There are actors. There are actor's actors. Then there's Gene Hackman.

Hailed as a genius by film critics and actors alike, Hackman's raw, bearish talent prompts even veteran directors to speak in hushed tones."I'm not saying he's the only great American actor," says director and screenwriter Robert Benton, a longtime Hackman admirer. "But there's no better American actor alive today."

Hackman remains the Stealth fighter of American cinema - a muscular powerhouse on celluloid whose skill too often goes undetected by the untrained eye.

"I try to do everything as real as I can," the 68-year-old star says through a thin smile. "I always feel like I never want to get caught acting."

Mission accomplished. Popcorn-munching audiences are apt to overlook him because he makes the final product look so darn easy.

Take, for example, the story of the Tums.

In a dramatic scene in his new film "Twilight" (which opens in Salt Lake theaters Friday), Hackman and Paul Newman portray old friends discussing life over a game of cards. After a bout of bantering, Hackman's character breaks the news that he's been diagnosed with cancer.

Few moviegoers will notice, but Hackman did the entire scene with an antacid in his mouth.

"Gene found out that if you are taking medication for cancer, you're stomach is always upset and you're always chewing on Tums," Benton, who wrote and directed "Twilight," recalls.

"So in the middle of this scene with Paul, he takes out a Tums and starts chewing on it! It's irrelevant, but that's typical Gene."

Hackman smiles at the story, his steel blue eyes hooded and wary.

"I pride myself on being able to do the small things, those behavioral things, that feel good to me and tend to work in drama," he says in his customary throaty, Midwestern growl. "It's not enough to just show up and do the lines."

Looking relaxed in a black turtleneck and gray slacks, Hackman's silver hair is pulled back over a face built around wrinkles and jowls.

With more than 70 movies and two Academy Awards to his credit, the slightly paunchy Hackman has never been a matinee idol. He looks more like the kind of guy you'd find on the checkout line at the local hardware store.

The son of a journeyman pressman, Hackman is a former truck driver and soda jerk who didn't pursue acting until he was well into his 30s. At the Pasadena Playhouse in California, he and another young actor named Dustin Hoffman were voted least likely to succeed, probably because the two misfits spent most of their time imitating Marlon Brando.

Hackman's big break came in 1967, when he nailed his first Oscar nomination and the respect of Warren Beatty as the thuggish Buck in "Bonnie and Clyde." Benton co-wrote the script with Beatty.

But Hackman's most acclaimed role is the surly, rough-and-tumble narcotics cop Popeye Doyle in 1971's "The French Connection." Edgy, gritty and profane, the film was out only a few months before Clint Eastwood unveiled his Dirty Harry.

The role won Hackman his first Oscar and helped launch a new generation of leading men who didn't always do the right thing and who might not even make it through to the credits.

Rarely out of work since - Hackman made 20 films in the 1980s and seems poised to makemore in the '90s - the actor has dabbled in comedy, drama, thrillers and farce.

Dubbed the Everyman for his gifted portrayals of regular Joes in turmoil, Hackman's greatest gift may be his quiet ability to make a seemingly unsympathetic character somehow likable.

Only Hackman could make a Ku Klux Klan leader admirable - as he did in "The Chamber" - and his prissy Lex Luthor in the "Superman" films was perfect over-the-top camp, like having Sir Laurence Olivier do Saturday morning cartoons.

"To watch him work is to watch an enormous battleship come sailing silently into the set," says Benton. "And then, without any fanfare, the guns start to turn around. Then they hit dead-on."

Hackman remains the undisputed master of the slow burn - like his odd heroes of "Mississippi Burning," "No Way Out," "The Firm," "Crimson Tide," "Get Shorty" and "Absolute Power" - each is a study in bottled-up anger and ulcers in the making.

"I suppose I'm suited for that," he says. "I like to find ways for characters to simmer. It's a way to activate things on screen."

Being tagged with the Everyman label, however, isn't always a compliment to an actor who routinely makes even mediocre films better simply by appearing in them.

"One would like to think of oneself as being special, as being artistic or romantic. Not common," Hackman says, sounding slightly hurt. "I mean, Everyman means common in some kind of way. And common doesn't denote any kind of artistic talent or artistic intent. So, in some ways, it sounds to me like a put-down. But I don't think people necessarily mean it that way."

They don't. What they probably mean is that Hackman's mastery of his craft is so complete, he never looks like he's acting: no hamming it up, no chewing scenery. A backhanded compliment?

"Yeah, I think so," Hackman says slowly, almost grudgingly. "I don't think that audiences know how much work goes into a film. But that's not their job. Their job is to come and be entertained."