The drummer—a conga player—had been at it for four nights straight, the last couple with little sleep. A studio engineer had been with him the whole time, feeding tape and pushing buttons while playing a driving percussion track through the overhead speakers. The sound bounced off the cedar-paneled walls of the small studio office. The complex Afro-Cuban rhythms made the drummer’s head spin. He loved this music. It was its own class of intoxicant.
On this day, though, the tempo started to mix with the acid, and something foreign and raw inside him began to boil…ticka, ticka, tacka, thud, tacka, thud. A mind-numbing pain shot through his head, from the back of his neck to the front of his forehead. It felt as if someone was pounding a long nail into his skull.
The recording was over, and the engineer asked for payment before handing over the reel-to-reel tape. Agitated, the drummer returned to the sound room to pack up. His drug brain was whispering things to his fading soul about lack of trust and disrespect. Within minutes he would pick up a gun, take a hostage, and change my family forever.
Sound City studios was only a few years old then, but Neil Young had already recorded there. Fleetwood Mac and Elton John would soon tape there, too. The studio and its storied soundboard would later be the subject of Dave Grohl’s documentary, Sound City. In the ’70s, L.A. recording studios were as ubiquitous—and as crowded—as strip clubs. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to lay down tracks, and demand for studio time was high. If you were financially strapped, like this drummer, you would book the cheapest studio time, from midnight to seven. These overnight gigs usually went to the young engineers—the new guys who needed more experience. On this morning it was a 21-year-old named Gary Brandt.
This last session had been a party. The drummer had invited a few friends from a drum circle he’d joined the day before in a city park. He’d jammed with these guys late into the night. Then, one by one, they’d drifted away, leaving him alone as the sun rose. It was his 28th birthday, though he looked years older. His face was somewhat hidden behind a full beard and long dark hair. He stood on a narrow set of legs with a lean, strong body that appeared taller than its five feet, six inches. He had worn the same outfit for days—army pants, a light-colored cotton shirt, desert boots—the uniform of choice for antiwar radicals of the era. Normally he was an empathetic man. Gracious and fun. Full of good energy. He looked people straight in the eyes. But that good man had been driven out by the demons of excessive drug use, migraine headaches, and chronic sleeplessness. He’d begun to believe the engineer had switched the tapes to trick him into taking someone else’s music. The person pacing back and forth in that hot, tiny studio was now a very dangerous man. He walked with Brandt into the studio office and began to dig through his briefcase. When he found what he was looking for, he slowly pulled it out: a .357 Magnum revolver. His head was pounding, and his blood-red eyes were darting back and forth. In his right hand the gun felt big, cold, heavy—powerful. An overwhelming need for control surged in the drummer as he pointed the gun at Brandt’s head. Then he grabbed the receiver off the black rotary phone on the metal desk and dialed. Someone in the communications division at the Van Nuys Police Station answered after a few rings: “Van Nuys Police. What is your emergency?”
The drummer stammered something about his music being stolen, but the operator hung up on him. When he called back, he was more blunt: “I’ve captured a thief.” With that, and a polite “Hold, please,” he was transferred to the watch commander on duty.
He picked up right away. “Sergeant Gary Barrett,” he said. “Can I help you?”
That cop was my dad. One of two boys from divorced parents in Schenectady, New York, he’d spent his high school years at a strict Christian boarding school. The experience led him to step away from faith and family—and eventually to Hollywood, where he chased women and hung out with actors and writers. One summer he traveled with Jack Kerouac, the Beat icon who would go on to write On the Road. Before joining the Los Angeles Police Department in 1963, my dad parked cars at the Hollywood Bowl. He met my mother during that time. With a high tolerance for pain and an unflappable personality, he was the kind of guy who shaved with a straight razor—a “cop’s cop,” as they used to say. At five feet ten, the officer who carried badge number 11582 had Hollywood good looks: a taut build with thick forearms, dark hair, piercing blue eyes, and that distinctive “cop mustache” below a strong nose. In uniform he was intimidating. Except on our annual family vacations, when he’d relax, he was normally distant and cold around the house, and often angry. Yet I admired him endlessly. As a boy, I believed that anyone needing help should call the police and ask for my dad.
My father’s baritone voice—which had a professional timbre and a cadence like a ’70s anchorman’s—came into the drummer’s burning head like a healing balm. There was just something about it. When the drummer told my father he’d “captured a thief,” he was talking fast, slurring his words: “Let me tell you what’s happenin’ here, man.”
“OK, tell me,” my dad said, as the drummer gave his name—Franklin Edward Hoffman—and his most recent address in Venice.
“OK, I’m writing this down,” my father said as he pressed the red button on a new RadioShack cassette recorder that he’d happened to bring to work that morning. “This is also being recorded, sir, so you can go ahead.”
“Today is my birthday. I’m 28 years old,” Hoffman said. His speech slowed down and dropped low for effect. “And for the first time in my life, [I] feel like I have become a man.”
“Right,” my father said. “OK.” But he sounded unconvinced.
“I’ll cut it short,” Hoffman said. “All I wanna say is…you’re saving a man’s life.”
“Listen, what—are you gonna try and commit suicide or something?” my father asked.
“I am not, sir. This is not a suicide threat. This is a life attempt ! If my Uncle Harry does not walk in…this young man is going to meet his maker!”
Uncle Harry was the brother of the drummer’s late father. He was also the father of Dustin Hoffman, whom the drummer called “Dusty.” Uncle Harry had become Frank Hoffman’s legal guardian, and for a time—maybe six months—Frank had lived with Dustin and his parents. But my father didn’t know any of this.
“Do you have someone there that you are holding captive?” my father asked.
“I have a captive, sir,” Hoffman replied. “He’s on his knees, and he’s with the Lord right now, and he is alive.”
Hearing this, my father stood up fast, sending his chair crashing backward. The noise lifted the heads of a couple of officers in the squad room. Dad swung into action, shouting commands to the officers who’d gathered to listen. “Go get the captain!” he yelled, scribbling the address of Sound City on a yellow notepad and handing it to another officer. Within minutes there were four black-and-whites and six officers surrounding the studio, with more on the way. Two officers had retrieved flak vests and their personal hunting rifles—a .45-caliber Reising and a big-game .30-30—and taken positions inside the studio’s hallway. (In 1971, the LAPD most often used cops with long guns and Vietnam experience as ad hoc SWAT teams.) Through an interior window they could see Hoffman and his hostage just a few feet away. But it was my father, back at the Van Nuys station, who kept the drummer talking.
“Get my Uncle Harry here, officer,” he said. “Otherwise I’ll…kill.” But soon Hoffman seemed to mellow. “You’re helping me out good,” he told my dad. “You sound straight to me, officer. And that’s the way I want to be.”
For almost an hour they discussed music, Vietnam, the Apollo missions, poverty, civil rights, and religion. The drummer had played percussion with the Dillards, a bluegrass band. He’d coproduced another band’s album and managed a third band. His whole life was about music—it had always been there for him. My father felt much the same. As a child, he’d found comfort singing in choirs and playing guitar; as an adult, he loved opera, classical, and folk music. Through the phone line, the cop and the hostage taker found a rhythm. A camaraderie developed between them, and temporarily it served to keep all the bullets in all the guns.
At Sound City a captain set up a perimeter. There were several officers there now, some crouched behind their vehicles, with the doors open for easy radio access, and a couple on a rooftop across the parking lot. Besides the two cops who’d entered the studio hallway outside the little office, there was at least one more resting a shotgun on the hood of his patrol car. A helicopter circled overhead.
Inside the hallway an Officer Johnson positioned himself under the interior window, staying low so the drummer couldn’t see him. He tore a few pages from the back of his ticket book and scribbled a message to the hostage: “Don’t do anything yet.” Johnson held it up to the window at an angle, hoping only the hostage could see it. Moments later he held up another note: “Wait for my signal, then duck behind the desk.”
In 1971, nobody would have questioned the shooting of an armed man holding a hostage. There were no cell phones with video cameras built in, no CNN iReport. Johnson just wanted the hostage out of the line of fire. My father told me later that one or two cops felt they had clean shots and wanted to take the drummer out. But Dad asked them to wait.
Suddenly Hoffman started screaming. “I’ve got four slugs right in my hand, buster,” he said into the phone. “Any tear gas comes in here, you got a dead man on your hands…I want my Uncle Harry…I want to hear some sirens in a big fuckin’ hurry,” he yelled. What could be taking so long? In the background the young engineer could also be heard asking that his captor’s demands be met.
“I hear you—I’ll get you those sirens.” That was my dad: unruffled.
“Here comes one shot,” Hoffman warned. He sounded desperate.
“Don’t do it,” my dad said.
“Listen to me, buster, are you ready? I’m calling you ‘buster’ because I’ve got great respect for you. Here comes a shot.”
“Don’t do it,” my father said. “I’m not ready.”
The crack of the gun exploded over the phone. On instinct, even the cops in the Van Nuys station who were listening on speaker ducked a little. For about ten seconds, and for the first time in hours, the entire squad room was silent. Nobody moved. Then “Shots fired!” echoed across the police radios. The next voice was the drummer’s. “Listen to me, buster,” he said. “I did not shoot this hostage, this beautiful child of God, but I sure hope to Christ there wasn’t a man standing in that filing cabinet.” He had shot a filing cabinet next to the hostage, his bullet tearing through months of old invoices.
At that, my father’s supervisor, Captain Judd, made a decision to send my dad to the scene. My dad broke the news to Hoffman. Before leaving, though, he asked the drummer to make him a promise. “Frank, you promise me you won’t raise the gun?” Hoffman said he would keep his gun “port arms”—the military term for holding a firearm up at the shoulder, pointed at the sky. “Wait until you see what I look like, man,” Hoffman warned. My dad didn’t hesitate: “I think we’ll look like brothers.” Then he handed the phone to his captain and left the building.
Twelve minutes later my dad arrived in a squad car that parked adjacent to Sound City’s front door. The drummer was sitting on the other side of the door, still talking to—and being recorded by—Captain Judd back at the station. Following orders, my dad put on a white helmet and tried to communicate from a distance, using a bullhorn, but he quickly decided it wasn’t conducive to maintaining the rapport that he’d worked so hard to build. The helicopter noise didn’t help. Apparently Hoffman agreed. “Shut that fuckin’ bullhorn up! ” he screamed. With that, my dad tossed the horn and headed for the studio door, which he knew was like paper to a .357-caliber bullet. Everyone in the growing crowd was staring at him now—his fellow cops, the LAPD brass, the news reporters.
Hoffman, meanwhile, was becoming more religious in his rants. Through the mail slot in the door, he asked my father if he would recite the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23. He was beginning to sound like a doped-up strip mall preacher. “Now listen,” he said, “I have done the Lord’s work…I have done the Lord’s work with my music. I have done the Lord’s work with my words.” It was around this time that Hoffman asked my father to sing a hymn with him, and Dad didn’t hesitate. This part wasn’t caught on tape—apparently Judd was changing cassettes—but later I’m pretty sure my father said they sang “Amazing Grace.”
Hoffman acknowledged how brave it was for my dad to come so close, saying he really had “a pair.” “Hey, Barrett, you told me we were going to say the Lord’s Prayer together,” he said. “My finger is two inches away from the trigger guard. I’m kneeling right now. Come by the door, Barrett, and kneel with me. Will you say it with me now?”
A small, shaky hand pushed through the mail slot from the inside. My father reached for it and grabbed hold, gentle but firm. The LSD-using Jewish hippie was going to pray with the conservative cop who’d been raised Christian. Years later my father would tell me that at that moment he prayed the shortest and most powerful prayer he could muster: “Help, Lord.” Then aloud he said, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name”—and Hoffman repeated it. “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done,” Dad said, and Hoffman echoed back, but this time with a twist. “Thy will be done in art,” he said, catching himself. “Wait, take two,” he said, as if it were just another recording session. “That’s a little engineer slang. Let’s start it from the top.” And they began the prayer again.
If there was a Kingdom of God, the officers needed it to show up and restore the drummer’s empathy. They needed it to calm the frightened hostage. Most of all, my dad needed it to keep a .357 Magnum bullet from ripping through the door and into him.
“Give us this day our daily bread…. Forgive us our trespasses…lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” A beat, and Hoffman asked, “Did I say it right?”
Captain Judd replied this time. “Perfectly. I never heard it better.”
Hoffman got off his knees and stood up straight. It was over. “Barrett? I’m comin’ out…hey, Barrett, you ready?”
One by one Hoffman passed his bullets through the mail slot. He tried to pass the gun through, but it wouldn’t fit. “I have the gun with the cylinder out, in my left hand,” he announced, swearing “to Christ” that it was empty. Then he opened the door. “Take my hand, Officer Barrett!” he shouted. My dad grabbed the stock and checked the chamber. By the time five cops stormed the studio office, Hoffman was back on his knees. One cop pulled his skinny arms behind his back and cuffed his wrists. Another grabbed a handful of shirt collar and his belt buckle, lifting him to his feet. Within minutes he was on the way to the Van Nuys station, where he was booked on charges of false imprisonment and assault with a deadly weapon.
Harry Hoffman had come to the scene that day, as the drummer had asked, and had tried to help. So had the drummer’s girlfriend. But only my dad could get Frank Hoffman to release his hostage, Gary Brandt. In the following weeks, Brandt testified at the arraignment but soon left town to avoid a trial. Hoffman was convicted of misdemeanor false imprisonment and weapons charges; he served only a few months in jail.
My father would soon be awarded the city’s highest honor for bravery, the Medal of Valor. The ceremony was at the Hollywood Palladium. My mother, my sister, Michelle, my brother, Sean, and I watched from the audience as Sergeant Gary Barrett and 21 other officers were honored. I was nine years old. Onstage, reading the names of the honorees and briefly describing their heroic acts, was Jack Webb from the TV series Dragnet and Martin Milner of Adam-12 fame. When it was my father’s turn, we watched in awed silence as LAPD Chief Edward Davis draped the medal around his neck. As is customary, my dad raised his hand to salute his superior officer. With well-practiced formality, Davis returned the salute.
Exactly one year after Hoffman took Brandt hostage, my father was at the Van Nuys station when a call came in for him. It was Hoffman. His voice sounded different—settled. He thanked my father for saving his life, for saving the hostage’s life. The call ended abruptly.
A year later Hoffman called again, and once again the conversation ended quickly. It would become a ritual: Every year, at least once, the drummer would check in. My father said he was uncomfortable with the calls, especially when Hoffman would ask personal questions. Dad was good at revealing little. But after a few more years and a few more calls, each longer and more meaningful, it was my mother, Marianne, who said she wanted to know more about Frank Hoffman. There was a reason, she believed, that the two men had crossed paths, and she wanted to know more of Hoffman’s story.
My dad resisted. The reason they’d met, he snapped, was that Hoffman had almost gotten someone killed. “Marianne, I’m a cop,” he would say. “The distance between me and him is in my blood. I don’t go wine tasting with crooks.” But my mom is persistent, and she’s tuned in to spiritual things in the way my father never was. “He’s not just any crook,” she said of Hoffman. “You prayed with him. You saved his life, and he’s grateful. There is more to this.”
She was right. Over five or six more years, my father’s phone conversations with the man he’d once helped to arrest lengthened, and a friendship emerged. Dad and Franklin—he wanted to be called by his given name now, in an attempt, we thought, to distance himself from the crime—would talk about politics some, but mostly music. Franklin’s interest in our family seemed genuine, so more was shared. Eventually it was Mom who, through my father, invited Franklin over for coffee. One Sunday he arrived at our home on Hollywood Beach, near Oxnard. Sitting down on the fireplace hearth, he talked with us as if we were next-door neighbors. Fishing out of Channel Islands Harbor was the topic. The visit lasted less than an hour, but it left my father unsettled. He warned us kids not to tell anyone. “Cops don’t have bad guys over for coffee,” he said, somewhat disappointed with himself.
Yet during the next 30 years, through Carter and Reagan and the Iran hostage crisis, through the fall of the Soviet Union, the introduction of MTV, the Rodney King riots, my parents’ temporary separation, and my father’s retirement from the force, Franklin didn’t miss a call. And my father always answered. Franklin had moved from place to place, never had any money. He had many drums, including congas and djembes, which he played in local clubs and parks. He taught young kids how to play Latin jazz with a Cuban flair. He battled depression and had a hard time keeping a job longer than a year. He kept storage units full of fishing gear and drums and tapes from long-ago recording sessions. To others he may have seemed scattered or lost. But not to us. Every time he and my father talked, the conversation would go deep. Nothing superficial.
During the summer of 2006, my father began to suffer from unbearable neck and shoulder pain. He was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, an aggressive cancer that breaks the bones from the inside out. His high tolerance for discomfort had worked against him, delaying doctor’s visits. By the time he did go, his first X-ray showed his collarbone was already fractured in numerous places. Franklin came to visit—my parents were living in Newport, Oregon, at that point—for a week in November. He stayed in the guest room.
Dying on the Oregon coast in the middle of winter is miserable. Winds can reach 100 mph, cutting through doorjambs and window seals. Rain runs constantly off rooftops. Steps are slippery. The chill doesn’t leave the air.
The hospice nurses saw that my father was fading before the rest of us did. In October 2007, when they gave him a few months to live, my dad called Franklin. Without hesitation, Franklin packed up his ten-year-old Jeep Cherokee and drove straight through from L.A. to Oregon. From the moment my father opened the door, the laughter began. They talked easily, covering the most important things in life: family, music, friendship, and God. My father’s mother, Ethel Barrett, had been a prolific Christian author and speaker in the ’60s and ’70s. (She’d even written an inspirational book about him, Barrett: The Explosive True Drama of a Cop Who Faces Danger and Death Every Day.) She’d been dismayed to see my father turn away from the church as a young man, and when he and Franklin had met, he hadn’t prayed in years. But now Dad understood it was his and Franklin’s meeting that had reignited his faith. The two men talked openly about how the Lord’s Prayer, recited together, had changed the course of their lives.
For us this time had been sad and hectic. My mom and dad had separated briefly, but when he became sick, she moved him closer so she could take care of him. She was still working, however, and it was a struggle. Like her, I often stopped in to help, but I lived 45 minutes away and had a family and a job. My brother was stationed in Japan with the army. My sister had become a Seattle cop. We were all busy. So when Franklin showed up, we were grateful. My dad—who was unable to change his bedding or make a meal for himself—relied on Franklin that week to care for him and lift his spirits. Franklin helped him to the bathroom, went to the store, and cooked him good food, even though Dad couldn’t taste much.
“I’ll tell you one thing, Barrett,” I remember Franklin saying at one point as the rain poured down outside. “I’m sure you like it here, but if it were me, I’d be fighting through this stuff in Palm Springs or Florida.” I’ll never forget how Franklin looked that afternoon, sitting across from Dad on a futon near the rented hospital bed. He was leaning into the conversation, his beard hiding his neck, his belly drooping down between his legs, the palms of his hands resting on his knees. Weighing some 50 pounds heavier than the day they’d met, he resembled Neptune leaning off the bow of a ship.
Franklin pulled a plastic bag from his backpack. Inside were a few joints. “You want one?” he asked, smiling and shaking the marijuana. “It’s legal, you know. I heard you can smoke these in Oregon when you’re sick.” My dad grimaced, but fondly, and Franklin put them away.
Over the years I began to realize that Franklin saw my dad—and by extension, us—as his family. He knew our kids’ names, kept track of birthdays and graduations. He ate holiday dinners with us, at our invitation. “I never really had the means to care for a wife,” he told my father on his last day in Oregon. He sat back and stared at the ceiling. “I dunno. I just loved playing music. It was easy to be single when we were young, don’t you think?”
“Everything was easier,” my dad replied, chuckling.
Franklin stood up to get one more cup of coffee, then sat back down. Working on my laptop across the room, I could tell he didn’t want to leave. The banter had become more like small talk, with the two of them joking about the tyranny of technology—they felt life was better before cell phones and computers. When Franklin teased my dad about the joys of having a pretty nurse give him a sponge bath, they agreed that even fantasizing about sex was different when you got older. “It’s like the fire bell still rings,” my dad said, “but the dog doesn’t get up to chase the truck anymore.” The three of us laughed, but we knew it was time for Franklin to say good-bye. He took a last sip of coffee as Dad, with great effort, sat up in the hospice bed and swung his feet to the floor. His legs were thinned to the bone, white as the sheets. His knees trembled. Franklin stood close.
“Can I pray with you?” Dad asked. “Brother, you can pray with me anytime—anytime you’d like,” Franklin said, and they embraced. My dad prayed in a whisper. I couldn’t hear the words, but both men were crying. I felt as if I were watching a play, acted out in another dimension, where the hero becomes the victim and the suspect becomes the hero.
Dad died, just before midnight, on Christmas Eve 2007. My mom, my siblings, and I were there for his last breath. The first call we made was to Franklin Hoffman, who cried, lit a candle, and said a prayer.
During our many visits, I’d asked Franklin a lot of questions about August 5, 1971. I thought we’d talked about every detail, until I tracked down the man he’d held hostage, Gary Brandt. Gary told me he’d started his career at SunWest Studios and recorded with some big names: Prince, Gordon Lightfoot, Johnny Mathis. He’d had a good, productive life, he said, but ever since being taken hostage, he’d suffered from panic attacks.
When Gary told me about his experience that day, I learned several things I hadn’t known. First, he said he was the one who suggested that Franklin shoot the filing cabinet. He thought the cops were not taking the situation seriously enough, so he decided to align himself with Franklin and advocate for some of his captor’s demands. Gary said that when the two heavily armed cops came into the hallway and approached the window, he worried they were about to shoot Franklin right then. He didn’t want to live with that image in his head, so he screamed, “Get the hell out!” and the officers backed away.
Gary also said that about a month after Franklin got out of jail, the convicted drummer had returned to Sound City. Startled, the studio co-owner, Joe Gottfried, greeted him and called Studio B, where Gary was in the middle of a recording session. “Guess who’s here to see you?” Gottfried asked the engineer teasingly. “It’s Mr. Hoffman!” Frightened, Gary fled out the back door, leaving the musicians behind. But today he believes Franklin wasn’t there to hurt him. “Now I think he probably wanted to apologize,” he said. “Or thank me. I don’t know.”
Franklin had never told me about that visit, even though we kept in close touch after my father’s death. Still, it wasn’t the first time he’d withheld something. At some point I’d told him I wanted to write about him and my dad, but he’d asked me not to until after he died. His reason came as a surprise: For the first time he told me about his famous cousin. Franklin hadn’t mentioned his relationship to Dustin Hoffman before. (My father never knew and wouldn’t have cared if he had.) Franklin believed that the Hoffman family would not like to be associated with him or his story. “I’m the black sheep,” he said while making it clear that he’d always liked Dusty and loved his Uncle Harry. There was no animosity, he said. “We cousins just took two different roads.” (Dustin Hoffman declined to comment for this story.)
It was early 2015 when Franklin told us he, too, was terminally ill. Last November my wife, Donna, and I headed to Ventura to see him for the last time. He was in hospice, confined to a wheelchair and dying of cancer. Despite being in a lot of pain, he insisted on visiting a couple of his storage units to look for the tapes from that long-ago recording session at Sound City. Because of this story, he wanted to give them to me.
On Thanksgiving Day, days after our last visit, Franklin Hoffman died in his sleep. He was 72 years old. When the nurses called, my wife cried and I lit a candle and said a prayer. Even in my sadness, I was comforted by the memory of Franklin and Dad’s last moments together in Oregon. “You keep your joy level up. OK, Barrett?” Franklin had said before he went out the door of my dad’s second-floor apartment and headed down the narrow stairs to his Jeep. Dad stayed on the balcony, watching, so when Franklin turned back to face him and raised his right hand crisply to his head, Dad saw it and returned the salute.
Michael Barrett (@mikebarrett10) is an Oregon-based entrepreneur and writer who is working on a book about this incident and its aftermath. This is his first piece for Los Angeles.