As the eulogies for actor Philip Seymour Hoffman pour in, as the debate over untimely deaths of celebrities from drug addiction are renewed, yet again, this may be the time to remember that he was our guy, too. Hoffman was a native and lifelong resident of New York state, and there are many folks in the region who worked with him on stage, or onscreen, and many folks who knew him back in Fairport, a suburb outside of Rochester where he grew up, or from his high-school-theater residency in Saratoga Springs, or from the early days of his career as a member of LAByrinth, the acclaimed, groundbreaking theater ensemble that had its beginnings at the State University of Albany theater department during the late 80s. A SUNYA theater major at the time who remembers Hoffman’s first forays on stage is Albany Common Councilwoman Leah Golby.
“My classmate, John Ortiz, did Peter Sellers’ Merchant of Venice in Chicago in 1994, and Phil was in the show,” she recalls. “That was the first time I met him. Phil struck me as an incredibly down-to-earth person.”
After Merchant, the Latino Actors Base, or LAB, started up in the West Village in New York City and evolved into LAByrinth. Hoffman was not only a member, but an artistic director of the ensemble. “I had a couple of other occasions to meet him,” says Golby. “His vibe was always that of an honest soul. He was good people.”
On Feb. 2, Hoffman was found dead of an apparent heroin overdose in his West Village apartment. He was 46 years old, and the father of three children with his partner of many years. A memorial on the Labyrinth website includes this statement: “He was a friend, leader, and extraordinary talent whose lasting impact on Labyrinth will never be forgotten.”
Selected at 17 to attend the New York State Summer School of the Arts in Saratoga Springs, Hoffman became one of the brightest lights of Broadway, earning three Tony nominations, the first of which was a leading-man nod for True West in 2000. He had three Emmy nominations as well. The perennially disheveled, chameleon-like actor was better known as a film star, however, especially after his 1995 breakthrough in Boogie Nights as a pathetic, wanna-be pornographer. Astonishingly, he had more than 50 films to his credit, and a depth and breadth of talent that few, if any, actors of his generation can match. And Hoffman’s film career also had a beginning in the Capital Region.
His first substantial film role was in Scent of a Woman, partly shot at Emma Willard School in Troy in 1992. Hoffman played George Willis, a mendacious rich-kid classmate in opposition to Chris O’Donnell’s prep-school outsider, Charlie Simms. Among the local extras were students from Tamarac High School, including Tim Hatch from Cropseyville, who was on set for six days and had scenes with the then-unknown actor from upstate.
“At the time, he seemed liked a professional, normal young guy,” recalls Hatch. “I didn’t know much of him. All the talk on set was about Pacino.” From the perspective of more than 20 years as a working actor, however, Hatch says, “It does seem that PSH was a workaholic, and that does take its toll. I am amazed at the amazing and varied career he had in such a short time.”
Probably no one could’ve predicted that the seemingly unremarkable (at least in looks) Hoffman would eventually be in the same ranking, at least with critics, as the film’s Oscar-winning lead actor, Al Pacino, while eclipsing the older actor for risk-taking and range of expertise.
Hailed for the originality of his work in edgy indie films such as Happiness, Hoffman had recently branched into mainstream mega-film with the Hunger Games: Catching Fire. He won an Academy Award for best actor for Capote in 2005. Last year, he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor for the fourth time, for The Master, giving a staggering authenticity to a religious charlatan. This difficult role showed Hoffman at the absolute top of his game, but he was never less than mesmerizing. This cinematic high-water mark came close on the heels of another pinnacle, Hoffman’s highly lauded lead turn as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman on Broadway.
Why then, why now (why at all), Hoffman’s fatal dalliance with drugs? Perhaps that will never be known, and in terms of his acting, it is not even a factor.
Perhaps my favorite of Hoffman’s performances is Gust Avrakotos, the wily CIA operative in Charlie Wilson’s War with Tom Hanks. You’ve seen the type before: ethically ambiguous agent implementing one agenda while fomenting another. But not like this. Not this complex, nuanced, and sublimely comic. Hoffman’s intuitive comedic timing alone has made the film’s “Bugging the Scotch” sequence an instant classic.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, 1967-2014. He was our guy, too, and he will be missed.