I first saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in 1995, in Paul Calderón’s off-off Broadway play Divine Horsemen. He played a developmentally disabled kid whose prize comic book collection is targeted by three thieves. My good friends were the sound designers for the production, and I joined them and the cast when they all went out for drinks after the show. This was before Phil had done very many films, and I did not know who he was yet (although I realize in retrospect that I had already seen him play small roles in Nobody’s Fool, Scent of a Woman, and Leap of Faith). That night is the only time in my life when I have been unable to reconcile an actor I had met in person with the character I had seen him portray earlier on stage. He so completely transformed himself into the sad, mentally challenged young man of the play that I couldn't believe he was actually just another up-and-coming New York actor, working hard at putting together a career.
Of course there was nothing average or ordinary about Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was an exceptional and exceptionally gifted actor. I consider myself extremely lucky to have seen several plays he acted in, as well as the amazing work he directed and produced with New York’s Labyrinth Theater Company. I will especially treasure the memories of the plays written by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Their collaborations, including In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings, Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, Our Lady of 121st Street, and The Little Flower of East Orange, exemplified everything exciting and alive about the downtown theater scene. I've always regretted not going to see Hoffman in the Tony-award winning Broadway productions of True West (in which he and John C. Reilly switched between the play’s two roles from night to night) and Long Day's Journey Into Night (with an unbelievable dream cast of Brian Dennehy, Vanessa Redgrave, Robert Sean Leonard, Fiana Toibin and Phil.) I now lament not buying a ticket to either of those.
With his big fleshy features, ruddy completion, and stringy unkempt hair, I didn't think he looked like someone destined to become a big movie star the night I met him in 1995. It was exciting to see his film career take off so soon afterwards--it was only a year and a half later that his breakthrough role in Boogie Nights put him on everyone’s radar. I faithfully bought a ticket to every one of his movies and he never disappointed. His onscreen range was astounding. He played tortured souls in films like Boogie Nights, Happiness, and Love Liza, took small, goofy turns in The Big Lebowski and Twister, and gave a stirring, transformative, Oscar-winning performance in the biopic Capote. But I always liked him best in pictures like The Talented Mr. Ripley, Almost Famous, Punch-Drunk Love, and Charlie Wilson's War : cocky, snarky, darkly comedic and slightly sinister. Phil could tear into these parts like no one else and it’s these roles that I return to over and over. Hoffman was only 46 when he died, and now we can only imagine the tremendous work that surely lay ahead of him. His death represents a great loss to film and theater.