New Dustin Hoffman Accuser Claims Harassment and Physical Violation on Broadway (Guest Column)

Kathryn Rossetter and Dustin Hoffman - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Kathryn Rossetter

Kathryn Rossetter performed eight times a week with the star in 'Death of a Salesman' — but, she writes, a dream job soon became "a horrific, demoralizing and abusive experience at the hands (literally) of one of my acting idols."

On Nov. 1, The Hollywood Reporter published a guest column by writer Anna Graham Hunter in which she alleged that actor Dustin Hoffman groped and sexually harassed her when she was a 17-year-old production assistant on the set of Death of a Salesman TV movie in 1985. In response, Hoffman, now 80, apologized and said the allegations were “not reflective of who I am." Then on Dec. 4, comic John Oliver confronted Hoffman about Hunter’s claims at a film panel, during which Hoffman said, "I still don't know who this woman is. I never met her; if I met her it was in concert with other people." Since THR published Hunter’s account, several other women have approached the publication with similar stories about Hoffman’s conduct at various times and places dating back to the 1970s. One of those women, Kathryn Rossetter, who co-starred with Hoffman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway and in the TV movie, has written the following account of her experience. (She has related this story to numerous people over the years.) As explained in the editor’s note below her story, Hoffman’s representatives declined to comment but have put forth other individuals who worked on Death of a Salesman and did not witness the conduct described in this column….

In 1983, I was an aspiring actress in New York City. I did not have the privilege of going to Yale or Juilliard. I studied privately and pounded the pavement trying to get work. I had little-to-no real experience (other than one show) when I submitted my picture and resume in the hopes of securing an audition for a Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, starring Dustin Hoffman. I had played Maggie in After the Fall, also written by Arthur Miller. Miller had come to see it and was highly complimentary of my work, so I took a chance that he might take notice of my submission.

A miracle! I was being called in to read for Willy Loman’s mistress, "the Woman In Boston." I was much too young but felt the opportunity alone was the reward so I prepared and went. To my surprise, Dustin was reading with everyone. I was the last actress to read. He was silly and fun, and we did the scene and I laughed and he went crazy. “I love that laugh. I want her, I want her!” I couldn’t believe my ears. The director felt I was far too young and wanted another actress. Final callbacks were four days later. Dustin told me to get a wig and age makeup and to look older when I came back. The night before my final audition, he called me and said he and his makeup artist were coming to my apartment to get me ready. I was astounded. It was a little bizarre. She stuffed towels into a body stocking so I would look fatter, did my wig and aged me. Frankly, I looked like Tootsie. Thus, I went to the callback the next day.

After my turn, I was released. A half-hour later I got a call saying I needed to hurry back to the theater. I did, wig in hand. All the other actresses were gone. I had to read again. They openly argued about me in front of me. They made me take off my dress so the producer and director could see me stuffed with towels in my body stocking. Then there was another hushed meeting of the men and they offered me the job — if I would gain 12 pounds. I was dumbstruck. I was going to be on Broadway in one of the most iconic revivals of the time. Dustin took me to his home for dinner to meet his wife and called my mother to tell her I was going to be on Broadway. The whole experience was overwhelming. He was my hero.

Three days later, during the first week of rehearsals, he took me to lunch. Walking back to rehearsal, he said he had to stop by his hotel room to pick up something he forgot. I asked, "Why a hotel room?" He only lived a little over a mile away. He said so he could take naps at lunch, if needed, and when they were working on scenes he wasn’t in he could go there and relax and study his lines.

When we stepped into the room, he jumped on the bed and said, "Give me a back rub." He pulled off his shirt. I didn’t know what to do. I said we had to be back at rehearsal in 15 minutes. He said, "Just a quickie." I was a nervous wreck, but sat on the bed and gave a very lame rub. The maid walked in and I almost fainted. He laughed. As we prepared to leave, he looked at me and said, “Now we have our 'hotel room.'” Ah, I thought — Method Acting! I was his mistress and our scenes were set in a hotel room and Biff walks in. He told me to return to rehearsal a few minutes after he did and left me there.

That was the beginning of what was to become a horrific, demoralizing and abusive experience at the hands (literally) of one of my acting idols.

Since they loved my laugh, it was decided that I would stand in the wings on stage left at a mic and laugh on cue in a memory scene being played out on the stage. My laugh had to be choreographed and timed. That scene led directly into the scene in the second act with Dustin and me in the hotel room and Biff walking in on us. My costume was a vintage slip, no bra, garter belt and stockings. The wing space was limited, so directly behind me was a chair where Dustin would sit, with his dresser in attendance, to take water and a short rest before our final scene together. 

One night in Chicago, I felt his hand up under my slip on the inside of my thighs. I was completely surprised and tried to bat him away while watching the stage for my cues. After the show he was busy with the producer and director so I had no access to him to address it. It then happened almost every show. Six to eight shows a week. I couldn’t speak to him in the moment because I was on a live mic. He kept it up and got more and more aggressive. One night he actually started to stick his fingers inside me. Night after night I went home and cried. I withdrew and got depressed and did not have any good interpersonal relationships with the cast. How could the same man who fought to get me the job, who complimented my work, who essentially launched my career, who gave me the benefit of his wisdom as an actor, how could he also be this sexual power abuser? Was I doing something? Was it my fault?

The groping continued. After the shows at parties, whenever he had a picture taken with me, he would put his arm around my rib cage and then grab my breast just before they snapped the picture and then remove it. He was very skilled at dropping his hand just as the picture snapped to avoid it being recorded. But it was pre-digital. You didn’t know what was there until they were developed. Only by luck do I have one such picture — where the camera caught him in the act. A picture I had taken with hopes of sending it to my family. A millisecond in time. There I am — big smile and my arm moving toward his with the intention to push it away. But caught as it is, it seems I’m complicit with the gesture. I was not. Not ever.

Everyone around always laughed when he did this. Does that make him just a jokester? Or is he extremely smart choosing when and how to pursue his actions? Everyone standing around laughing worked for him. He gave us gifts, paid for parties. Bait and switch.

I have a quick wit and my humor is my first line of defense. It’s how I survive. I tried everything to get him to stop. I tried to laugh it off, smack him and say witty, pointed things. I begged him nicely with tears in my eyes to please stop it. To no avail.

His dresser came to me during the show one night. Dustin wanted to see me in an offstage dressing room where he rested while the scene in the kitchen with mom and the boys took place. I thought he wanted to give me a note on our first scene. But he wanted me to rub his feet. Get on my knees and rub his feet. I froze. I gave a little foot rub and ran out. His dresser would then continue to come get me whenever Dustin felt like it.  Whenever possible, I hid and tried not to be found. But the boss was relentless. Dustin would whisper, “higher, higher,” trying to get me to move up his pants legs toward his genitals. I didn’t do it. I would stop at his calves. I understand how women say they just go inside themselves to another place as a form of protection, to distance themselves from the abuse. I felt trapped. We were just a few feet from the stage and I couldn’t say anything for fear it would be heard on stage or in the audience. His dresser stood guard outside the door.

Then one night I was in my position at the mic preparing for my laughing scene. Dustin arrived and took his seat behind me. There was an unusual number of the crew backstage that night — men who were not needed until intermission or the end of the show. Dustin started his grope. I started my batting him away and laughing on cue. Suddenly he grabs the bottom of my slip and pulls it up over my head, exposing my breasts and body to the crew and covering my face. I missed one of my laugh cues. Dustin had spread the word to the crew to come backstage at that time for a surprise. What a jokester. Mr. Fun. It was sickening.

After the show, one of the actors in the stage scene screamed at me and accused me of being totally unprofessional because I missed my cue. I tried to tell him what happened and he said it was my fault and walked away.

When at last I found an opportunity, I pushed Dustin up against the wall screaming, "Fuck you! How would you like it if someone did that to you before you walked out on stage every night, Mr. Method Actor? Leave me alone!" He did... for three days. And then it was back to groping as usual.

By the time we got to the Kennedy Center, I considered reporting him to Actors Equity. But I was cautioned by some respected theatre professionals that if I did, I would probably lose my job and, because he was such a powerful star, any hope of a career. It was Dustin's playpen. He controlled the purse strings. I now knew I was alone and didn’t know what to do to survive.

I returned to acting by day and crying by night. I hardened. The play closed. We reunited to film the television movie a month later. My work shot out in three days so I had no knowledge of his treatment of interns or any other women. Nothing I hear surprises me. My experience filming was fine. I loved working with director Volker Schlondorff. (I was horrified and saddened when I saw his defense of Dustin. He uses his public forum to discredit a woman — a girl at the time — and discuss something without any of the facts. Disrespectful to everyone involved. Seems like Dustin is Teflon.)

In the fall of 1985, we screened the film. I was very proud of my work and secretly sighed with relief that I would never see anyone involved in this project again. As Dustin was leaving, a photographer stopped him and asked for a picture with me and another actress from the film. He stood between us and put his arms around our rib cages. On cue, he grabbed our breasts. Without thinking, a knee-jerk response built up over two years, I grabbed his crotch. How would he like some of his own medicine? In that moment I understood how women abused for many years by husbands or boyfriends will pick up a gun or a knife and suddenly attack back. I also knew I had snapped and what I had done was awful. I was terrified and humiliated. My pathetic attempt at fighting back could have horrible repercussions. After all, I was not a jokester, or famous or powerful. I went home and cried for hours.

The dust settled and I did another show with wonderful actors who were healthy and professional. Three months after the party I was in a restaurant with fellow actors when another friend came racing in with a Playboy magazine. There in the back was a picture of me and Dustin and the other actress and I am apparently, gleefully grabbing his genitals. Yes, the millisecond had caught the act. But it hadn’t captured the story. The caption was to indicate how fun-loving we serious theater people are. And it read, “Reviving a dead Salesman." All my friends could say was, "Oh my God, your career is over." How ironic. Abused women who fight back usually go to jail.

The next day I got a call from my mother in Florida. “Kathy, what are you doing in Playboy?” “Mom, what are you doing reading it?” Someone in her bridge club had brought it to her. I had never said a word to my family about the abuse. My mother was a very, very reserved, proper woman. I felt sick. I told her a condensed version of the story. After what seemed like an interminable pause, she said, “Good for you. But don’t tell your father." She died four years later. My father is 91 and neither he nor my three brothers know this story.

I wrote a one-woman show in the early 2000s looking at themes from my life and my relationship with my mother. I included the story about the Playboy picture because it was hugely relevant to my show and my life. I was presenting readings of my piece around New York as I developed it and it was getting a very good response.

Two days after a reading I got a call from my agent that Dustin’s office had heard of a reading of a film script I had written and were very interested in seeing it. My agent was excited. I paused. Then it dawned on me. Did he want to see the script so his lawyers could issue an injunction? Sue me? Who knows what. All those years later, was he still manipulating his power? I said, "Tell them I have no film" (as indeed I didn’t). I stopped working on my show. So he got what he wanted.

I’ve always wondered if he prevented other women from coming forward through similar intimidation. After all, I have no money and no power.

Now it’s 2017. Harvey has opened a floodgate. But as I write this, Dustin still seems immune. 

It was a long time ago. This is not the red badge of courage I have worn for 32 years. I buried it deep. I am a tough dame... now. I continue to read the accolades pouring forth for him: Generous to a fault, kind, best man to work with. Women are overly sensitive to dirty jokes. Toughen up, ladies, etc. There is no denying I learned an enormous amount from him about acting. He was generous in the many presents he gave us and the many parties he threw. He can do all that and still be a man who manipulates, abuses his power and is a pig to women. They are not mutually exclusive.

My issue isn’t what he said, it’s what he did. Along with the nightly sexual harassment, he eroded my confidence, my dignity. He humiliated and demeaned me. He robbed me of my joy in the experience and he left dirty fingerprints on my soul.

I guess those were lessons, too.

Editor’s note: When asked for a denial or a comment on Rossetter’s claims, Hoffman’s representatives declined to offer one. But his attorneys put THR in touch with several other people who worked on Death of a Salesman, did not recall witnessing any of the conduct described by Rossetter and questioned her account. Those people include Hoffman’s brother-in-law Lee Gottsegen, actresses Anne McIntosh, Debra Mooney and Linda Hogan, actors Michael Quinlan and Andrew Bloch, and production stage manager Tom Kelly. “It just doesn’t ring true,” says Kelly. “Given my position, it’s insulting to say this kind of activity would go on to the extent of sexual violation.”