Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman had a relatively short — but undeniably rich — career.
Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died Feb. 2, 2014, at 46 of a suspected drug overdose, had a relatively short — but undeniably rich — career. Already highly regarded during his lifetime, the accolades continued to pile up after his death. The New York Times speculated in his front-page obituary that he was “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation.” The Associated Press said Hoffman died “secure in his standing as one of the world’s greatest actors.” CNN.com recognized his “Everyman greatness,” while director Anton Corbijn called him “the most-gifted actor I ever worked with.”
“There were no dissenters about the gifts and achievements of Philip Seymour Hoffman,” The Associated Press’s Hillel Italie wrote.
From 1992’s Scent of a Woman to last year’s Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Hoffman made small roles seem larger and more important. He turned what could have been mindless blockbuster stints into fine acting jobs. He seamlessly moved between film, television and the stage. His range was the stuff of legend, on display as he played a kind-hearted nurse in Magnolia, an ailing and aging theater director in Synecdoche, New York, and author Truman Capote, the title character in the movie that earned him an Academy Award for best actor.
“He was a transformative performer who worked from the inside out, blessed with an emotional transparency that could be overwhelming, invigorating, compelling, devastating,” David Fear wrote on the Rolling Stone website. “And above all, Hoffman had a talent for pinpointing the humanistic even in the most horrible characters.”
His Oscar for Capote was his only win, although he was nominated three times for his supporting roles in Doubt, Charlie Wilson’s War and The Master, but there is little doubt that Hoffman would have garnered more nods from the academy if he’d continued to live and work. Entertainment Weekly magazine critic Owen Gleiberman wrote on EW.com that Hoffman’s gift was “his stunning commitment to the truth of his characters, the way that he fearlessly 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.”
Hoffman’s apparent overdose brought his personal life into an unaccustomed spotlight. He wasn’t a tabloid figure, or a conventional leading man. His obituary in The New York Times described him as “stocky, often sleepy looking.” In a 2008 profile in The New York Times Magazine, writer Lynn Hirschberg said Hoffman “came dressed as though he may have slept in the park or wandered out of a homeless shelter.”
Hoffman tried to keep the personal — including talk of his longtime girlfriend and their three children — private. As he told the Independent newspaper in 2012, “Somebody wanted me to talk about my personal life … I’d rather not because my family doesn’t have any choice. If I talk about them in the press, I’m giving them no choice. So I choose not to.”
The general public learned of Hoffman’s struggles with addiction in 2006, when he sat down with 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft before the Academy Awards. Kroft asked if Hoffman would be willing to revisit his portrayal of Capote, with his shrill, childlike voice so unlike Hoffman’s own. The actor demurred, but Kroft pressed him, asking if he wouldn’t do the character if he were drunk at a party.
The 60 Minutes transcript details what happens next:
“Yeah,” Hoffman said, laughing. “That might be — you know, if I start drinking again, you might be able to get me to do it.”
In video of the interview, available on YouTube.com, Hoffman’s discomfort is clear as Kroft followed up with further questions about his drug and alcohol use. Hoffman noted his addictions included “anything I could get my hands on.” He got sober at 22, he said, because “I got panicked for my life.”
Perhaps most notably, Hoffman marveled at the challenges facing young stars. “I always think ‘God.’ I have so much empathy for these young actors that are 19 and all of a sudden they’re beautiful and famous and rich. I’m like, ‘Oh my God. I’d be dead.’ You know, 19 and beautiful and famous and rich? That would be it.”
Various media outlets have reported that Hoffman had again recently sought treatment for addiction. He may have been separated from his partner. The Daily Mail noted that Hoffman appeared “forlorn and weary” in portraits taken in January. A neighbor told the Wall Street Journal that Hoffman had looked sad or depressed in the weeks before his death, “like something was off.”
There is no doubt that Hoffman was a complex individual, onscreen and off. In that 2008 Times magazine profile, Doubt playwright John Patrick Shanley shared two seemingly telling stories. In one anecdote, he described how Hoffman arrived at one of Shanley’s parties wearing three coats and a hat. Shanley urged Hoffman to remove one, but Hoffman’s girlfriend noted, “He’ll maybe take it off in a half-hour.”
“It’s such an obvious metaphor, but Phil has a protective cocoon that he sheds very slowly,” Shanley said.
Shanley also recalled a conversation he had with Hoffman after the filming of Doubt. Shanley thought Hoffman had seemed “in a lot of pain” during the filming. Hoffman said otherwise. “And now when we talk about the movie, he says how much fun he had,” Shanley said. “I’d say, ‘You looked like you were in hell.’ Phil just shrugs and sort of jokes: ‘Hell? That’s where I live.'”
In his EW.com appreciation, Gleiberman noted that when an actor like Hoffman dies, young and unexpectedly, “and he has given the kind of performances, in movie after movie, that tap the outer reaches of an audience’s empathy, so that he has done more than entertain us — he has touched our souls — then when we hear about his death, the shock may be hard to get over, because it’s almost literally hard to imagine the universe without that person’s presence.”
Hoffman, he wrote, “was a force of an actor, an artist who poured so much of himself into his performances that when I heard about his death, I felt a little like I had lost a member of my family. He was an actor you ended up caring deeply about because of his casual 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.”
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”