Philip Seymour Hoffman

Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s obituary in “The Guardian” in 2014

Phillip Seymour Hoffman who has died aged 46 of a suspected drugs overdose, had three names and 3,000 ways of expressing anxiety. He was a prolific and old-fashioned character actor, which is not a euphemism for “odd” – it means he could nail a part in one punch, summoning the richness of an entire life in the smallest gesture. And, yes, he could also look splendidly odd, with his windbeaten thatch of sandy hair, porcine eyes and a freckled face that would glow puce and glossy with rage. His acting style was immune to the temptations of caricature. His rise in the 1990s coincided with the emergence of a new wave of American film-makers, and his versatile, volatile talent became integral to some of the most original US cinema of the past 20 years.

He was also an accomplished stage actor and director whose notable achievements included a 2000 Broadway production of Sam Shepard’s True West, during which he and his co-star John C Reilly alternated parts, and co-founding Labyrinth, a non-profit theatre company. He made his debut as a film director with a 2010 adaptation of Bob Glaudini’s play Jack Goes Boating, in which he reprised his stage performance as the title character, a limousine driver edging tentatively toward romance.Advertisement

It was for screen acting alone that Hoffman was best known. His speciality was the craven and the carbuncular. He could take the most pitiful souls – his CV was populated almost exclusively by snivelling wretches, insufferable prigs, braggarts and outright bullies – and imbue each of them with a wrenching humanity. The more pathetic or deluded the character, the greater Hoffman’s relish seemed in rescuing them from the realms of the merely monstrous. Not that it came easily. “It’s hard,” he said in 2012. “The job isn’t difficult. Doing it well is difficult.” He told this paper that “just because you like to do something doesn’t mean you have fun doing it; and I think that’s true about acting”.

From his first, minor supporting roles in the early 1990s, he proved the old saw that there are no small parts, only small actors – and he was small in neither sense of the word. Built like a truck, and as dishevelled as a trucker, he used his frame and his unkemptness with immense dexterity.

When he played sad-sacks riddled with self-loathing, such as the boom operator who squirms with unrequited love for a male colleague in Boogie Nights (1997), or an obscene phone-caller in Happiness (1998) who fails to make good on his threats when his bluff is called, he used his bulk to emphasise those characters’ rancid unease. But as the pompous Freddie in The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), he deployed his body as a blunt instrument, butting in where he was not welcome.

It was one of the tricks of Hoffman’s elegantly cruel performance that when Freddie met his bloody end, the audience was likely to feel relieved and complicit; he was such a doggedly discomfiting presence, it was clear he could be stilled only by death. “This actor is fearless,” said Meryl Streep of his work in the movie. “He’s given this awful character the respect he deserves, and made him fascinating.”

These were the parts that established Hoffman’s reputation. Boogie Nights was especially notable for cementing the actor’s collaboration with the writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson. That was his most fruitful creative partnership, spanning all but one of Anderson’s six films. They first worked together on the director’s debut, the thriller Hard Eight (1996).

After Boogie Nights, Anderson gave Hoffman a rare saintly role in the multi-character drama Magnolia (1999). It was one of the peculiarities of Hoffman’s skill that the more benevolent or affable his role, the more his natural idiosyncrasies seemed stymied. As a kindly nurse in Magnolia, or a naive screenwriter in David Mamet’s State and Main (2000), or a good-hearted drag queen helping a gruff cop (Robert De Niro) who has suffered a stroke in Flawless (1999), Hoffman seemed subdued, even thwarted. It was not that he could not play good guys; rather that he excelled at locating the virtues in the apparently vile.

Fortunately Anderson went on to cast him as the boss of a phone-sex line in Punch-Drunk Love (2002) and as the leader of a Scientology-like religion in The Master (2012). For their work on the latter picture, effectively an extended two-man face-off, Hoffman and his co-star Joaquin Phoenix shared the best actor prize at the Venice film festival.

Though he was nominated three times in the best supporting actor category at the Academy Awards (for Charlie Wilson’s War, Doubt and The Master), his one actual Oscar was for best actor for Capote (2005), in which he played the barbed, lisping wit during his In Cold Blood period.

Unlike Toby Jones, who was Capote in a rival movie, Infamous, Hoffman was not a natural physical fit for the part. His performance amounted therefore to an act of will equivalent to Anthony Hopkins playing Nixon. He bridged a similar chasm as Willy Loman, a character far older than him for the majority of the play’s action, in Mike Nichols’s 2012 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman: he had first played the part aged 17 as a high school senior.

Hoffman was born in Fairport, New York, to Gordon Stowell Hoffman, a former executive at Xerox, and his wife, now Marilyn O’Connor, who worked as a civil rights activist, lawyer and family court judge. His parents divorced when Hoffman was nine, and he and his two sisters and one brother were raised by their mother. Though his initial aptitude was in sports, a neck injury put paid to his wrestling ambitions and he joined an acting group at her encouragement. He spent a summer at the Circle in the Square Theatre School and studied drama at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. He graduated in 1989, but a spell in rehab to combat alcoholism and drug dependency preceded the start of his professional acting career. He made a further return to rehab in May last year.

Early opportunities to indulge his skill for making unctuousness compelling came in the roles of a school snitch in the Al Pacino vehicle Scent of a Woman (1992), for which Hoffman auditioned five times. That brought him to the attention of Anderson, who cast him as a gambler in Hard Eight. In no time, the secret was out that Hoffman was an actor who could bring colour and vitality to any film. He was one of a team of tornado-chasers in the blockbuster Twister (1996), produced by Steven Spielberg. And in only a handful of scenes he brought to ripe, repugnant life a sycophantic functionary in the Coen brothers’ caper The Big Lebowski (1998).

Suddenly Hoffman was everywhere. His name on the credits became a reliable indicator that, however poor the film, there would at least be an eccentric or abrasive component – a case in point being Patch Adams (1999), in which Hoffman provides some prickly relief from the picture’s ingratiating star, Robin Williams.

He had a film-stealing cameo as the music journalist Lester Bangs in Almost Famous (2000), played a forlorn widower in Love Liza, written by his brother Gordy, and gave a tender portrayal of a teacher excited by a student’s attentions in one of the sub-plots of Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (both 2002). Cold Mountain (2003), in which he had a small role as a disreputable preacher during the American civil war, was Hoffman’s second film with the British director Anthony Minghella (after The Talented Mr Ripley), while the Ben Stiller comedy Along Came Polly (2004) provided him with a rare digression into broad mainstream high jinks.

The success of Capote paved the way for bigger and more nuanced parts for Hoffman, his turn as the villain in Mission: Impossible III (2006) notwithstanding. He had a striking hat-trick in 2007: he was moving and funny as one of a pair of siblings caring for a parent with dementia in The Savages, and bullish in Charlie Wilson’s War as a cynical, overbearing CIA agent with a disturbing moustache. Best of all was his bestial turn as a conniving dunce who persuades his brother to join him in robbing their parents’ jewellery store in Sidney Lumet‘s oddly melancholy heist thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; Hoffman made sure we felt for the character through his every malevolent mis-step.

An adaptation of the Broadway hit Doubt (2008), in which he played a priest who may or may not have abused an altar boy, was a rather silly prestige project. As a flamboyant American DJ, the actor brought a little gravitas to Richard Curtis’s woeful comedy The Boat That Rocked (2009). He starred opposite George Clooney in the political thriller The Ides of March and with Brad Pitt in the acclaimed sports drama Moneyball (both 2011). Last year he was seen as a musician with marital problems in the drama A Late Quartet.

Having appeared in the second film in the lucrative Hunger Games series, Catching Fire (2013), he moved on to the third and fourth instalments, Mockingjay Part I and Part II; he was said to have almost completed his scenes at the time of his death. Arguably his towering accomplishment, though, is his performance in the 2008 oddity Synecdoche, New York, written and directed by Charlie Kaufman. Dominating the film, Hoffman plays a theatre director who uses a MacArthur grant to mount a detailed version of his own life, staged on a set of New York built to scale inside a colossal warehouse. Soon the project expands until there are warehouses within warehouses, populated by thousands of performers. A production first modelled on reality comes eventually to overwhelm and replace it. “When are we going to get an audience in here?” asks one of the actors. “It’s been 17 years.” But there is never going to be any audience. The mantra of Hoffman’s obsessive character, which he is still murmuring as he dies, is: “I know how to do this play now.”

Hoffman is survived by his partner, the costume designer Mimi O’Donnell; their three children, Cooper, Tallulah and Willa; Gordy and his sisters, Jill and Emily; and his parents.

• Philip Seymour Hoffman, actor, born 23 July 1967; died 2 February 2014

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