Dorfman, who is Jewish, was born in Argentina but his family moved to the United States shortly after his birth, and then moved to Chile in 1954. He is the son of Adolfo Dorfman, a prominent Argentinian professor of economics, author of Historia de la industria argentina. He attended and was later a professor at the University of Chile and adopted Chilean Citizenship in 1967. He attended graduate school in Berkeley, California, in 1968-69 and then returned to Chile.
From 1970 to 1973, Dorfman served as a cultural advisor to president Salvador Allende. During this time he wrote, with Armand Mattelart, a legendary critique of North American cultural imperialism, How to Read Donald Duck. Forced to leave Chile in 1973 after the coup by Gen. Augusto Pinochet and the death of Allende, he subsequently lived in Paris, Amsterdam, and Washington, D.C. Since 1985 he has taught at Duke University, where he is currently Walter Hines Page Research Professor of Literature and Professor of Latin American Studies. Dorfman details his life of exile and bi-cultural living in his memoir, Heading South, Looking North, which has been acclaimed by Elie Wiesel, Nadine Gordimer, Thomas Keneally and others.
Since the restoration of democracy in Chile (1990), he divides his time between Santiago and the United States. In 2004, he became a citizen of the United States.
Dorfman's work often deals with the horrors of tyranny and, in later works, the trials of exile. His most famous play, Death and the Maiden, describes the encounter of a former torture victim with the man she believed tortured her; it was made into a film in 1994 by Roman Polanski starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.
Dorfman, a critic of Pinochet, has written extensively about the general's extradition case for the Spanish newspaper El País and other publications, and in the book Exorcising Terror: The Incredible Unending Trial of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Dorfman has built up a body of work that has been translated into more than forty languages and performed in over 100 countries. Besides poetry, essays and novels—Hard Rain, winner of the Sudamericana Award; Widows; The Last Song of Manuel Sendero; Mascara; Konfidenz; The Nanny and the Iceberg, and Blake’s Therapy—he has written short stories, including My House Is on Fire, and general nonfiction including The Empire’s Old Clothes: What the Lone Ranger, Babar, and Other Innocent Heroes Do to Our Minds. He has won various international awards, including two Kennedy Center Theater Awards. In 1996, with his son, Rodrigo, he received an award for best television drama in Britain for “Prisoners in Time.” His poems, collected in Last Waltz in Santiago and In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land, have been turned into a half-hour fictional film, “Deadline,” featuring the voices of Emma Thompson, Bono, Harold Pinter, and others.
Dorfman’s human rights play, “Speak Truth to Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark” (based on interviews with human rights defenders conducted by Kerry Kennedy Cuomo), premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 2000, and subsequently aired on PBS as part of its Great Performances series. The play starred Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Alec Baldwin, John Malkovich, among others, and was directed by Greg Mosher. It has gone on to numerous performances around the world, including a recent run in New York City.
Dorfman's play “The Other Side” had its world premiere at the New National Theatre in Tokyo, Japan in 2004 and opened off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theater Club in 2005. Other recent plays include “Purgatorio” at the Seattle Rep in 2005 and at the Arcola Theatre in London’s West End in 2008; and "Picasso’s Closet," a counterfactual history in which the Nazis murder Picasso, had its premier at Theater J in Washington, D.C. in 2006
His latest works include the Lowell Thomas Award-winning travel book, Desert Memories; a collection of essays, Other Septembers, Many Americas; and a novel he wrote with his youngest son, Joaquín, Burning City. In 2007, his musical, Dancing Shadows, opened in Seoul, Korea. This collaboration with Eric Woolfson, the principle composer for the Alan Parsons Project, won five Korean “Tony” awards.
He is also the subject of a feature-length documentary, A Promise to the Dead, based on his memoir Heading South, Looking North and directed by Peter Raymont. The film had its world premiere at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival on September 8, 2007. (In November 2007, the film was named by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as one of 15 films on its documentary feature Oscar shortlist. The list was narrowed to five films on January 22, 2008, and A Promise to the Dead was not among the five Oscar-nominated documentaries.)
Dorfman currenty has several film projects in development with his sons, Rodrigo and Joaquín, including a screen adaptation of his novel, Blake’s Therapy.
Dorfman also writes regularly for some of the most important newspapers and magazines worldwide, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, Le Monde and L’Unita. He is a member of L’Académie Universelle des Cultures in Paris and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.