Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman and a remarkable night at the theater

02/04/2014 10:58 AM

02/04/2014 10:58 AM

I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman onstage only once, and for that I count myself a lucky man.

Hoffman, who was found dead in his New York apartment Sunday, was without question a versatile film actor. I haven’t see all of his movies, but now I may make a point of it. Each time I saw him onscreen, he made an indelible impression — as the title character in “Capote,” as jazz-loving Freddie Miles in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” as cult-leader Lancaster Dodd in “The Master.”

But in 2012 I saw him deliver what I called the performance of a lifetime, a performance that Ben Brantley of The New York Times said established Hoffman as the best actor of his generation. The show was a revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” the postwar tragedy of Willy Loman, a delusional traveling salesman whose grip on reality is fading fast.

Hoffman was a good 15 years younger than Willy’s stated age of 60, but there’s a long history of younger actors playing the garrulous, guilt-ridden character. Lee J. Cobb originated the role when he was 38. And Hoffman first performed it in high school in upstate New York.

Director Mike Nichols surrounded Hoffman with fine actors in that Broadway revival, none better than Andrew Garfield as Biff, Willy’s estranged son.

But I knew this would be an extraordinary performance from our first glimpse of Willy. Hoffman entered from the wings carrying a big sample case in each hand and made his way to the back door of Willy’s house in mincing, shuffling, seemingly painful steps with no stride at all.

He was carrying an enormous weight, and not just the sample cases. This was a man who was shouldering a lifetime of guilt, mistakes and growing confusion about the changing world. It was as if gravity were trying to flatten him.

Hoffman communicated all of that before his first line.

The makeup people put some gray in his hair, but it was irrelevant. The audience had no problem believing Willy was as old and tired as the play told us he was. The believability all came from inside the actor. The emotional exchanges between Willy and Biff are seared into my memory. Rarely had I seen actors inhabit such a volatile, fragile space.

Make no mistake. These were not showboating performances.

“Garfield and Hoffman are so committed, so emotionally invested in their scenes together, that you never question a moment of it,” I wrote at the time. “This is why we go to the theater — to see actors give all they’ve got and leave it all on the stage. Indeed, Hoffman and Garfield looked utterly spent at the curtain call.”

Not all film actors are effective onstage. Not all stage actors can make the jump to movies and television. But some, like Hoffman, are so talented that they can do both with equal facility. Onscreen, Hoffman was able to do what all skilled film actors do: establish a sense of intimacy with the camera and therefore with the audience.

Watching a gifted actor work in a theater, however, is different. You’re sitting there in the same room with these artists, and that sense of intimacy is only magnified. My second-row seat at “Death of a Salesman” gave me the sensation of almost being onstage, as if the actors were performing just for me. They were, of course, because they do that with each member of the audience.

On Wednesday evening, all Broadway theaters will honor Hoffman by dimming their lights at 7:45. It’s a fitting tribute, and all the more remarkable for an actor who never appeared in a Broadway musical.

Broadway is pretty much a tourist experience these days, so I’m grateful that on a night in 2012 I was able to see Hoffman bring undiluted artistry to one of the centers of show business.

There were no dancers. No technical wizardry. No stuntmen flying over the audience. Just a fine actor doing his work.

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