DUSTIN Hoffman won an Oscar for his performance in Kramer vs Kramer, the film that charted a bitter marital breakdown and the fight over the custody of a child.
Now, in an extraordinary echo of the 1979 film, the Hollywood star has been confronted with a custody battle over his own grandchild.
Hoffman refuses to be involved in the row between his adopted daughter Karina, 32, and her estranged husband Simon Birkhead, which has left his embittered son-in-law saying: ‘I wish I had never had anything to do with the family.’ It was once very different for the Yorkshireman who married Karina Hoffman five years ago in New York and was accepted into the actor’s family. He met Karina, the daughter of the actor’s first wife, ballerina Ann Byrne, while they were both working at a New York club organising party events five years ago. After a whirlwind romance Karina discovered after only six weeks that she was pregnant.
They married a week after daughter Bryce’s birth.
But a year ago their marriage foundered when Simon discovered Karina had returned to Europe to meet with a former boyfriend.
The relationship between Simon and Karina is now strained and acrimonious.
They barely speak and meet only at court hearings in Cambridge to arrange visiting rights for Simon to see their five-year-old daughter, who now lives in the Cambridge area with Karina.
Simon’s relationship with Dustin Hoffman has changed, too, and gives an astonishing insight into the life of the enigmatic film star. He says: ‘I’ve tried to speak to Dustin since the court hearing, and I’ve been in touch with his wife, Lisa.
‘She is adamant they want nothing to do with it. They say they do not want to get involved until we have sorted this out, that it is a situation which was created by Karina and me, and they do not want to talk to or see any of us including Bryce until it’s resolved.
‘I have asked Dustin to reason with Karina, because he is her father and my daughter’s grandfather. He told me he had to talk to his psychiatrist about it and then called me back to say the psychiatrist advised against it.
‘As a parent he should take more responsibility. As it is, I have a better relationship with Dustin than Karina does, and she doesn’t like that.’ Karina made the news in April this year when she narrowly escaped being jailed in this country for theft and fraud. She forged cheques worth more than [pounds sterling]5,000 from her employers close family friends of the Hoffmans – to pay off debts.
She was given 160 hours’ community service after cashing seven cheques.
But five years ago the family’s life was filled with joy when Bryce was born at a Manhattan hospital, with both sets of grandparents in the room next door.
‘Dustin was so thrilled, says Simon, who was there for the delivery. ‘He ordered crab cakes for all the staff. remember him doing his W C Fields impression just after the birth and saying, “If Bryce could say something now, she would say, take me back to the time in utero!” ‘ But soon there were problems in the family which, according to Simon, included Karina’s anger at her father that stemmed from her childhood when Hoffman was more interested in making his name in Hollywood than in his young family.
‘It was soon after Bryce’s birth that Dustin decided we should go into family therapy. Karina and I went every week for an hour, over the course of a year, and Dustin went maybe six times to our 50. The whole point was that the psychiatrist created a kind of neutral territory in which all the things which upset us could be aired.
‘But Karina was very, very angry at Dustin. She felt he had abandoned her when she was a child, because she lived with him from the age of two till about
12, then he and her mother Ann divorced very, very acrimoniously, and Ann took Karina and Karina’s half sister Jenna to live with her, and Dustin did not fight for custody of them, he sort of gave up.
‘For the rest of her life she felt he didn’t care about her as much as he did about his four other children with Lisa, his second wife. On one occasion in therapy she really attacked him, accused him of only showing his affection with money.
‘We all went out to dinner afterwards and in front of the whole family Karina went on raging at him. In the end he just said he’d had enough and then Karina walked out.
‘He hardly ever came to the therapy again after that, which was a pity because the only way you really work things out is by working them through.
What he avoided was the crucial issue – his attitude to Karina, and his attitude to money.
‘He paid our bills for two years when we first got married, up to about $50,000 ([pounds sterling]30,000) a year, but he never gave us the cash, or put it in the bank, he just paid the bills. So in a way it kept us like children, and he kept the power.’ Simon now lives near his parents in Harrogate, producing a band called The Self-Medication Society, which has a CD due out in the New Year. He has given up the flat in Fulham, West London, that Dustin Hoffman was helping to pay for.
‘He was a good guy,’ says Simon now. ‘I found him warm and funny and I knew how to chill out with him.
We used to put our feet up and listen to music together. He loved jazz and used to play the piano for a living.
‘All his five homes are very cosy, full of comfortable things, nice but unpretentious, and he collects antique toys. He once used to sell them.
Karina could never really get through to him. She would ring to talk about her life and often couldn’t get past Lisa to speak to Dustin.
‘Karina didn’t even know her blood father, an Austrian diplomat, who left before she was born. Although Dustin adopted her, he could have been a much better father.
‘She always felt left out in the cold, except the last Christmas we spent with the whole family in Maui, in Hawaii. I remember Karina and Dustin dancing together. They danced in harmony, like a couple who really cared for each other, with him twirling her around and swinging her about and afterwards I thought what a pity it isn’t always like that.
‘Dustin would make the kids laugh by going into his various famous roles, particularly the Rain Man, which they all loved. He used to like playing word games with the younger children round the table at meal times, but he never put his arms around Karina.’ Simon also remembers Hoffman’s odd mix of self-deprecation and egoism. One comment in particular struck him: ‘He said to me, “When I was playing Tootsie I thought I was going to be a beautiful woman, and I’ve never been more disappointed when I looked in the mirror and found that, even as a woman, I was still ugly.”
‘Once, when we were sitting on the beach at his house in Malibu, gazing out to sea, with the pool behind us, and drinks in our hands he turned to me and said, “What would your mates in Yorkshire think now, Simon?” And I just laughed, and said, “They’d think it was a stupid question.”
‘He was still very impressed by his own celebrity. He started so poor and sometimes he had to remind himself of that. He told me that when he was young he used to keep his coins in glass jars on top of the piano to make sure that he always had enough for the rent and subway.
‘I think he wanted to impress on his children that they should be careful with money, should appreciate things, but I don’t think he went about it the right way.’ Simon now feels let down by Hoffman and says: ‘He fears it would be too disruptive to his life to get involved in our dispute, even though Bryce is his only grand-
daughter. He is a little man, physically and emotionally – he won’t go through with things to the point where they hurt.
‘He’s let me down, but ultimately what this is all about is Bryce. My daughter had a relationship with him for four-and-a-half years, then all of a sudden he’s not there, which is terrible for a child whose whole world has been turned upside down because her parents have separated.
‘All a child needs in that situation is to know the people who loved her before, love her still. And there is still some stability in her life.’