Philip Seymour Hoffman was a great force of an actor, an artist who poured so much of himself into his performances that when I heard about his death, I felt like I had lost a member of my family. He was an actor you ended up caring deeply about because of his fearlessness, his gruff twinkle of reality, his utter lack of baloney, and — no small instrument for an actor to possess — the wily fascination of his mind. You always got the feeling that his characters were so interesting because he was interesting, and he saw and understood, as part of his process, their hidden depths.
It turns out that the Oscar-winning actor had hidden depths of his own. He had gone into rehab for drug abuse at 22, shortly after graduating from New York University. He stayed sober for more than two decades but relapsed two years ago with prescription drugs and heroin. Hoffman completed a 10-day stint in rehab last May. His struggle with addiction continued, however. On Feb. 2, the 46-year-old actor died of an apparent overdose, his body discovered in the bathroom of his Greenwich Village apartment with a hypodermic needle in his arm and reportedly at least 50 bags of heroin and five prescription drugs nearby. He left behind three children — son Cooper, 10, and daughters Tallulah, 7, and Willa, 5 — with costume designer Mimi O’Donnell.
Hoffman, born to a judge mother and a Xerox-executive father in Fairport, N.Y., didn’t look like other actors. There was the pale, often scraggly moon face set off by a shock of straw-blond hair that might have been stolen off Paul Williams. The insinuating cut of his lips. The squinty, sly-dog stare. The Gym? What’s a gym? physique that he wore almost proudly, like a doughy chassis of normality. And he didn’t sound like other actors. The voice was somewhere between a scratch and a growl, with just a hint of honey. It wasn’t a relaxed voice, though it sometimes spoke with an exaggerated, almost pent-up calm. It was addled and animated, with a melodic intensity, never more so than when he lowered it, making it soft with private anxiety or delight, so that you wanted to lean in close to catch every glimmer of imputation.
Hoffman may not have been a physically beautiful actor, but he was some-thing more elusive and commanding. He was handsomely ordinary, almost distinctively undistinctive, which is why, from the start, he was drawn to playing deeply unglamorous and even desperate men. In Boogie Nights (1997), he burst onto the screen as the sweetly insecure boom-mic operator, his gut poking out of his ’70s tank tops, who memorably confesses his crush on Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler. Hoffman’s reaction when he’s rebuffed (he gets behind the wheel of his car and starts saying, “I’m a f—in’ idiot” over and over and over again, barking out the words through angry tears) held up a mirror to something that most actors, even great ones, don’t have the daring to reveal: the scrappy, private pain of an utterly overlookable person. There was beauty in the way that Hoffman exposed that pain.
The next year, he shored up his courage as an actor — raised the bar on it, in fact — with his heroically committed performance in Todd Solondz’s Happiness as a pathological wallflower who finds sexual release by making obscene phone calls. It was the kind of character the movies generally treat as a joke or with undisguised contempt, but Hoffman found the humanity in this seemingly irredeemable “perv.” That humanity is all that he saw…in everyone he played.
Just when it looked like he might be cornering the market on timid, badly dressed sad sacks, Hoffman began to demonstrate that he was every bit as good at portraying men of confidence and raw power. He did the same thing for them that he did for dweebs, nailing them from the inside out. I first noticed his gift for making untroubled characters as mesmerizing as those who were defined by their troubles in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), where he showed up as Freddie Miles, the rich-kid playboy who treats life like a giant champagne bath; Hoffman made you feel the nearly tactile joy of Freddie’s all-American blustery decadence.
From that point on, he was off and running, giving superb performances in so many different kinds of roles that whatever tendency you might have had to typecast him was blown away by the prodigious imagination of his talent. In Almost Famous (2000), he played the rock critic Lester Bangs as an inspiring, fly-in-the-ointment rascal who warns the young hero that the corporations are going to turn rock & roll into “an industry of cool.” Hoffman let you taste the heady charge of that cynicism by melding it with his own purist spirit as an actor. He knew all too well what corporations ask artists to do.
Maybe that’s why, even after he’d become a celebrated actor, Hoffman never stopped doing tiny movies by unknown filmmakers who allowed him to break new ground. A terrific example is the little-seen gem Owning Mahowny (2003). Playing a dour assistant bank manager who is also a closet blackjack addict (and a secret embezzler), Hoffman showed you the furtive sweat beads of nervousness as well as the gambler’s high that drives him. Even Hoffman’s chumps always hummed with a buzzing interior energy. They’re hungry for more than they have, and that, in a way, is the Hoffman mystique, the obsessional fervor he granted to losers and winners alike.
It may seem obvious to say that his crowning achievement was Capote (2005), for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor, but to me it truly was. He didn’t just capture Truman Capote as a walking piece of theater who used his airy mannerisms and Elmer Fudd–meets–Blanche DuBois voice to distract you, to fool you. For the first time, Hoffman portrayed an immensely powerful man in dweeb’s clothing, and so he was able to assemble the twin dynamics of his acting — the impulse to hide and the impulse to reveal — into a single extraordinary portrait of the artist as master manipulator. He made you feel like you knew, intimately, Capote’s every brilliant, haunted thought and feeling.
Conversely, his performance as the enigmatic postwar cult leader in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) has the hypnotic quality of something monstrously opaque in its evil. The mystery of his Lancaster Dodd is that he literally is making it all up as he goes along, because his only real interest is in controlling people. Hoffman, who earned his fourth and final Oscar nomination for the role, played Dodd as the most quietly unassuming of fascists.
When I first heard about the lurid circumstances of Hoffman’s death, I thought: My God, it sounds like a Philip Seymour Hoffman character. And in fact he did play a clandestine heroin user in Sidney Lumet’s last film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). It’s a thriller, woven into a family psychodrama worthy of Tennessee Williams, about two close but warring brothers, played by Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, who are each so hard up for money that they decide to knock off their aging parents’ hole-in-the-mall jewelry store. Hoffman, all testy and defensive smarm, plays an already lost soul who begins to lose everything else he has, and the character periodically visits a posh heroin den in a midtown Manhattan high-rise. Once again, he brings a dimension to this sort of action that you rarely see: He shows you, vividly, the despair of the addict — the despair that gets bathed, thanks to the drug, in temporary ecstasy. And it’s hard to watch those scenes now without trying to imagine the demons that may have been driving Hoffman himself.
The actor’s career appeared to be thriving. His role as Plutarch Heavensbee in last year’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and its upcoming sequels only reaffirmed the juicy and effortlessly selective way that he had chosen to work in Hollywood blockbusters, beginning with his tasty turn as the villain in Mission: Impossible III (2006). And he continued to work passionately, as both an actor and a director, in the theater — earning a Tony nomination for each of his three trips to Broadway. I got to see him on stage once, in the 2003 Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and I can testify that Hoffman’s performance as Jamie Tyrone, the alcoholic eldest son in a family of rattling closet skeletons, had a frantic, trembling anger that was palpable.
Such fierce performances could take a toll on Hoffman. “He lived these roles in a way that most actors don’t,” says Robert Falls, who directed Hoffman in Long Day’s Journey. “Most actors are able to pack it up and leave once the lights come down. And Phil couldn’t do that. He demanded of himself an almost inhuman level of truth-telling.”
If that quality of his somehow played a part in his death, that is deeply tragic. But really, who can ever know someone else’s demons? Part of the miracle of Hoffman’s acting is that it laid bare the things that make people tick, in a way that art can show you and that life seldom does. What I’ll cherish about Hoffman is the way that his commitment to the truth of his characters, the way that he infused them with every aspect of his love and pain until they infused us as well, created a human reality on screen that you couldn’t shake, couldn’t deny, and could never, ever forget.
The Essential Roles
His 10 best onscreen performances
To play the famously diminutive author, Hoffman seemed to shrink his own physique — and won an Oscar for his efforts.
Almost Famous, 2000
He had a small but crucial role as the take-no-guff Creem editor Lester Bangs.
The Master, 2012
Hoffman earned his fourth Oscar nom as a hypnotic, compelling cult leader in Paul Thomas Anderson’s drama.
Owning Mahowny, 2003
In this indie gem, he’s an in-over-his-head bank employee who skims money to support a gambling addiction.
Boogie Nights, 1997
In his breakout role, he played a closeted boom-mic operator with a serious crush on Mark Wahlberg’s porn star.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, 2007
He played a heroin-junkie schemer who lures his brother (Ethan Hawke) into robbing their parents’ jewelry store.
The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999
As a louche Princeton grad, he’s haughtily suspicious of a devious (and murderous) poseur.
In Todd Solondz’s indie, he managed to elicit sympathy for a guy who finds relief in making obscene phone calls.
Ambiguity reigns in his turn as a Catholic priest suspected of molesting an altar boy in a Bronx church in 1964.
He mixed it up as the transgender neighbor of a gruff NYC cop (Robert De Niro) who is recovering from a stroke.
Shock and Awe: Hollywood Reacts
Hoffman’s sudden death shook the film industry and left many of those closest to him shattered and unable to speak publicly. Still, despite their grief, a number of his friends and colleagues came forward to pay tribute to the late actor as both an artist and a man.
“What a devastating loss. He was one of the greatest actor’s actors of all time. He’d take your breath away.” —Nicole Kidman, Hoffman’s costar in 2003’s Cold Mountain
“Cameron [Crowe] told me, ‘Oh, Philip has the flu.’ So Phil would waddle on set, mumbly and eyes half closed, and he would sit down and close his eyes. It was almost like he was psyching himself up. They’d call, ‘Action’ and he was intense as s—! I remember watching and thinking, ‘Man, from this point on, I can’t rely on my old tricks that I learned growing up.'” —Patrick Fugit, costar in 2000’s Almost Famous
“He was fearless, and that had a major effect on those of us around him. He made everyone feel comfortable and creatively invincible. You could try anything and know you were protected. You weren’t going to fall flat on your face — and even if you did, he was going to make you look good.” —Mark Wahlberg, costar in 1997’s Boogie Nights
“I always thought of Philip as a teddy bear. He was a very sweet young man. He and Chris O’Donnell teased me about my character’s name — Mrs. Hunsaker — and did everything they could to make me laugh. I have been in awe of Philip’s film work. I shall always treasure my time with him and his gift to film and stage.” —Oscar-nominated actress June Squibb (Nebraska), costar in 1992’s Scent of a Woman
“I feel so fortunate to have known and worked with the extraordinary Philip Seymour Hoffman, and am deeply saddened by his passing. My thoughts and condolences are with his family.” —Julianne Moore, costar in Boogie Nights, 1998’s The Big Lebowski, and 1999’s Magnolia
“Phil had a passion for acting that was palpable. You couldn’t help but just go, ‘This guy has got all the talent in the world.’ He just had so much in him — it’s almost like he had too much for one person.” —Amos Poe, director of Hoffman’s first film, 1991’s Triple Bogey on a Par 5 Hole
“We spent some time together only two weeks ago, and he seemed in a good place despite some issues he had to deal with. He was the most gifted actor I ever worked with — I am certain I share this with most, if not all, directors who were fortunate enough to work with him.” —Anton Corbijn, director of A Most Wanted Man, which premiered at last month’s Sundance Film Festival
“There are no words. It’s just terrible.” —George Clooney, director and costar of 2011’s The Ides of March
“When Philip was on a set he raised the bar by being so truthful and demanding of himself. He was very modest, always interesting, and generous. I’m deeply sad I won’t see him again.” —Jude Law, costar in 1999’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain
“What I will remember most is his Konstantin in Chekhov’s The Seagull in a starry revival in New York’s Central Park (2001)…. The open-air venue was not conducive to the delicacy and intimacy of the play, yet Hoffman amazingly shrank the space between him and the audience and made us feel we were spying on his insides. His work on film survives his death, the only consolation in our grief and regret.” —Ian McKellen, veteran stag actor and admirer
“He was the warmest, most generous person and just overflowing with love and affection for his friends and family. And, you know, just a regular guy — even boring! We’d watch football together and go out and have meals silently with each other like an old married couple. It would be weird to walk down the street with him and have him get recognized. I’m like, ‘Why are you saying hi to Phil?’ To me, he was just my friend I’ve known forever. I know the past two years have been really rough for him. To find out [about his death] doesn’t really compute to me. It just shows how strong that disease [of addiction] is.” —Todd Louiso, Hoffman’s longtime friend, costar in Scent of a Woman, and director of 2002’s Love Liza
Reported by Lindsey Bahr, Anthony Breznican, Jeff Labrecque, Josh Rottenberg, Keith Staskiewicz, and Sara Vilkomerson
Still to Come
At the time of his death, Philip Seymour Hoffman had many movie and TV projects in various stages of development, including the last two Hunger Games films. What happens to them now?
When Philip Seymour Hoffman died on Feb. 2, the actor still had one week left of shooting on the second half of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1 and Part 2, in which he played Head Gamekeeper/revolutionary Plutarch Heavensbee. The films’ studio, Lionsgate, declined to comment, but a source close to the production says his death will not affect the release date of either film.
Just weeks ago, Hoffman had attended the Sundance Film Festival to promote two completed films: director John Slattery’s God’s Pocket and Anton Corbijn’s thriller A Most Wanted Man. Both will be released later this year. Hoffman had also recently finished shooting a Showtime pilot, Happyish.
In addition, Hoffman was in the early stages of funding his second film as a director, the period drama Ezekiel Moss. Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams had signed on to star, but the movie’s future is now up in the air. “This is a project he had put a lot into over a long period of time,” says producer Anthony Bregman. “He loved it.” —Nicole Sperling