John Oliver was uncomfortable grilling Dustin Hoffman and thought most of the audience was against him

John Oliver accepting the award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver at the 
69th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept 17, 2017.
John Oliver accepting the award for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sept 17, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (Washington Post) - John Oliver recalls his moment of #MeToo internet fame from last year. Then he wonders if, deep down, there was a point to it all.

"I guess I don't feel like I accomplished much," Oliver said in an interview with The Washington Post at HBO's offices on a recent weekday morning.

"My goal was to nudge Dustin Hoffman toward self-reflection. And I don't feel I did that at all."

Oliver was remembering that night in early December when he grilled the actor over alleged past sexual misconduct, particularly incidents involving then-intern Anna Graham Hunter on the set of Death Of A Salesman. The host of HBO's Last Week Tonight had been moderating a seemingly innocuous anniversary-screening panel for the Barry Levinson political satire Wag The Dog - Levinson, Robert DeNiro and DeNiro's producing partner Jane Rosenthal were on stage - when he asked Hoffman about the allegations from Hunter and another accuser on the set of The Graduate.

What followed was a nearly half-hour back-and-forth in which Hoffman seemed to walk back an earlier apology while Oliver kept coming after him."(T)here was a period of time for a while when you were a creeper around women," Oliver said to the actor at one point. "It feels like a cop-out to say 'It wasn't who I really am.' The event, and video from it published by The Post, went viral shortly after.

From a distance of several months, Oliver said he still couldn't believe that Hoffman - who told Oliver that night "it's shocking to me you don't see me more clearly" - was unwilling to engage in any soul-searching.

"Many men have followed (the #MeToo movement) and thought about things they've seen in the workplace or things they've said or done in the workplace. If you're not being self-reflective this is just passing you by," Oliver said. "And I was genuinely shocked by the lack of any kind of self-reflection on Hoffman's part."

A spokesperson for Hoffman did not immediately provide a comment for this story.

The #MeToo moment, which has shined a light on alleged misdeeds by powerful men to account, continues to have ripple effects throughout Hollywood and other industries.

The Hoffman instance was rare, though, because the public accounting also came with a fierce public defense."(The allegations against the actor) is obviously a blip in a much larger story," Oliver said.

"But it felt like (the defense of) 'let's forget about what happened on a film set many years ago' was, in microcosm, what has to change."

But Oliver, who tends toward self-deprecation, played down that what he did at the screening."I feel like it was vastly overstated," he said.

"Anyone else would do the same thing if given the first opportunity to talk to him in a public setting," noting that when Hoffman received a lifetime achievement prize at a New York film-award show the previous week he had skipped the red carpet, in turn giving Oliver just such a shot.

The host said he had been convinced in the days leading up to the panel that Hoffman would withdraw, not wanting to subject himself to public questions.

And despite the opportunity, Oliver said he had been deeply uncomfortable being the one to capitalise on it."It was more fun to sit where you were sitting," he said to a reporter who was in the audience that day. "And you had no fun at all."

Oliver continued: "I was very aware the conversation was happening before the movie (screening)," giving him a reason to wrap up quickly so people could watch the film. When it didn't, he felt the audience had turned its ire on him, since many present were presumably fans of the movie and its star. "It felt like there were eyes boring holes in the back of my head," he said.

At the same time, others in the audience welcomed the questioning, including one who called out to Oliver, "Thank you for believing women."

Oliver returned to the air Sunday for a new season of his half-hour show, which mixes commentary, comedy and deep-dive topical segments. It's the first time he's a regular presence on television since Last Week Tonight ended its fourth season in early November, just as the #MeToo cycle was beginning to gather steam. He has been working through the hiatus, he said, overseeing a research team that delves into subjects he can then turn into his long-form packages.

Oliver said he didn't expect #MeToo to be a recurring topic this season given everything else that's happening politically. But he understood how people now associated him with the movement - and that his discussion with Hoffman led to a broad discussion."My goal centered on him," he said. "But I do understand that."

Then he added, "I guess I just went in thinking we'd have an honest conversation. But it was clear there was no common ground. And what kind of conversation is there without that?"