Taking stock of an actor’s legacy on the stage is trickier than summing up a career on screen. After all, we can all go back and watch a film performance with the click of a mouse or by sliding in a DVD. Movies are endlessly available to us. The stage, on the other hand, is a living thing that varies from night to night. Some nights are magical, others less so. But when a show’s run ends, so does its life. It can be remembered, but not relived.
Maybe that’s why I feel incredibly lucky to be able to look back on a handful of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s most indelible stage performances and think that, for a brief moment, I shared something with him. Something that lived and breathed and was over too soon. I know I’m not alone. I’m sure that anyone who sat in a hushed Broadway theater to see Hoffman play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, or James Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, or either of the warring brothers in Sam Shepard’s True West feels that way too. That we were witnessing something special and magical at that moment — not just in the grim hindsight of his premature death Sunday at age 46.
A lot of famous actors pay lip service to the theater. How it’s their first love and how they plan to return to the boards as soon as they finish up their latest blockbuster. But few actually follow through on it. Hoffman was one of the rare actors who returned to the theater time and time again without making a big deal about it. For him, it seemed to be a safe harbor he couldn’t wait to get back to. Not because performing on stage is easy, but because it’s hard. He seemed to relish the challenge of digging deep into his soul and laying its contents bare night after night. By all accounts, it was his first love — and professionally at least, his deepest one.
The first time I saw Hoffman on stage was at Circle in the Square in 2000, when he and John C. Reilly co-starred in the bleak sibling slugfest, True West. Hoffman already had a long history in the theater as an actor, director, and artistic director for New York’s Labyrinth Theater Company. But at the time, I knew him only from the movies. I remember first registering his still-boyish face in Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut film, Hard Eight. Oddly, with each subsequent encounter, I felt like I had less and less of a bead on the guy. How could the disheveled tornado chaser from Twister be the same guy who brutally beats himself up after being spurned by Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights? What could the preppie jerk in a rep tie from The Talented Mr. Ripley possibly have in common with the pre-op transgender woman in Flawless or with Jason Robards’ saint-like caregiver in Magnolia? And where did the actor playing a grinning sycophant talking about the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers fit into all of this?
The answer was staring us in the face all along: Philip Seymour Hoffman could do anything.
Still, I wasn’t prepared for what Hoffman had hiding up the sleeve of his Lacoste shirt in True West. That night, I sat in slack-jawed awe as Hoffman and Reilly put each other through the paces like Ali and Frazier as estranged brothers reckoning with the past. That night, Hoffman played Austin, a fastidious Hollywood screenwriter (think of a rumbling volcano ready to blow), while Reilly played Lee, his scary, short-fused, beer-swilling brother (think of that same volcano belching lava). Watching them, it felt like World War III was breaking out on 50th Street, as an entire history of recriminations, insinuations, threats, and violence detonated on stage.
The stunt of this particular production was that Hoffman and Reilly were alternating roles each night. So the next week, I went back. Almost impossibly, it was even better. Neither actor gave you a carbon copy of what the other did. There were two entirely different performances. Two entirely different plays. And when Hoffman traded in the pent-up anger of Austin for the hair-trigger violence of Lee, he was so good — so fearless, ferocious, and exposed — I almost couldn’t remember how he’d played the other part. Whichever night you went, you couldn’t go wrong.
In 2003, I saw Hoffman’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I say, “Hoffman’s Long Day’s Journey…”, but at the time, it was rightly being billed as Vanessa Redgrave’s play. After all, she had the flashiest part in the Eugene O’Neill classic (maybe the flashiest female part in all of 20th century theater) — the role of the morphine-addicted matriarch, Mary. And despite a cast that also included Brian Dennehy as her husband James, and Robert Sean Leonard as the sickly poet son Edmund, it was Hoffman as James — the cynical, alcoholic older son — who reached into the back row of the Plymouth Theater and grabbed you by the scruff of your neck, shook you like a rag doll, and let you have it. I didn’t know anything about Hoffman’s personal life or demons at the time, but I knew then that what he was grappling with in the play felt real and honest and true. So much so that when Hoffman wasn’t on stage, you missed him and wanted him to come staggering back in from the wings with another sour dart of a put-down.
In 2012, I wrote a story for EW about Mike Nichols, who at the time was directing the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Before the play opened, a lot of theater folks groused that Hoffman was too young for the role of Willy Loman. Hoffman proved them wrong. Is he different than Dennehy’s Willy or Dustin Hoffman’s? Absolutely. But I’d argue that Philip Seymour Hoffman brought something that those two incarnations lacked. An existential sort of world-weariness and inner pain. Every production of Salesman is selling the same theme of the American Dream gone sour. But Hoffman’s twist was so bitter it made you pucker. Physically, his heft added to the sense of weight the character carries around until it’s too much to bear.
After seeing the play, I interviewed Nichols over brunch, where he couldn’t stop singing his leading man’s praises. And I’ll end with a quote that stuck with me then and now:
“We’ve worked together a number of times now. What he does is completely mysterious, you never understand it or find it out. Did you see that Sam Shepard play where he plays both parts? Astounding. Impossible. And he became Truman Capote even though he’s five times the size of the little twerp. He became Truman Capote. He’s like Meryl Streep — nobody knows how the f— they do what they do. And for me, he’s a kind of compass. If something’s uncomfortable for him, I know it’s wrong.”