MOVIE-GOERS who saw Dustin Hoffman in the thriller Outbreak may feel it is a little late in life for him to play an action hero, but it is a dream come true for the Oscar-winning actor. 'I've always wanted to play James Bond,' said Hoffman, 57. 'I go to the movies like everybody else and I watch actors like Harrison Ford and wonder why nobody ever offers me those parts. I'd like to play a character who wears a nice Armani suit once in a while.' Well, in Outbreak, Hoffman did not get the Armani suit, but he did get a role that was tailor-made for Ford: an army doctor battling to save the world from a deadly virus. Hoffman, who last starred in Accidental Hero, got the part because of a fortuitous lunch with director Wolfgang Petersen. 'I was having lunch with Wolfgang and I was depressed because I hadn't worked in two years and he was depressed because Ford had backed out of the project,' the actor said. 'Wolfgang was complaining that actors are too rich these days and don't want to work anymore and I told him that I was desperate to work.' Petersen, who also directed Das Boot and In The Line Of Fire, was equally desperate to work, so he gave the script to Hoffman to read. After Hoffman agreed to take the role, the script was massively overhauled to make the character more agreeable with the star's image while still keeping the action. Part of the overhaul involved the scrapping of one exciting scene in which the lead character leapt into a boat after dangling from the end of a rope tied to a helicopter. Instead, Hoffman makes a very short leap from the helicopter into a life-boat lashed to a ship. It was a jump, he said, 'anybody could have made'. He added: 'As Wolfgang says, the audience knows that Ford or Stallone or Schwarzenegger are going to make it regardless of how dangerous it is. The difference with me in the role is that the audience isn't sure I'm going to make it. I think that makes for a more exciting movie.' Until now, Hoffman's closest brushes with conventional movie hero roles were in Sam Peckinpah's 1971 Straw Dogs and the 1976 Marathon Man - and he was essentially a wimp in both. He is much better known for his chameleon-like character portrayals in movies such as Midnight Cowboy, Lenny, Death Of A Salesman and Rain Man, and for playing over-stressed, contemporary neurotics in The Graduate and Kramer Vs Kramer. Hoffman saw an opportunity to break the mould and try something different in Outbreak. 'As an ageing movie star - and more of a character actor movie star - I've been aware there's an element of 'How long can I get away with this?',' he said. 'I'm not unlike a hooker, in the sense that the public tires of having you in their bedroom. That's true, I think, of all film stars. If you play the same note, there's a sense of feeling fragile. 'Many roles that were open to me before are no longer open to me. I am a grandfather in real life.' Outbreak proved to be a major comeback for Hoffman, whose career took a dive after winning an Oscar for his portrayal of an idiot savant in the 1988 hit Rain Man. He followed that success with a trio of disappointing bombs - Billy Bathgate, Hook and finally Accidental Hero - and then not working at all. 'I was terribly depressed after my last movie failed. Something like that really knocks you down,' Hoffman admitted. 'But it did wake me up to the fact that the business has changed. These days you have to open to a big audience or you are a failure. Everybody rushes out only to see the top three movies and the rest flop. It's a feast-or-famine situation.' During preparation for his performance, Hoffman visited various virus research labs and consulted scientists specialising in the subject. What he has learned has led him to believe a viral plague like the one envisioned in Outbreak is inevitable. 'It is a disaster just waiting to happen,' Hoffman said. Still, despite his doom and gloom view of the world to come, the star's future now looks bright again, thanks to an outbreak of Hoffman fever at the box office.