I never met Philip Seymour Hoffman, though I know people who knew him. But since right before the Super Bowl when I first heard of his tragic death from a reported drug OD at 46 years old in an Greenwich Village apartment only a few block from where I grew up, I've been deeply grieving. And so have so many of my actual friends with whom I've been speaking and emailing. It feels like we've lost a close family member.
In my lifetime I've experienced the untimely death of many great performing artists -- actors, musicians, dancers -- sometimes from substance abuse, sometimes from AIDS, sometimes from natural causes. But I don't think I can remember one that has personally hit me so hard as Phil Hoffman's death. (Forgive me if I refer to him as "Phil", the name his friends called him, because even though I had one degree of separation from him through several people who did know him, he felt like he could have been a friend.)
There was something so intimate about each of his performances -- You felt like you knew, or could have known each of his characters. And because you felt like you knew his characters, you felt like you knew Phil -- Or rather the dozens of different Phils embodied in the extraordinary range of characters he played. And how many more dozens or even hundreds more might there have been if he had lived?
Where to begin remembering this extraordinary range of deeply flawed and human characters?
One of the first I remember is the gay hanger on in love with a porn star in Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights":
Then there was the Rolling Stone rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's "Almost Famous":
His most acclaimed part was his Oscar-winning role as another writer, Truman Capote, in "Capote" in which he transformed his hulking, 200-pound plus frame, into the diminutive Capote:
And then there was "Doubt", in which the greatest contemporary American male actor played opposite the greatest contemporary female actor Meryl Streep:
Hoffman's stage work -- performed in everything from tiny off-off Broadway flea bags to the biggest Broadway houses -- was even more intimate than his film work. "Death of a Salesman" is a play I've known well for decades since I wrote my senior high school English paper on Arthur Miller and which I've seen in numerous amateur and professional productions. But I'll never forget seeing Hoffman's performance as Willy Loman on Broadway a couple of years ago, a role to which he brought new layers of depth and pathos to perhaps the greatest tragic character in modern American theater. He brought me to tears. I'd love to show a clip, but Hoffman didn't allow his live stage work to be recorded.
And maybe the strain of pulling full-blooded characters out of his soul eight times a week in live theater, even more than his film work, took such a toll on Hoffman's psyche that he needed to relieve it with a range of dangerous, and ultimately deadly, substances.
For more extraordinary Hoffman performances, do a search on YouTube. You could spend days watching some of the finest acting in the history American cinema.
But I think I'll end this with Hoffman's ranting Aaron Sorkin's words in "Charlie Wilson's War":
And in the end, that's part of what I want to say to Phil Hoffman: "Fuck yourself you fucking child." Partly I'm mad at Phil Hoffman for allowing himself to be dragged to his death by his inner demons, as I would be mad a close family member who had done the same. How could you leave your life partner and three young children? How could you leave us, your audience and admirers? How could you leave the dozens of characters who you had left to play?
But more than that, I want to say, "I love you Phil." "I love the characters you played whom, for all their flaws, you must have loved, too, to play then with so much compassion." I cry for the pain you must have suffered bringing them to life. And I cry for the loss of a boundless talent and a friend whom I never actually knew.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post contained a trailer for "Infamous" in the place of a trailer for "Capote." The post also incorrectly referred to the Philip Seymour Hoffman film "Capote" as "In Cold Blood." The post has been updated to correct these errors.