Philip Seymour Hoffman, a shaggy bear of a man, didn't look like anything the slightly built, effete Truman Capote. But he embodied the author in the 2005 film “Capote,” giving haunting insight into the “In Cold Blood” writer with a dead-on imitation that illuminated character, while never approaching caricature.
In “Doubt,” Hoffman played a popular, seemingly good-natured priest who might – or might not – be a predator. In “The Master,” he portrayed a cult leader, who might be a savior or a charlatan. He turned an obscene phone caller into a figure who might be the most sympathetic character in the disturbing semi-comedy “Happiness.”
Hoffman, who was found dead in his Manhattan apartment Sunday, excelled like few others in creating characters whose ambiguous traits kept us wondering long after the final credits rolled. The actor, taken from us far too soon at age 46, will be remembered as a daring performer known as much for his versatility as his formidable skill.
Hoffman never quite made household-name status, even if he emerged over the last two decades as familiar screen presence, from independent films like “Happiness” to his recent supporting turn in “Catching Fire,” the blockbuster second installment in “The Hunger Games” trilogy.
Like Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro, Philip Seymour Hoffman was a consummate character actor with enough talent to overcome a lack of traditional matinee idol looks to play a leading man. It’s a trait he also shared with James Gandolfini, another great actor who died too young.
Hoffman won his only Oscar for playing Capote as the author captured the psyche of heartless killers and a town devastated by an unthinkable crime. It’s a technique that was key to Hoffman’s acting: He could get into characters’ minds and souls like few other performers of his – or any other – generation. He will be missed, even by moviegoers who didn’t always remember his name, but couldn’t forget performances by an actor who always lived his part.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.