Philip Seymour Hoffman: An Actor Who Religiously Demanded Perfection

Philip Seymour Hoffman: An Actor Who Religiously Demanded Perfection

Slouched in the front row of the labyrinth Theater Company’s performance space in New York’s West Village in May 2013, Philip Seymour Hoffman was his typical focused, super-disciplined self.

In the intimate 90-seat theater, Hoffman – always dressed in one or another of his seemingly interchangeable baggy pants and sweaters – was relentlessly pushing the cast and crew of the play he was directing, A Family for All Occasions, a new work by his friend Bob Glaudini.

With his trademark near-religious quest for perfection, Hoffman obsessed over every aspect of the production. “From the napkin holder on the dining room table, every minute detail was debated and thought out,” recalls the company’s managing director, Danny Feldman. “Even after opening night, he said, ‘We’re still working – we’re still in rehearsal.’”

While Hoffman was working, he was always in complete command. “When he walked into a room, he didn’t have to say anything,” says a friend, Donovan Leitch. “He had a Bill Clinton kind of energy.” But away from the show he was quietly losing control. Two days after A Family for All Occasions opened, Hoffman checked himself into rehab after prescription drugs had triggered a relapse of his heroin use. Few if any in the play had known anything was amiss.

“Whatever difficulties were going on then were not to be beheld,” recalls Glaudini. “He was present, there, creative. There was no dealing with the wayward artist.” It was the first sign of the private struggle of a man known to his many friends as a performer of ferocious discipline and seemingly limitless talent.

Hoffman, with his shock of strawberry-blond hair, pale-blue eyes and chunky physique, was the most recognizable anti-star Everyman in Hollywood, someone who by force of effort had willed himself into becoming a leading man. Regardless of what film he was in, it was impossible to not be haunted by the character he portrayed: the nurse in Magnolia, the tortured sound man in Boogie Nights, the rich snob in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the late rock critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, even the storm-chasing stoner in Twister.

“Phil was an unconventional movie star in an era where there’s no such thing as unconventionality,” says his friend Ethan Hawke. “Now, everybody is gorgeous and has abs. And here you have Phil standing up, saying, ‘Hey, I got something to say, too! It may not be pretty, but it’s true.’ That’s why we needed him so badly.”

By never phoning in even the smallest parts and always empathizing with a character’s vulnerabilities, Hoffman was often awarded, walking away with an Oscar for his spot-on portrayal of Truman Capote in 2005’s Capote; Sidney Lumet, who directed him in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, once compared him to Marlon Brando (Hoffman, in typical fashion, scoffed at the compliment). “He was the greatest of his generation, and more,” says Cameron Crowe, who directed him in Almost Famous. “He was an actor’s actor.”

Even as he was struggling to get clean, Hoffman’s drive wouldn’t let him slow down. He had two films in the can – Anton Corbijn’s thriller A Most Wanted Man and the crime drama God’s Pocket, directed by John Slattery – and was set to appear in the next two Hunger Games movies, rolling out over the next two years. He was preparing to star in a Showtime series, Happyish, and to direct Ezekiel Moss, starring Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal.

“He wanted to be done with playing the sad-sack loser, the guy who’s jerking off,” says playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, a longtime friend. “He loved those characters and honored them, but when he did A Late Quartet [a low-key drama about classical musicians, in 2012], he said that it was his best performance, and he never talked that way about himself.”

But on Sunday, February 2nd, all those plans went to dust. That morning, Mimi O’Donnell, his longtime partner and mother of their three children, texted David Bar Katz, another one of Hoffman’s close playwright friends. Hoffman, who had been living apart from his family for a few months after falling off the wagon and moving to an apartment two blocks away, was supposed to pick up their kids and hadn’t shown up. With Hoffman’s assistant, Isabella Wing-Davey, Katz went to Hoffman’s place, opened the door and was confronted with a gruesome sight: Hoffman, in shorts and a T-shirt, dead in the bathroom, a needle in his left arm.

Later, police reported they had found around 50 small bags of heroin, some used and some unopened. Katz disputes that account. “I don’t believe those reports, because I was there,” he says. “I didn’t go through his drawers, but I’d never known Phil to put anything in a drawer. He’d always put it on the floor. Phil was a bit of a slob.” An overdose is suspected as the cause of death, but toxicology reports are pending. Hoffman was 46.

The news was genuinely jarring, not least because of how it embodied the Hollywood clichés Hoffman had long fought against. He had openly admitted to a drug problem and had worked hard at maintaining sobriety for more than two decades. Of the vices that remained, he told RS in 2005, “Pure mouth – cigarettes and food, but probably cigarettes more than food.” He didn’t romanticize life on the edge. “He believed you don’t have to die with a needle in your arm to be a great artist,” Guirgis says. His friends say he was not on a downward spiral – if anything, says Katz, “he was on an upward spiral.”

Hoffman was still immersed in his career with an intensity that could intimidate his castmates. He had zero tolerance for lazy acting or star treatment. When he wanted to lose weight for a role, as he did for Capote, he did it by himself, developing his own fitness regimen: going to the local basketball court and taking one left-handed shot, followed by push-ups and sit-ups and then sprinting to the other end of the court and taking a right-handed shot, falling to the hardwood for more push-ups and crunches. He’d repeat the routine again and again.

He zeroed in relentlessly on his work, to the point of demanding that friends like Katz not visit him on set. (“He said, ‘Look at me – just seeing that expression is gonna fuck me up,’” says Katz. “Phil was so serious he could be scary.”) He told a friend he felt he’d done such a bad job in one play that he wanted to move to France and become an English teacher. “We all think if someone is gifted, ‘Oh, they’re gifted,’ but we don’t think about how much work it takes to exercise that gift,” says Guirgis. “He used to say, ‘It’s just as painful to do something well as it is to do it not well.’ He was unsparing of himself. And he clearly paid a price for it.” Or as Hawke puts it, “He went to war for his art.”

Yet there was another, haunted Hoffman, someone who, for all his charisma and confidence, was privately troubled. “He carried an unearned burden of shame,” Guirgis says. “He was private, but he played those characters so well because he knew something about guilt and shame and suffering.”

Talking with Rolling Stone in 2005, Hoffman acknowledged that parts of him remained off-limits: “No one knows me. No one understands me. That’s the other thing that changes as you get older. It’s like everybody understands you. But no one understands me.”

As absurd as it is now to contemplate, Philip Seymour Hoffman did not initially see himself as an actor. Growing up in Fairport, a suburb of Rochester, New York, Hoffman had different sorts of dreams. He was a child of divorce; his father worked for Xerox, his mother was a judge. “He understood something dark and sad about human behavior,” says Guirgis, “but the actual guy was a fuckin’ jock from Rochester – that’s who he was.” He never lost that side: His New York friends recall how hard he could slam a whiffle ball or pin them to the ground. “He’d outwrestle me constantly,” says Katz. “It was like, ‘You’re the only person in the world who gets stronger from eating ice cream.’”

In Hoffman’s sophomore year of high school, though, a neck injury during a wrestling match (he also played football) forced him to rethink his goals. He’d been intrigued by theater before, appearing in a grade-school production of Tom Sawyer, but then the acting bug hit him, and he signed up for roles in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and Death of a Salesman. “When he played Willy Loman, that was the first time everyone said, ‘Holy crap,’” recalls a classmate. He wound up at NYU, where he graduated in 1989 with a BFA in drama. In college, Hoffman partied hard – “advanced” drinking and drugging, as he later called it, was becoming a problem. “You get panicked,” he said in 2006. “It made me worried if I was going to get to do the kind of things I wanted to do in my life.” He finally checked himself into rehab at 22 – and given how much he was known for throwing himself 100 percent into anything, the news didn’t shock his childhood friends.

After a few bit parts, Hoffman’s career effectively launched when he landed a small role in 1992’s Scent of a Woman. (He also helped audition actors for that film by working as a line reader; one who didn’t make the cut was Hawke. “You’re never gonna get it, buddy – you’re too interesting,” Hoffman told him.) By 1993, he’d moved to Los Angeles and started landing roles in films like When a Man Loves a Woman and Twister. Then came his brilliant performance in Paul Thomas Andeson’s porn-industry opus, Boogie Nights, in 1997, followed by Happiness and The Big Lebowski in 1998. Looking to work more in theater, Hoffman returned to New York in 1999, but he continued making indelible impressions in movies like Magnolia and The Talented Mr. Ripley. When Crowe sent Hoffman the script for Almost Famous, convinced he’d be perfect as the debauched rock critic Bangs, Hoffman read it, accepted and flew out to Crowe’s office for their first meeting. “He showed up dressed Lester-ish – he had a black leather jacket on, and you could see he had a glint in his eye,” Crowe recalls. “He was instantly a huge presence, not unlike Lester.”

In just a few takes – while battling the flu – Hoffman nailed his now-famous “we’re uncool” phone-call scene with fledgling RS reporter William Miller (Patrick Fugit). Between takes, Hoffman listened to recordings of Bangs on headphones. “He’d pull them off right before he was ready to go,” Crowe says. “He set a course and was cutting through the water. You were thrilled to watch him. He was more rock & roll than I knew.”

During those years, despite the widespread acclaim, Hoffman was rarely cast in any leading roles. Hollywood couldn’t see someone with his unconventional physique and everyday looks carrying a movie. Around 2000, a friend, writer-director Todd Louiso, who roomed with him in L.A., started shopping around what would be Hoffman’s first starring vehicle, Love Liza, a dark comedy about a man grappling with his wife’s suicide. “He was looking for a film to star in,” Louiso says. “But we went to raise money for it, and they were like, ‘That’s insane. Him, a leading man?’ People would get nervous about that.” It wasn’t until Louiso cast the better-known Kathy Bates that Love Liza was able to raise a modest $1 million budget.

Even if he wasn’t getting plum starring roles, Hoffman was seemingly everywhere. For the next few years, he was featured in thrillers (Red Dragon), goofy commercial romps (Along Came Polly) and stately epics (Cold Mountain) before finally getting his chance to carry a movie in Capote. “I just wasn’t sure if I should do it,” he told RS of Capote. “It’s a very risky project. There’s nothing wrong with taking a risk, but if you’re not sure if you’re the right person to take it or not, you’re not sure.” Not surprisingly, Hoffman nailed what became a defining role in his career. “He was no longer ‘promising’ or ‘interesting,’” says Hawke. “He was in complete control of a very complicated part. He’d grown up.” Hoffman had also matured in other ways: He and O’Donnell, a costume designer he’d met in 1999, never married, but they had their first child, Cooper, in 2003, followed by daughters Tallulah and Willa.

Hoffman reacted to his Oscar win as only he could: returning to his usual routine of walking his kids to school and bumming around his West Village haunts drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. “He wasn’t constructed in such a way as to care about that Oscar stuff,” says Katz. “Did he appreciate it? Yes. He wasn’t contemptuous of awards. But getting the Academy Award, in some sense, to him would be the equivalent of getting an easy laugh. You’re happy you got the laugh, but it’s not about that, it’s about your work. And that’s what he was looking at, always.”

In 2007, Hoffman took on one of his darkest roles yet, in the thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, directed by Lumet, a Hoffman hero who was then 83. Although he’d known Hoffman for years, Hawke was finally able to work with his friend on that movie – and found the experience more intense than he’d imagined. “It was the first time I worked with an actor of my generation who made me nervous,” Hawke says. “If you were just being charming or some kind of bullshit, you’d get the wash of disapproval. If you were a hair’s breadth late for a cue, you’d get this glance of ‘Are you an amateur? Fuck!’”

During rehearsals for Devil, co-star Marisa Tomei recalls, Hoffman walked around with a pad of paper with scribbles all over it. “He said it was a diagram of what his character was doing,” she says. “It looked like Egyptian hieroglyphics. He said he had to keep the plates spinning.”

Other friends recall how demanding Hoffman could be on them, all for the sake of the best performance and production possible. Katz recalls standing with Hoffman after a reading of one of Katz’s plays. When it was over, theatergoers approached Katz, weeping. “But Phil looks at me and says, ‘Don’t let this go to your head – this play needs a lot of work,’” Katz remembers. “To him, the emotional reaction was not authentic. And Phil was always right. He was a truth machine.” Another time, a line in one of Katz’s plays that elicited a laugh from an audience spurred Hoffman to snap at Katz, “You want to be a clown? You want to entertain? Cut it.”

Outside the Public Theater in New York, Hoffman was once seen pacing back and forth, cursing about an element of a production that had gone wrong. “Life is only as good as the day you do your work well,” he told RS in 2005. “You’re working and you do good work. But how you feel after that moment is the satisfaction you carry with you. And it’s as satisfied as you’ll get, you know what I mean?”

For the past few years, working with his friends in theater while acting in huge Hollywood roles, Hoffman seemed to reach new zeniths. He’d been nominated for Oscars for Best Supporting Actor three times in five years, for Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), Doubt (2008) and The Master (2012). He’d co-founded Labyrinth with actor and friend John Ortiz in the 1990s; its performance space and gathering of artistic friends became his second home, a few minutes’ walk from his apartment. “We were extremely close, but the bulk of our relationship was work, and that was intense and all-encompassing,” says Guirgis. “We didn’t go fishing, you know.”

Hoffman was the esteemed patriarch of the troupe. Generous with his earnings, he gave more than $300,000 to keep Labyrinth running and even paid for friends’ rent. He certainly didn’t spend the cash on his appearance. “Mimi was able to introduce new clothes into his wardrobe,” Guirgis says with a laugh. “She’d constantly say, ‘Phil, this is what I do for a living!’ He’d find a way to make them look like he’d been wearing them for 20 years.”

Hoffman referred to his physical appearance with charming self-deprecation. Two years ago, he showed up for a TV interview in Manhattan on his bicycle, dripping sweat, dragging his bike into an elevator and waving off a request for makeup. “What for?” he joked. “It can’t really help.”

But recently, Hoffman was looking more frayed than usual. To some close friends, he wasn’t quite the same after he threw himself into playing Willy Loman in Mike Nichols’ Broadway production of Death of a Salesman in 2012, earning his third Tony Award nomination. It was the role of a lifetime, and Hoffman tore into it, breaking down in tears nightly onstage. “That play tortured him,” says Katz, who would see him every morning after they dropped their kids off at the same school. “He was miserable through that entire run. No matter what he was doing, he knew that at 8:00 that night he’d do that to himself again. If you keep doing that on a continual basis, it rewires your brain, and he was doing that to himself every night. When it was over, he said to me he wasn’t going to act in theater for a while.”

Later that year, Hoffman dropped by Hawke’s off-Broadway production of Chekhov’s Ivanov. (Hoffman was beloved for the ways in which he would always catch his friends’ theater work and offer his support. “He was a stand-up, show-up guy,” says Guirgis.) Backstage, Hawke noticed a different, more troubled Hoffman. “Ivanov is about depression and the black hole you can fall into when depression descends,” Hawke says. “To be honest, it was a little upsetting how much that play affected him. He loved that play. It really spoke to him. He was not at his happiest.”

Hawke says he never saw Hoffman take a drink until he was in Salesman. Not long after that production, Hoffman told a friend that he’d been sober so long – 23 years – that he felt he could risk drinking again “in moderation.” But by the next spring he had checked himself into rehab.

It wasn’t enough to tame his addiction. At the end of 2013, at O’Donnell’s insistence, he had moved out of their home and into a nearby apartment he’d rented as a work space. (He’d taken the place to begin with because, as he told a friend, he couldn’t memorize lines with three kids running around.) “They were constantly in touch, and he would’ve been back in the house the moment he was clean,” says Guirgis. “She was committed to him for life – she said it to me last night – and he was committed to her.” In December, Hoffman seemed to relapse again. He attended a Narcotics Anonymous meeting and said he was counting his sobriety “in days.” Less than a week before his death, he called a reporter from the set of Hunger Games and sounded incoherent, slurry and barely awake in the middle of the afternoon; he kept forgetting names of people he’d worked with. Photos surfaced of Hoffman looking truly disheveled, drinking alone in bars. On the night of February 1st, after he’d spoken to O’Donnell, he reportedly withdrew $1,200 in cash from a grocery-store ATM, and gave it to two men, whom police suspect supplied him with heroin.

Whatever precipitated Hoffman’s fatal bender, friends assert it was not a suicidal streak but a relapse turned deadly. “The addiction was always trying to find a way back in, and it started using the idea that the kid was an addict, and now he’s an adult with incredible willpower,” says Katz. “He was a guy in his midforties who said to himself, ‘I never had a drink or used drugs in my adult life.’ So maybe the adult thought he could handle it.”

The body of work he leaves behind remains a tribute to his struggle for excellence, a restless need to create and work. He had 55 theatrical and TV movies under his belt, an astonishing number for someone who’d been in the business for only 23 years. “How did he do that?” Louiso says. “He channeled that addictive personality into his work.” His nonstop drive may have been a way of distracting himself. A friend, writer-producer Jeff Roda, wrote after Hoffman’s death, “Phil taught me something about genius. It commits without prejudice, believes wholeheartedly and toils tirelessly and without restraint. It is always pushing, pushing, pushing toward the edge, wherever that may be.”

Hoffman’s death leaves a gaping hole – with his family, with his friends at the Labyrinth company, and in the arts world. And it leaves unanswered, for now, the question of how a consummate professional with such a large degree of self-control for so long tumbled off the wagon just long enough for a fatal fall. “What happened was one tragic moment,” says Katz. “He had his shit together, and wanted to live. The ‘downward spiral,’ that kind of clichéd narrative, was not the reality.”

In the days after Hoffman’s death, a stream of friends – Paul Thomas Anderson, Joaquin Phoenix, Cate Blanchett and other colleagues – dropped by the Hoffman home to pay their respects. Three nights after his death, a candlelight vigil was held in the snow-and-slush-filled courtyard outside the Labyrinth. Playwright Eric Bogosian read a eulogy to his friend: “In this world of creative enterprise, it is ultimately up to the artist to decide how high a bar he or she will set for himself. Phil set his bar on the highest rung. On a rung above the highest rung. He pushed himself relentlessly, until finally his efforts virtually redefined the very endeavor we call ‘acting.’ He wanted to rock the world.” The hundreds gathered lit votive candles and held them aloft. Despite the steady drizzle from the winter storm, none were extinguished

  • David Browne for Rolling Stone


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