The Philip Seymour Hoffman We Knew

The Oscar-winner was a giant on stage and screen, who never lost the common touch

Philip Seymour Hoffman died in the West Village at the age of 46 (Getty)

Philip Seymour Hoffman died in the West Village at the age of 46 (Getty)

Philip Seymour Hoffman was the quintessential New York actor.

He embodied everything we value: international success, of course, but also a cerebral approach to his craft that was rooted in art and learning rather than Hollywood glamour.

He was also our neighbor.

A man resting his paunch against the bar at Automatic Slims, enjoying a cheeseburger and soda dinner, as he did just this Saturday, the night before he died.

Hoffman—as the Academy Award winner and leading Broadway talent—was a giant of an actor who sought out complex roles.

Yet he inhabited our shared city on a human scale, in a way that Los Angeles celebrities with their cars and gates and walk-in shoe closets do not.

A rumpled native of Rochester, Hoffman moved to Manhattan to attend New York University in the 1980s. But he never bothered to shrug off that light coating of upstate dust and snow—the “Phil” in the Philip Seymour Hoffman—a quality that was central to his charm.

I encountered him half a dozen times.

The nicest memory was attending carols one Christmas Eve at the Washington Square Arch. I slowly became aware of standing next to a burly, middle-aged man, who seemed to be rolled into his parka like a jam filling, following the song sheet along with his girlfriend and their three young children.

They were holding candles with paper drip-catchers and it seemed ridiculously like a scene from a film—although not one that he would ever have made. His taste was edgier than that.

Hoffman was also the neighbor of a friend in a somewhat dingy Sheridan Square apartment building—not the glamorous glass co-op that has been in the news as the address where he rented an office, and died. This place was tall and narrow and seemed to be held up by its elbows by the buildings on either side, like a tipsy widow in Dickens.

It was an odd place for one of the world’s leading actors, but then it didn’t have a doorman. Knowing what we do now, I wonder whether that was part of its appeal.

He could be a prickly interview.

I remember one exchange with him at the premiere of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” an ensemble piece co-starring Albert Finney, Marissa Tomei and Ethan Hawke. It was the last film made by director Sidney Lumet.

Despite the wattage of its talent, the film was a small independent production and excited little media interest. The “red carpet” was barely three reporters and a photographer, but even then, Hoffman seemed not in the mood to talk.

After a couple fruitless minutes of conversation I confessed to him I didn’t know how to pronounce “Lumet”—which happened to be true, but was mainly a ploy to make some human connection with the unwilling interview subject.

This offended him greatly.

“It’s loo-MET!” he growled, and stalked off to speak to the next astonished reporter, who was probably the fashion intern from In Touch.

Just as she was about to hazard a question, he looked back over his shoulder at me and shot, “you should have known that.

He was right, of course. Although I was a little stung at the exchange, it was an honest moment from an erudite man.

Hoffman was an actor who was equal parts head and heart, Oscar-winner and cheeseburger-lover, giant and neighbor.

Comments

  1. Very interesting. He was a great talent. But I think your best point here was “he inhabited our shared city on a human scale.” Sorry you had a rough experience, though!