Alec Baldwin said he planned on retiring from acting at the “30 Rock” wrap party in 2012. That idea didn’t stick. In the past decade, he has starred in films as diverse as “Blue Jasmine” and “Boss Baby”; this year, he joined Joshua Jackson and Christian Slater in the Peacock TV limited series “Dr. Death” before heading to New Mexico to star in “Rust,” the western that he helped to develop.
For Baldwin, “Rust” offered a chance to show the world another side of his professional persona. He co-wrote and cast himself in the lead role of an aging outlaw who comes to the aid of his grandson, who is about to be hanged for an accidental killing. The weathered outsider is a familiar template for actors of a certain age, but playing an Old West gunslinger was undeniably a departure for the 63-year-old star.
Baldwin won two Emmys and made millions playing the smooth-talking television executive Jack Donaghy on the hit NBC sitcom “30 Rock.” He co-hosted the Oscars in 2010, a few years after earning an Academy Award nomination himself for “The Cooler.” He’s a podcaster, a pitchman, an outspoken activist, a father of seven, a man celebrated for his comic impersonation of Donald Trump on “Saturday Night Live” and a singular career that has spanned five decades.
Singular because in addition to the roles, nominations and, at times, vast social media following, Baldwin has often found himself embroiled in controversies and legal scrapes of his own making. He lost his MSNBC talk show in 2013 after allegedly yelling a gay slur in a confrontation with a photographer. He pleaded guilty to harassment and agreed to take an anger management course two years ago after a dispute over a parking space led to his arrest. He was kicked off an airplane in 2011 because he refused to stop playing Words With Friends before takeoff.
Baldwin is an often combative presence on social media, recently telling one Instagram commenter to “shut the f— up and mind your own business” in response to a query about the birth of his sixth child with his wife, Hilaria, six months after their fifth arrived. (At the time, there had been no confirmation that the couple used a surrogate.) Baldwin has repeatedly deleted and reactivated his Twitter account over the years, complaining that “you can’t do irony in the United States anymore.” And that Trump impersonation that earned him an Emmy award? It also made him a hated figure in far-right circles.
So when Baldwin fatally shot 42-year-old cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in the chest while rehearsing a gunfight scene on a New Mexico movie set last week, he became the public face of a tragedy that has again highlighted his polarizing persona both within the industry and the nation itself. In the immediate aftermath, when photos surfaced showing a distraught Baldwin on the telephone and hunched over outside the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, many offered support. But it didn’t take long for conservatives to mock him on social media.
“When you go online and you see that the internet hates you, you really believe that the whole world hates you, that everyone in the world hates you,” Baldwin told The Times in a 2017 interview, “I completely understand that feeling.”
Two people were handling the gun during the rehearsal that killed Hutchins: armorer Hannah Gutierrez Reed and assistant director Dave Halls. Halls handed the gun to Baldwin, who was told that it was a “cold gun,” meaning that it contained no live ammunition and was safe to handle, according to a Santa Fe County sheriff’s detective’s affidavit. Director Joel Souza was also wounded in the incident. The investigation is ongoing, and the Santa Fe County district attorney said it will probably take weeks, if not months, to “get to the point of charging.”
Six members of the “Rust” film crew walked off the set shortly before the shooting, protesting poor working conditions. Veteran prop master Neal W. Zoromski told The Times that he turned down a job working on “Rust” because the production seemed more interested in saving money than ensuring the crew’s safety. “There were massive red flags,” Zoromski said, issues he believes that Baldwin, as a star and credited producer of the movie, should have noticed and addressed.
“He said, ‘IATSE, I see you, I feel you,’” Zoromski said, referring to an Instagram video Baldwin made recently, supporting the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union when it was threatening a nationwide strike this month. “But Alec, you’re part of the larger problem with the culture of the business right now.”
Longtime camera operator and cinematographer Michael May raised a similar point in a widely shared Facebook post, writing, “If Baldwin wanted the movie done right, he would’ve helped get the right people and taken care of them.”
“I cannot believe that two weeks into that movie, with all the issues that were happening, that Alec Baldwin didn’t know that his crew was not being treated properly, and that his armorer was inexperienced,” May told The Times by phone.
In addition to Baldwin, there were five other credited producers on “Rust.” It is unclear what involvement Baldwin had beyond developing the project. When asked Wednesday if Baldwin would face charges, District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies said, “No one has been ruled out at this point.”
Outside the industry, figures on the far right have used the death of Hutchins, a rising professional, wife and mother of a nine-year-old son, to ridicule Baldwin. The morning following the shooting, Republican U.S. Senate candidate for Ohio and “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance asked Twitter to let Trump back on the platform that had banned him because “we need Alec Baldwin tweets.” Donald Trump Jr. briefly sold T-shirts on his website mocking Baldwin. He later posted on Instagram: “For those who are out there doing the fake sanctimony about leaving Alec Baldwin alone let’s all remember that Alec Baldwin would be the first person pissing on everyone’s grave if the shoes were on the other foot. Screw him!”
“It’s hard to think of another actor who would provoke this kind of response,” film historian Leonard Maltin said. “To react in that manner to a tragic accident … I can’t even begin to understand how people can think that way.”
The day following the shooting, Baldwin posted on his social media accounts that “there are no words to convey my shock and sadness,” adding that he had contacted Hutchins’ husband, offering support. “My heart is broken for her husband, their son, and all who knew and loved Halyna.”
A friend acquainted with Baldwin for a decade, who, like others close to the actor, spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the actor’s circle is “very small, smaller than one might think.” Intimates include his wife of nine years, his five siblings, former agent and current manager Matt DelPiano (also a credited producer on “Rust”) and “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels.
“All my relationships have contracted as my family has grown,” Baldwin said in that 2017 Times interview. At the time, Baldwin and Hilaria had three kids. They now have six children, ranging in age from 8 to a daughter born this year via surrogate. Baldwin fills his Instagram account with pictures of them, usually accompanied by doting captions. (The actor also has a 26-year-old daughter, Ireland, with ex-wife Kim Basinger.)
“It’s a lot of kids,” said another friend. “But he comes from a big family, and I think he enjoys being surrounded by one now. My wish is that he’s finding their love comforting right now.”
The producers of “Rust” announced earlier this week that they were putting the film on “pause” while law enforcement investigates Hutchins’ death. Contrary to reports, a source said Baldwin has not canceled any projects, though it is unclear what plans he had after “Rust.” Earlier this year, ABC passed on picking up a sitcom in which Baldwin, Kelsey Grammer and Alec Mapa played estranged former roommates. The show originally had a straight-to-series order, but the network had a change of heart once the pilot episode was completed. “Modern Family” co-creator Chris Lloyd wrote the pilot with Vali Chandrasekaran and 11-time Emmy winner James Burrows directed.
The untitled sitcom would have returned Baldwin to the format where he has enjoyed the most success, perhaps to his dismay. “I consider my entire movie career a complete failure,” Baldwin told Men’s Journal in 2009. “The goal of movie-making is to star in a film where your performance drives the film, and the film is either a soaring critical or commercial success, and I never had that.”
“He can do a lot of things quite well, and like a lot of actors, he doesn’t want to be limited,” said Maltin, who brought up the 2003 drama that earned Baldwin his one Oscar nomination. “I remember telling him after I saw ‘The Cooler’ that he made a great, sleazy bad guy. And he told me to keep that quiet. He didn’t want to be typecast.”
Not long after, Baldwin landed “30 Rock,” his supposed last acting job. Nearly a decade later, he was still at it, wearing a cowboy hat and boots in a low-budget western that resulted in a devastating tragedy. Where can he go from here?
“I think his talent will be his salvation ultimately,” Maltin said.
Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this story.