The first time I talked to Jay Leno, he was explaining to me why he was being so mean to someone.
That’s right. Jay Leno–always amiable, always upbeat, too nice to a fault according to some critics—wanted me to understand why he didn’t feel bad about making some pretty nasty monologue jokes about a public figure.
It was the summer of 1998.
I had written a column for the Sun-Times criticizing Leno for an apparent double standard. Leno had apologized for making fun of overweight bikers at a Harley-Davidson event in Milwaukee, but he wasn’t backing down from making jokes about the physical appearance of Linda Tripp, a key figure in the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal. (While acting as a mentor of sorts to Lewinsky, Tripp had secretly tape-recorded phone conversations in which she encouraged Lewinsky to spill the details of her relationship with the president.)
“Linda Tripp testified last week,” was the set-up for one of Leno’s monologue jokes. “For a minute, I thought they were re-running the movie ‘Tootsie…’ ”
If Philip Seymour Hoffman ever gave an uninteresting performance, I can’t recall it.
A prolific actor who had more than 60 credits on his IMDB resume, Mr. Hoffman was just 46 years old. He was found dead of an apparent drug overdose in his New York apartment on Sunday morning.
Mr. Hoffman’s family and friends lost a still-young man who couldn’t overcome his addiction. Mr. Hoffman’s legions of admirers and fans are left to wonder about how many other amazing characters he would have created over the next 30 years.
As it is, he leaves behind one of the most impressive legacies of work of any actor of his generation. In addition to a good two dozen outstanding film roles, Mr. Hoffman was a force on the stage, with Tony nominations for roles that required some serious heavy dramatic lifting: “True West,” “Death of a Salesman” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
But of course Mr. Hoffman will be best-remembered for all that great character acting and some unforgettable lead roles in all those terrific films over nearly a quarter-century.
From his role as a sniveling, smarmy prepster in “Scent of a Woman” through memorable supporting roles in “Boogie Nights” and “The Big Lebowski” to his Oscar-winning work in “Capote” to standout performances in “Doubt” and “Moneyball,” Mr. Hoffman displayed virtually unlimited versatility in playing a remarkably wide-ranging number of characters.
Whether he was playing a pudgy horn dog lusting after Mark Wahlberg in “Boogie Nights,” a priest suspected of improper behavior in “Doubt” or a desperate gambling addict in “Owning Mahowny,” Mr. Hoffman had an uncanny ability to disappear into his characters. So many of his characters were snobby (the casually cruel best friend to Jude Law in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”), snarky (the tabloid reporter in “Hannibal”) or prone to committing crimes (the weak-willed brother in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”), yet Hoffman’s performances were so rich and strong and vibrant, we enjoyed the hell out of his work even as we recoiled at the actions of his characters.
Mr. Hoffman was just as great playing the kind of normal, everyday person who’s nearly invisible to the rest of the world as he goes through his daily grind, in films such as “The Savages” and “Jack Goes Boating” (which was also directed by Mr. Hoffman). He had that distinctively dry, deadpan way of speaking; at times it almost seemed as if he was in pain just thinking about what he was going to say next in a particularly dicey situation.
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On the night after Philip Seymour Hoffman won the Academy Award for his transfixing performance in the 2005 film “Capote,” I happened to be in the lobby of a hotel restaurant in Los Angeles when Mr. Hoffman and a small group including his brother approached the hostess stand and asked if there were any tables available.
We have nothing available right now, said the hostess, but if you come back in 45 minutes or so we’ll be able to seat you. Mr. Hoffman gave a shrug of the shoulders and said something like, “OK, see you then.”
Someone else in the restaurant recognized the actor and rushed over to say they could find him a table in just a few minutes (funny how that works), but Mr. Hoffman said no, that was fine, they’d be back in 45 minutes.
Some actors try to come across as unassuming. On the few occasions when I met Philip Seymour Hoffman—most recently for an interview at WLS-AM a few years ago–the humble, regular-guy persona never seemed like an affectation. He was just a burly, scruffy-looking man in a knit cap that looked like your cousin or a guy you worked with at the warehouse, but just happened to possess world-class acting talent.
Mr. Hoffman was found dead Sunday morning of an apparent drug overdose in a Greenwich Village apartment. The details are gruesome and sad. The New York Daily News, Radar online and other news outlets quoted police sources as saying Hoffman’s personal assistant found him the bathroom of his apartment with a hypodermic needle in his arm.
As a young man, Hoffman battled drug addiction, telling “60 Minutes” in 2006 would take “anything I could get my hands on,” but said he went to rehab at age 22 and “got sober…You get panicked…I got panicked for my life. It was really just that.”
For two decades, Hoffman remained sober, but last May it was reported he had completed a 10-day detox program after he had started taking prescription pills. “[It] escalated to snorting heroin,” said Mr. Hoffman.
Mr. Hoffman had three children, ages 10, 7 and 5. We’re once again reminded of the terrible power of drug addiction when we learn on a Sunday morning that one of the world’s great acting talents, with three young children, reportedly risked and lost everything, jamming a needle in his arm and never waking up again.
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