Philip Seymour Hoffman's Life as a New Yorker: 'He Was Just Phil'
Philip Seymour Hoffman was known for transforming into his characters, winning a Best Actor Oscar for "Capote" in 2005, and he did his best to blend into New York City life as well.
After growing up in the upstate Rochester, New York, area, he moved to Manhattan after high school to attend the Circle in the Square Theatre School followed by New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, which he graduated from in 1989. Those years weren't easy — he spoke about going to rehab for drug and alcohol addiction during that era, getting sober at 22 — but he ended up staying and making a home in the city, which is where he was tragically found dead on Sunday morning from an apparent heroin overdose.
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The father of three (with partner Mimi O'Donnell) grew up as a sports lover and athlete, but a wrestling injury turned him on to acting in high school. Over the last decade, but more so in the last few years, he's frequently been seen courtside at New York Knicks games, often with his son, Cooper. (The name of his production company is Cooper’s Town Productions, after his sons. He also has daughters Tallulah and Willa.) Unshaven and partially hidden under a baseball cap, he'd be dressed in an unassuming outfit as he and his son sweetly cheered in sync. He was also a diehard Yankee fan, naming Derek Jeter as his favorite player.
Many New Yorkers have stories about seeing him on the subway or riding his bicycle, which were his favorite ways to traverse the city when he wasn't walking his kids to school or to the Labyrinth Theater Company, where he was a company member and former Artistic Director. He'd shop at drug store chain Duane Reade, sidling up to the counter with his messenger bag draped across his shoulder. And the "The Hunger Games" star would workout with the masses at bustling Chelsea Piers, just being another sweaty guy you passed on the way to the locker rooms.
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While Hoffman often wore mismatched clothes and appeared disheveled with untamed hair, he had some prime real estate. The Greenwich Village apartment he died in — which the New York Times said he rented as office space, though he was apparently living there recently — cost a reported $11,000 a month. Just blocks away was the 3-bedroom family home he and O'Donnell purchased in 2008 for a reported $4.4 million.
Around the neighborhood, he was known for being an unassuming fixture. Wearing an oversize T-shirt, old pants, and Knicks cap, he would pop in to his local coffee shop.
"He lived around the corner from me," one of his former neighbors told Yahoo. "I would see him around the neighborhood all the time, sometimes walking with his kids." At the coffee shop where she'd see him most often, "He was a local, a friend of the shop, no one treated him like a celebrity or like someone they couldn’t approach — it was nice to see."
Ray Ellin, who is a comedian and host of "LateNet with Ray Ellin," first met Phil — as he was known to friends — in 2001 through a friend who had acted with Hoffman in a movie.
"We were walking down the street in the Village, bumped into him, and had a very friendly, normal conversation," he recalled. "I would subsequently run into him, usually at Knickerbocker, a bar/restaurant in the neighborhood. Phil was always cool — it didn't matter if you were in show business or not, he was a good guy. Sometimes I would greet him as Freddie Miles, his character in 'Talented Mr. Ripley.' He'd laugh."
Ellin recalled seeing him at the Knickerbocker holiday party.
"It was the most unHollywood event you could be at — and he was just regular, solid, nice to everyone. Treating people the way they should treat each other. No attitude. Just a decent person, who also happened to have an incredible body of work."
An incredible body of work he didn't mind talking about with young actors. Described as an "artist to the bone," he met with Tisch faculty just a few weeks before he died to learn more about the school's plans for their Institute of Performing Arts. And he loved advising young thespians about the rigors and commitment involved, especially when appearing on Broadway shows, which he did most recently when he played Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman" in 2012.
Nicole Wilson, who is an actress and artist, knew Hoffman in the early 1990s before he was famous. "The Ides of March" star was a summer camp counselor at Manhattan Plaza, a building primarily housing performing artists. Wilson's neighbors included Alicia Keys and "Scrubs" Donald Faison.
"Every summer they had a youth program, and Philip Seymour Hoffman — or 'Phil' as he liked to be called — was a summer camp counselor there," she told Yahoo. "He was always making the kids laugh. I remember his smile. And he had a pair of old converse that were kind of busted up in the toes and he used to do voices and make them 'talk.'"
She added, "We remember him as just 'Phil.' He was a great guy."
On Sunday, Faison took to Twitter to star a similar memory about their camp days.
In the building I grew up in, one year for the summer Phillip Seymour Hoffman was my camp counselor. He was known as Phil to us kids. RIP
— Donald Faison (@donald_faison) February 2, 2014
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Wilson said she was shocked when "Phil" went on to become a big star. In fact, it took a while for her to connect the dots.
"Later on, after he began to get some acclaim, I remember seeing him on Broadway in Sam Shepard's 'True West' opposite John C. Reilly. I could hardly believe it was the same guy. In fact, I didn't make the connection until later on when a childhood friend pointed it out to me," she said. After that, "I would often see him in my neighborhood of Midtown Manhattan — the theater district — after his movie career had taken off, and he was always very encouraging of young artists like me. He would take the time to stop and talk to you ask how things were going, what you were up to, what you were working on."
She continued, "He was warm and unaffected. He wasn't like a lot of famous actors who I have run into in the city who have made it big and then become very removed and holed up in their ivory tower. He was down to earth, always a little rumpled, walking down the street amongst everyone. People really allowed him to be, that's the advantage of being an actor in a city like New York. People will leave you alone. You could tell he valued being a genuine artist, and a New Yorker, instead of being caught up in his undeniable fame."
Leonela Guzman shared a fan encounter she had with Hoffman at the Union Square Duane Reade drugstore last year. She was in New York City for the first time and he was her first-ever celeb encounter. It played out like a first-ever celebrity encounter, too, though he had a sense of humor about it.
"I was star struck. I couldn't help it," Guzman recounted to Yahoo on Monday. "I bumped shoulders with this stocky man, whose head was low and covered with a blue baseball cap, and realized who it was. 'Philip? Philip Seymour Hoffman,' I uttered his full name. I immediately fell into a rush, regaling my admiration for his work, all the while knowing I was one of many who had done the same. But he listened, he nodded along, then graciously declined when I asked if I could take his photo. I don't even know why I asked. I then thanked him, extended my hand, which he shook, and he made his way back towards the freezer aisle."
She continued, "I squealed a few rows over and shamefully wondered if I couldn't snap a picture from afar for memory's sake. So as I saw him approach the counter — with Oreos and TV dinners in hand — I took my shot. He was in mid-turn, plaid shirt swung wide exposing that infamous potbelly. He looked over at me and chuckled, 'You got it anyway, huh?' Overcome with embarrassment, I threw a high-pitched 'I'm sorry!' his way and ran out [of] the store. As I gathered myself outside, Philip soon walked out himself and seamlessly mixed into the sidewalk traffic. I watched that blue cap bob along. I wondered how no one could see him, but that was part of his charm. He was unremarkable, and yet, he stood out to me."
Alex J. Mann was equally struck by how much of an everyman Hoffman seemed when he met him in October. A filmmaker, he was shooting a project about a block from Hoffman's Bethune Street rental and, when he glanced across the street, noticed the star was sitting on some steps. He described him as, "Toying with his phone. Beard, hat, sweatshirt, sweatpants, New Balance shoes. Total gym teacher." Worried Hoffman would think he was filming him, Mann went over to speak to him.
"Just letting you know we’re shooting something over there," he recalled telling him. "I didn't want you think we were filming you."
Hoffman thanked him, but he quickly went back to fiddling with his Blackberry.
"He wasn't rude. He was attentive and polite. Although it was clear he didn't necessarily want to have a conversation beyond a hello," said Mann. Though, "I was happy to have any interaction with him. All of his work has had an influence on me, particularly his character in 'The Master.'"
And now that inspiration is gone.
"I will really miss running into him, and seeing him around the city," said Wilson, who last saw him a couple months ago on his bike in Washington Square Park. "He was special. That much was evident, everyone who has seen his work knows that. But often something gets lost in translation from being an actor with a dream to being a celebrity. It seems to me he very much held true to the person he had always been. It really is a shame, for his friends and family obviously, but for all the young artists who looked up to him."
She ended by saying, "I guess I'll have to find someone new to look up to now."