitch. But she never got to discuss the new idea with them.
“I go in, and this time it’s, like, Dustin Hoffman’s really different,” Riss Gatsiounis said. “He says, ‘Before you start, let me ask you one question, Wendy — have you ever been intimate with a man over 40?’” Flustered, Riss Gatsiounis attempted to laugh off the comment. But Hoffman persisted.
“I’ll never forget — he moves back, he opens his arms, and he says, ‘It would be a whole new body to explore,’” she said. “I’m trying to go back to my pitch, and I’m trying to talk about my play. Then Dustin Hoffman gets up and he says he has to do some clothing shopping at a nearby hotel, and did I want to come along? He’s like, ‘Come on, come to this nearby hotel.’”
Riss Gatsiounis added that Schisgal, who was also present, encouraged her to go with Hoffman.
“I’m just completely flustered,” Riss Gatsiounis said. “I don’t know what to make of this whole thing. And Murray’s like, ‘You can go! It’s okay, go! Go!’”
But Riss Gatsiounis repeatedly declined to go with Hoffman.
“And Dustin Hoffman finally leaves, because I’m saying I don’t want to go to the hotel,” Riss Gatsiounis said. “And then Murray Schisgal says, ‘Look, we’re not really interested in your play, because it’s too film noir-ish.’ And that was it.”
Punch Productions at the time carried a staff of 10-12 people in an office at 75 Rockefeller Center in Manhattan. The late ’80s and early ’90s were a prolific time in Hoffman’s career, in which he appeared in several large studio films including “Rain Man,” “Billy Bathgate,” and “Hook.” In addition, Punch — where Schisgal served as a creative executive — developed several projects in which Hoffman starred, including “Tootsie,” “Death of a Salesman,” “American Buffalo,” and “Moonlight Mile.”
Riss Gatsiounis said that she left the meeting and, “close to tears,” called her agent Mary Meagher from a payphone and recounted the meeting to her. “She said that she didn’t want me to think that it was something I had done,” Riss Gatsiounis said. “She had heard rumors about him for years.”
Meagher died in 2006. Variety spoke with two other writers that Riss Gatsiounis was friends with at the time, both of whom said that Riss Gatsiounis described the second meeting with Hoffman and Schisgal to them shortly after it happened and verified her account of it.
“The whole thing was just a source of torment for me,” Riss Gatsiounis said. “I was just this writer and he had been my hero, and it stayed with me for a long time.” She recalled the self-doubt that she experienced in the “months and months and months” that followed, as she wondered whether she had blown an opportunity to advance her career by rebuffing Hoffman: “It was one voice in my head saying, ‘I was such an idiot. I should have just gone.’ And the other voice in my head saying, ‘Well, clearly he just wasn’t interested [in the play]. Why don’t you just realize he just wasn’t interested?’”
“A Darker Purpose” was staged later that year by the New York theater company Naked Angels in a production starring Fisher Stevens. Riss Gatsiounis went on to write the film adaptation, titled “The Winner,” which was directed by Alex Cox and starred Vincent D’Onofrio. She has since found success as a TV writer, working on A&E’s “The Killing” and the CW’s “Reign.” She is currently a co-executive producer on Season 2 of National Geographic’s “Genius,” which tells the life story of Pablo Picasso.
Riss Gatsiounis said that she chose to speak now about her experience with Hoffman and Schisgal in light of the recent allegations to surface against disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein and others in the entertainment industry, including Hoffman, and to support other alleged victims who have spoken out.
On Wednesday, Anna Graham Hunter, a production assistant on “Death of a Salesman” in 1985, claimed in a guest column in the Hollywood Reporter that Hoffman harassed and assaulted her on set when she was 17 years old.
Hoffman has become the most recent industry heavyweight to be accused of sexual harassment after the New York Times and the New Yorker published exhaustive stories last month detailing decades of abusive behavior by Weinstein — who was subsequently fired from the production company he co-founded, the Weinstein Company.
Since then, Amazon Studios has parted ways with former president Roy Price following a harassment claim against him by a producer on “The Man in the High Castle”; directors James Toback and Brett Ratner have been accused of harassment or misconduct by multiple women; and on Tuesday, Netflix shut down production of “House of Cards” Season 6 after actor Anthony Rapp accused star Kevin Spacey of sexually assaulting him when the “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Rent” star was 14 years old.