Unlike many A-list Hollywood stars, Philip Seymour Hoffman never left theater behind. Stage acting and directing remained a cornerstone of Hoffman’s career, which encompassed the lofty heights of Broadway and the less-exalted world of small theater.
After Hoffman was found dead on Sunday in his New York apartment, the victim of an apparent overdose, according to police, those who worked closely with him described him as an intense stage performer who sometimes inhabited the roles he played to an extreme and troubling degree.
“He was ferocious and deeply embedded in the characters he played to the point of a real inability to leave those characters behind,” said Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
Falls directed Hoffman in the 2003 Broadway revival of Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” in which the actor played the eldest son in a family of addicts.
“He was well acquainted with the tragic pull that drugs have,” Falls said. “He brought that into that performance. In the rehearsal room, there was a cost. Phil couldn’t fake it. He lived through it.”
The director added: “Every night he ripped it up to an extent that he couldn’t leave [the role]. Phil carried it with him.”
Hoffman often chose dark, troubled characters to play on stage, and he collaborated with theater’s top directors. He starred as Iago in Peter Sellar’s modernized staging of Shakespeare’s “Othello” that played in Europe and ran in New York.
“Phil burned so brightly and with such unrelenting love — it made him one of the great theater performers of his or any generation,” Sellars said.
“In classical material, he just lit it up from within and exploded it. With contemporary material, he had a wildness that few could match.”
Hoffman earned three Tony Award nominations for his work on Broadway. But his creative home for many years was the maverick Labyrinth Theater Company, which he co-founded and where he served as artistic director for years.
Labyrinth, based in New York, has produced edgy plays by such notable writers as Stephen Adly Guirgis and Brett C. Leonard.
Leaders at Labyrinth declined to comment but issued a statement: “We are heartbroken by the loss of our beloved friend, company member, and former artistic director, Philip Seymour Hoffman. His contributions to the Labyrinth family as an artist and mentor are immeasurable. We join everyone in mourning the passing of one of the great lights of our generation.”
As a stage director, Hoffman mounted productions around the world, including a Labyrinth production in May of “A Family for All Occasions” by Bob Glaudini, at the small Bank Street Theater in New York.
Hoffman teamed up with Cate Blanchett at the Sydney Theatre Company in Australia to direct a production of Sam Shepard’s “True West” in 2010. He had starred in a Broadway production of the play in 2000, alternating roles with co-star John C. Reilly.
“I had a great time working with him,” recalled Matthew Warchus, who directed the Broadway production. “He had extraordinarily high standards and was also extremely funny.”
Hoffman’s final Broadway appearance was as Willy Loman in the 2012 revival of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” The production, directed by Mike Nichols, was widely praised and was a commercial success.
Falls, the Goodman’s artistic director, recalled that “for all the misery he carried around and the cloud he carried around as a stage actor, he was filled with happiness when he was directing.”
Hoffman’s longtime partner was Mimi O’Donnell, who currently serves as artistic director of Labyrinth.