You could joke with Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Which is to say nothing about him seemed like you were talking to one of the greatest living actors in American movies – not the paunchy, everyday-looking schlub he looked like or the easy, candid, often jolly way he talked, either.
When he laughed, he laughed hard – the big booming laugh of a man who loved to enjoy life as much as anyone you’d ever be likely to meet.
I heard that laugh in 2000 when I interviewed the actor from the Rochester suburb of Fairport in his hotel suite about his role playing the legendary rock critic and chaos-monger Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s film “Almost Famous.”
Lester Bangs died of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs and Nyquil in 1982. Hoffman – to the horror of critics, other actors and fans alike – reportedly died of a heroin overdose Sunday with a hypodermic needle still in his arm. He was 46.
During that 2000 interview, I told him jokingly that my daughter’s response on learning he’d grown up in Rochester was to say that you could always tell a boy who’d been raised on Western New York cuisine.
Hence the big booming laugh – the laugh of a man with a moderate paunch who’d enjoyed acquiring every pound.
He not only was one of the great living American film actors – winner of a Best Actor Oscar for the 2005 film “Capote” – but he seemed to be all of that in the most admirable possible way. That is, he was a man with no apparent hunger for stardom whatsoever; a man who was, nevertheless, always one of the best, if not the best, thing about any movie he ever made.
So when I asked in that hotel suite, quite frankly, if other actors ever got in his face for stealing scenes, his answer shocked me.
“My aim is never to take focus. My aim is to try to be as interesting as I can be. To try to be as true as I can be. … The actor is always paranoid about whether it’s his last job. Will he ever be hired again? Most actors think they suck. … No matter how successful you get, you’re still going to feel that way if you have any care in what you do. It’s inevitable.
“The art of acting is an exposing art. … If you sat down and thought about it, you probably wouldn’t do it anymore.”
His mother, now known as Marilyn O’Connor, was a former Rochester judge and prominent attorney. It was her taking him as a boy to Rochester’s Geva Theater that turned him on to the profession. When I asked him what performances stuck out among all he’d seen as a kid, he named only one – ironically, a teenage Robert Downey Jr. before his own much-publicized drug troubles, in “Alms for the Middle Class.”
Growing up in Fairport, he said, “My friends were the guys that were the athletes – or the potheads.”
The news stories now are telling us about Hoffman’s long-term drug difficulties and stints in rehab that amounted to naught in the final analysis.
There are a few films remaining to be released and a Showtime TV series. But, after that, one of the actors who seemed to embody the very best, by far, in his profession won’t be “doing it anymore.”
We’ll probably never know if he “thought about it,” before the final needle in his arm made sure of that. All we can do is hope to heaven that wasn’t the case.
All we can do as critics, fans or fellow performers is hope that he knew – really knew in his deepest parts – how very good we all thought he was. It’s our only consolation.
He’s forever deaf to our applause now.