By Eleanor Ringel Cater
How did this happen?
Oscar-winning actor, Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his apartment Super Bowl Sunday. He was 46. And do I need to tell you he was found with a needle in his arm?
Hoffman was a ferociously fine actor, with the looks of a character player, but the charisma of a leading man. He often bounced back and forth between the two — with an ease we took for granted.
I met Hoffman once. In 2002, I think. Up in his hometown of Rochester, New York (actually, he was born in Fairport, a Rochester suburb). What I remembered most — aside from being more than a bit awestruck — is how much he reminded me of Charlie Brown’s dirt-centric friend, Pigpen.
Hoffman was frankly a mess, who more or less held together — completely comfortable he was with himself. He was glad to say hello, exchange a few words (mostly having to listen to me gush incoherently). Then it was clear that, while he was in no way blowing me off, he was exceedingly focused on the debut of his older brother Gordy’s new picture, “Love Lisa,” in which Philip played the lead role.
The movie, which, eerily, is about a man trying to cope with his wife’s suicide, didn’t do much for either brother’s career (which is not to say it’s a bad movie). But what strikes me now, thinking back, is how smitten I was with him, and he had yet to make: “Capote” (for which he won the Oscar), “Doubt,” “Charlie Wilson’s War” or “The Master” (three more nominations).
Also in the future: “The Savages,” “Pirate Radio,” “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” “Moneyball,” ”A Late Quartet,” “The Hunger Games” series and a half dozen others.
However, I was gushing because, by 2002, he had already made “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights,” “State and Main,” “Almost Famous,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Happiness,” “The Big Lebowski,” and at least another half dozen titles.
He was in movies you probably don’t even remember him being in. Say, “Cold Mountain,” “Punch-Drunk Love” and “Mission: Impossible III.”
And while I in no way hold Atlanta responsible for his death, he was filming “Hunger Games: Mockingjay —Part 2, having just finished “Part 1.”
He was one of those actors who rarely turned in a mediocre performance. He was always vibrant, almost demonically so, even when he was playing kinder gentler parts.
Apparently, those inner demons were even more powerful than we could’ve imagined.
Here are a few of his roles I loved best.
Celebrated music critic Lester Bangs, parsing out advice on everything from rock gods to worried moms in “Almost Famous.”
A wealthy, icily homophobic hanger-on, smugly happy to be part of Jude Law’s entourage in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
A dying Jason Robards’ infinitely tender and patient nurse in “Magnolia.”
A savvy, Falstaff-ian political insider in both “Charlie Wilson’s War” and “The Ides of March.”
A rookie screenwriter clearly out of his depth in David Mamet’s “State and Main.”
One half of a pained brother-sister (Laura Linney), both very, very, very out of their depth when faced with their elderly father’s increasing dementia.
A pair of manipulative “holy” men in “Doubt” and “The Master.”
Tied to a wheelchair and screaming bloody murder —and on fire and with his lips bitten off— as a self-infatuate tabloid reporter in “Red Dragon.”
Playing games as the new Gamesmaster in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
Transformed without condescension or character-actor-ish showiness as author Truman Capote (“Capote”).
In that film, as Capote, Hoffman says, “Ever since I was a child, folks have thought they had me pegged because of the way I am, the way I talk. And they’re always wrong.”
We never had Philip Seymour Hoffman pegged. And that is part of his brilliance. And his tragedy.