The Tragic Last Days and Brilliant Career of Philip Seymour Hoffman

His closest friends remember the greatest actor of his generation

Hoffman as rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s 'Almost Famous,' 2000
Neal Preston
By David Browne
Mar 04, 2014

SLOUCHED IN THE FRONT ROW of the Labyrinth Theater Company’s performance space in New York’s West Village last May, Philip Seymour Hoffman was his typical focused, superdisciplined 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, at press time, 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 dec-ades. 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 f*** 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.”

This is an extract. To read the full story, pick up a copy of Rolling Stone Middle East

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