One Tuesday night at the 101 Coffee Shop in Los Angeles, I was sitting at a booth and a friend pointed out a shaggy-haired stocky man who was standing by the front door being loud and obnoxious. "That's Philip Seymour Hoffman," he said. Sure enough, with the next word, Hoffman shouted in that unmistakable deep timbre.
It is to Hoffman's credit as an actor that not many of us knew about his personal life until he was found dead yesterday in his New York City apartment. If it had turned out he was happily married with three kids, I wouldn't have been surprised. Nor if he was gay. Nor a swinging bachelor. But judging by Facebook and Twitter feeds, a lot of people were not only obviously saddened but shocked by the news that he was found dead with a syringe in his arm and an envelope of heroin near his body this Sunday.
When you see a movie with Brad Pitt, he's always playing a variation on Brad Pitt. Same goes with Leonardo DiCaprio, whether he is a Wolf on Wall Street or going down with the Titanic, he is still always like Leo. Hoffman was a rarity in Hollywood, a name actor who became a movie star while still able to disappear into his roles.
In the late '90s, it seemed he was in every great movie. In Boogie Nights, he was the boom operator who couldn't hide his crush on Dirk Diggler. From his jean shorts and shaggy hair in that porny flick, it would be impossible to recognize Hoffman in his next feature as Brandt the personal snooty assistant for The Big Lebowski.
He was a chronic masturbator in Happiness, the Oakland A's baseball manager in Moneyball, and won his Oscar as the great writer in Capote. He slummed it a few times as the villain in Mission Impossible III and more recently in The Hunger Games sequels, but more often than not, he chose the weird and the outlandish. Sometimes the movies were popular, as in Punch Drunk Love; sometimes they sunk under the weight of their own precociousness, as in Synecdoche, New York, but Hoffman was always reliable.
Never more so than in the role that made Philip Seymour Hoffman a household name as the legendary music critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. In his few short scenes, Hoffman steals the show by espousing the greatness of rock 'n' roll in a fashion that out-Jack-Blacked Jack Black. In an empty coffee shop, Hoffman tries to discourage a teenaged admirer from making a career as a music journalist. He says there's no money in it (although 35 bucks in 1975 dollars to write 1,000 words about Black Sabbath doesn't sound half bad). Rock 'n' roll is dead, he says, while at the same time, using eloquence and wit, he makes it sound like being a music writer is the greatest job in the world.
I think back to that other coffee shop, the one he was at when there were no cameras or film crews. It was around the time he won the Oscar for Capote, and we watched as customers and waitresses recognized Hoffman but did not bother him. He seemed to be at that perfect level of fame. Respected, known, but no paparazzi. If people saw him acting a fool, they didn't give him a hard time; they gave him a nod and left with a story to tell. And though he seemed happy and free that evening, by his final fate, it is apparent he had his demons.
As film connoisseurs we can be grateful that Hoffman was able to access those demons in his performances; as human beings, we must mourn that they consumed him. I will always think of the wise words he recited at the end of Almost Famous -- not only the guidelines for music writers (when he suggests such scribes to be "honest and unmerciful") but a few lines earlier where he reminds us: "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we're uncool."