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Behind the mask of Philip Seymour Hoffman

By Ivan Little

On screen he was one of Hollywood’s finest, but in private Philip Seymour Hoffman was haunted by deadly addictions. The final act was tragic, but perhaps also heartbreakingly inevitable.

He didn't have the heart-throb looks of a George Clooney or a Richard Gere and he wasn't built to play the super-fit superhero but what Philip Seymour Hoffman did, without question, have was the undiluted respect of virtually every actor in the American movie and theatre business who if truth were told were also probably a little bit jealous of his awesome ability.

For while off-screen the 46- year-old Oscar winner who died from a drugs overdose on Sunday may had the sometimes disinterested air and unkempt and scruffy appearance of a man who'd been dragged through a spin dryer cycle, he was lauded by his peers as the greatest character actor of his time. Or perhaps any other era.

He was an actor's actor and while his name mightn't have resonated with the once-in-a-blue-moon movie-goer, his talent for moulding himself into any role which appealed to his sometimes quirky sensibilities ensured that film buffs across the globe can rhyme off his celluloid successes without a second's hesitation.

He really grabbed cinema audiences' attention for the first time with his iconic performance as a needy gay film-maker in Boogie Nights.

Magnolia, The Talented Mr Ripley and The Big Lebowski were other films in which he made his own individual and impressive presence felt.

However, it was for his stunningly brilliant depiction of author Truman Capote in the 2005 movie Capote that he won an Oscar and an enviable series of awards and nominations kept on coming.

He didn't quite have the single-minded determination of fellow Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis to stay in character for his roles before and after filming, but he did prepare assiduously.

HOLLYWOOD - MARCH 05: "Best Actor in a Leading Role" nominee for "Capote" actor Philip Seymour Hoffman with girlfriend Mimi O'Donnell arrive at the 78th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theatre on March 5, 2006 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)

He said he spent four months getting ready for Capote, reading up on his life and studying how he talked with a lisp and walked with a mince.

Not surprisingly, Hoffman's death has sparked an immediate explosion of shock and regret from his fans but also from fellow stars who took to social media to eulogise him.

For once, however, there was no sense that they would say that, wouldn't they?

The tributes from his peers were unqualified and from the heart and while there was a commonality of praise for what Philip Seymour Hoffman had achieved on stage and on screen in the past there was also a unity of frustration that the potential for greatness from him in the future had been extinguished by an addiction which had plagued him for years.

The stocky tousle-haired Hoffman -- who used his middle name Seymour distinguish himself from another actor -- became hooked on drink and drugs at a performing arts college in New York but he had the wherewithal to know in his more lucid moments that the toxic cocktail would make it impossible for him to realise his ambitions to become an actor.

An even starker motivitation for change was his fear that he could end up dead before his life had really begun. He was honest in the extreme in a recent interview. "I abused anything I could lay my hands on. I liked it all," he said. Hoffman, who was driven by a mix of panic and pragmatism, admitted that he knew his only choice was to go to rehab. And he came out clean the other side. He was only 22. And for 23 years he resisted the myriad of temptations in Hollywood and Broadway to slip back into his old ways.

In a TV interview along with actress Laura Linney he said he was sometimes consumed by dread. "When you're younger you throw caution to the wind a little bit more. But the older I become the more afraid I become. I wonder if something terrible is going to happen"

For over two decades, not only did Hoffman stay off drugs but he also established himself as a superlative actor and director as well as a family man. He was in a long-term relationship with costume designer Mimi O'Donnell whom he met while they were both involved in a 1999 stage play which Hoffman directed. They had two sons and a daughter but Hoffman and O'Donnell split last year.

It's not clear if the rift was the catalyst for Hoffman going back on drugs but go back on them he did and again he made a conscious effort to kick the prescription pills and heroin by signing himself into rehab for 10 days in May last year.

But this time there was no happy ending. Only tragedy and in a horrible snapshot of reality which mirrored the celluloid lives of many of the seedy characters whom he portrayed in films, his body was found with a hypodermic needle stuck in his arm.

Drugs and a charred spoon were found nearby and Drugs Enforcement Agency officials said Hoffman had been shooting up with a type of heroin which hadn't been in New York for about five years.

Dressed only in his underwear, Hoffman was lying on the floor of the bathroom of his small apartment in West Village, New York City, a short distance from the rather more spacious and upmarket $4.5m he had shared with his family before the split.

Ironically it was only because he hadn't turned up to see his children that the alarm was raised and friends made the grim discovery of his body after they tried to investigate but couldn't get an answer on his telephone.

Hoffman's family issued a statement appealing for privacy. But it's unlikely to be granted. As well as his Oscar, Hoffman had won a huge number of other acting awards. He received three Oscar nominations for Charlie Wilson's War, The Master and Doubt.

The last one struck a particular chord in Ireland. For it told the story of a priest who was suspected of having had an inappropriate relationship with a boy at a Catholic school.

Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays Father Flynn, right, and Meryl Streep portrays Sister Aloysius in a scene from "Doubt." (AP Photo/Miramax Film Corp, Andrew Schwartz)

The film set in the Bronx in NYC was adapted from a play by Irish American John Patrick Shanley whose father came from Co Westmeath and whose work also includes a theatre piece called Outside Mullingar.

Promoting the movie, which also starred Meryl Streep as a nun, Hoffman told a television interviewer he knew that taking on the role of the priest Fr Flynn was "going to be worth it".

The interview also underlined Hoffman's sometimes prickly reputation for taking his job seriously and resenting questions about whether he found this role or that role fun.

"Doing something well is difficult. Some parts are easier than others to get inside. Ultimately doing it well on the day is very tricky and it really comes down to concentration, will and focus." he said.

In recent years Hoffman had taken roles in big budget blockbuster movies like Mission:Impossible III and The Hunger Games which earned him a fortune but he was equally at home in less well-financed and lucrative independent films like The Savages.

"What's really different is the accommodation, the length of the shoot and the food. But other than that it's another film. There are a lot more similarities than differences." said Hoffman who came from a "comfortable but not affluent" background in Fairport, New York.

There was, however, no tradition of acting in his family. His Irish American mother Marilyn O'Connor was a family court judge and his German father Gordon Hoffman was an executive for Xerox.

His father was a Protestant and his mother a Catholic though they divorced in 1976 when Hoffman was only nine years old.

Hoffman said he went to Sunday School but "I didn't do the whole altar boy thing". He actually wanted to become a wrestler but had to give up fighting after he sustained a back injury and turned to acting at high school instead. "I started auditioning and I loved the camaraderie of it, the people and that's when I decided it's what I wanted to do."

His affection for the theatre never waned. Unlike some richly rewarded stars of the silver screen, Hoffman never turned his back on the stage and admitted it was his first love.

He received three Tony awards for his performances on the Broadway stage -- the most celebrated as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman was acclaimed as the definitive portrayal of one of the US theatre's most tragic figures, a role he had played three decades earlier as a fresh-faced high school student.

Hoffman's own sad demise now of course leaves the great unanswered questions of what ifs and who knows about what he could have done in his career.

He was one of America's most sought after stars because of his pliability and reliability.

Ironically the man who was killed by his inability to fully cope with his heroin problems also admitted that he was addicted to acting.

In that TV chat with Laura Linney he said: "Sometimes the work can be an opiate"

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling in a scene from "Ides of March." Police say Phillip Seymour Hoffman was found dead in his New York City apartment Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014. He was 46. (AP Photo/Columbia Pictures - Sony, Saeed Adyani, File)

Mesmerising performances from a master at work

* The crowning glory of Hoffman's career was Capote, where he created a carefully nuanced picture of the author, Truman Capote. In all he won 23 awards for his performance, topped by an Oscar for best actor.

* One of his most memorable roles was as a Catholic priest who comes under suspicion because of his friendship with a boy in Doubt. He starred opposite Meryl Streep.

*n He also won acclaim for his convincing portrayal of a CIA officer in Charlie Wilson's War which starred Tom Hanks.

And he came to the attention of younger audiences with his roles in the Hunger Games franchise.

* Hoffman earned the admiration of his peers for his ability to take on difficult roles, often of unlikeable characters, and make them not only believable but also mini-masterpieces.

* One such role was in The Master playing a charismatic cult chief thought to be based loosely on L Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.

* He also received three prestigious Tony awards for his performances on Broadway.


Further reading:

Philip Seymour Hoffman's last ever interview: 'You have to shift or change, or else you stay in the dark'

Heroin packets in Hoffman's home

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