NEW YORK — Philip Seymour Hoffman, perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation, who gave three-dimensional nuance to a wide range of sidekicks, villains and leading men on screen and embraced some of the theater’s most burdensome roles on Broadway, died Sunday at a New York apartment he was renting as an office. He was 46.
The death, from an apparent drug overdose, was confirmed by the police. Hoffman was found in the apartment by a friend who had become concerned after being unable to reach him. Investigators found a syringe in his arm and, nearby, an envelope containing what appeared to be heroin.
Hoffman was long known to struggle with addiction. In 2006, he said in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that he had given up drugs and alcohol many years earlier, when he was 22. Last year he checked into a rehabilitation program for about 10 days after a reliance on prescription pills resulted in his briefly turning again to heroin.
“I saw him last week, and he was clean and sober, his old self,” said David Bar Katz, a playwright, and the friend who found Hoffman and called 911. “I really thought this chapter was over.’’
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A stocky, often sleepy-looking man with blond, generally uncombed hair who favored the rumpled clothes more associated with an out-of-work actor than a star, Hoffman did not cut the traditional figure of a leading man, though he was more than capable of leading roles.
In his final appearance on Broadway, in 2012, he put his Everyman mien to work in portraying perhaps the American theater’s most celebrated protagonist — Willy Loman, Arthur Miller’s title character in “Death of a Salesman.” At 44, he was widely seen as young for the part — the casting, by the director Mike Nichols, was meant to emphasize the flashback scenes depicting a younger, pre-disillusionment Willy — and though the production drew mixed reviews, Hoffman was nominated for a Tony Award.
“Mr. Hoffman does terminal uncertainty better than practically anyone,” Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, “and he’s terrific in showing the doubt that crumples Willy just when he’s trying to sell his own brand of all-American optimism.”
In supporting roles, he was nominated three times for Academy awards — as a priest under suspicion of sexual predation in “Doubt” (2008); as a CIA agent especially eloquent in high dudgeon in “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007); and as a charismatic cult leader in “The Master” (2012).
But he won in the best actor category for “Capote” (2005). As the eccentrically sociable, brilliantly probing and unflappably gay author of “In Cold Blood,” Hoffman flawlessly affected the real-life Truman Capote’s distinctly nasal, high-pitched voice and the naturally fey drama of his presence.
Writing in The New York Times, A.O. Scott described the film as being about a writer’s relationship with his work.
“This makes for better drama than you might expect,” Scott wrote. “Capote’s human connections are, for the most part, secondary and instrumental, which makes Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance all the more remarkable, since he must connect with the audience without piercing the membrane of his character’s narcissism.
“Not only does Mr. Hoffman achieve an impressive physical and vocal transformation — mimicking Capote’s chirpy drawl and appearing to shrink to his elfin stature — but he also conveys, with clarity and subtlety, the complexities of Capote’s temperament.”
Hoffman appeared in more than 50 films in a career that spanned less than 25 years. In the early 1990s he had small roles in “Leap of Faith,” which starred Steve Martin as a faith healer, and “Scent of a Woman,” in which he played a prep school classmate of Chris O’Donnell, the weekend escort of a blind former military officer on a New York City jaunt played by Al Pacino, who won an Oscar for the role.
He appeared in big budget Hollywood films, including “Mission: Impossible III” (2006), “Moneyball” (2011), and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (2013); and critically praised independent films, including “The Savages” (2007), in which he and Laura Linney, as his sister, struggle to care for their declining father; “Synecdoche, New York” (2008), Charlie Kaufman’s off-beat drama in which he played a moody theater director wrangling with his work and his women; and “A Late Quartet,” about a violinist in the midst of dual crises, familial and musical.
But citing the highlights of Hoffman’s prolific work life — which included directing and acting in off-Broadway shows for the Labyrinth Theater Company, a New York City troupe, which he served for a time as artistic director — undervalues his versatility and his willingness, rare in a celebrity actor, to explore the depths of not just creepy or villainous characters, but pathetically unattractive ones. He was a chameleon of especially vivid colors in roles that called for him to be unappealing.
He played an obsequious sycophant in the Coen brothers’ cult comedy “The Big Lebowski” (1998); a former child star pathetically desperate to reclaim his celebrity in “Along Came Polly” (2004), a romantic comedy that starred Ben Stiller and Jennifer Aniston; a chronic masturbator in Todd Solondz’s portrait of suburban New Jersey, “Happiness” (1998); a snooty Princetonian in “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999) a weasely tabloid reporter who gets his comeuppance (he’s glued to a wheelchair and set on fire) in “Red Dragon” (2002), an adaptation of one of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lecter novels; and in the role that brought him his first renown, he was Scotty J., a shy, overweight, gay boom operator on a pornographic film crew in “Boogie Nights” (1997).
In addition to “Death of a Salesman,” Hoffman appeared as the anguished and violent playwright, Konstantin, in Nichols’ production of “The Seagull” at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in 2001, and on Broadway in two other long and difficult roles.
In 2000, he and John C. Reilly appeared in “True West,” Sam Shepard’s harrowing comic drama about the reunion of two estranged brothers; each of the two roles is substantial, but in this production, directed by Matthew Warchus, the actors each played them both, switching roles in different performances.
In 2003, he played James Tyrone, the doomed-to-alcoholism elder son of James and Mary Tyrone (Brian Dennehy and Vanessa Redgrave) in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Eugene O’Neill’s portrait of an epic family demise.
“The theater was very difficult for him,” Robert Falls, the director of “Long Day’s Journey” said in an interview Sunday. “It cost him; there was an emotional cost to the work, having to do it for eight performances a week, and having to rehearse. In ‘Long Day’s Journey,’ a role about an addict who would be dead in a number of years, who was filled with self-loathing, certainly Phil had access to those emotions. But I’m not talking about a method actor. He just brought every fiber of his being to the stage. He was there — with his depth of feeling, depth of humanity — and no other actor I’ve ever worked with ever brought it like that, not at that level.”
Hoffman was born July 23, 1967, in Fairport, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester. His mother, the former Marilyn Loucks, is a former family court judge. His father, Gordon, worked for the Xerox Corp. His parents, who divorced when Philip was young, survive him. In his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards in 2006, Hoffman thanked many people, but in particular his mother, now known as Marilyn O’Connor, who attended. He thanked her for raising him and his three siblings on her own and for taking him to see his first play.
“Be proud, Mom, ’cause I’m proud of you, and we’re here tonight, and it’s so good,” he said with a smile.
Hoffman’s other survivors include a brother, Gordon, a screenwriter who wrote “Love Liza,” a 2002 film starring Hoffman as a man living through the aftermath of his wife’s suicide; and two sisters, Jill Hoffman DelVecchio and Emily Hoffman Barr; his longtime partner, Mimi O’Donnell, a costume designer who is the current artistic director of the Labyrinth Theater Company; and their three children, Cooper, Tallulah and Willa.
Hoffman became an actor in high school after a wrestling injury halted his athletic aspirations. He played Radar in a school production of “MASH,” a performance that was skilled enough that the school’s drama director decided to put on “Death of Salesman.” In 1984, as a senior, he played Willy Loman. After graduating, he spent a summer at the Circle in the Square Theater School in New York and later graduated from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts.
Hoffman’s other notable film roles included one of two brothers (Ethan Hawke was the other) who contrive to rob their parents’ jewelry store, a crime that goes grotesquely wrong, in Sidney Lumet’s 2007 thriller “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”; renegade rock critic Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” (2000); a rogue disc jockey in “Pirate Radio” (2009); and the campaign manager of a Senate candidate in the “The Ides of March” (2011).
His principal works in progress were “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2,” in which he plays the head game-maker Plutarch Heavensbee. He had largely finished on the first film, but was scheduled for seven more shooting days on the second, according to a person who was briefed on the situation and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality strictures.
The films, directed by Francis Lawrence, are set for release by Lionsgate, the first on Nov. 21 of this year, the second on Nov. 20, 2015.
As a director, Hoffman worked with Stephen Adly Guirgis, a Labyrinth colleague, on several well-received off-Broadway plays, including “In Arabia We’d All Be Kings,” “Jesus Hopped the A Train,” “Our Lady of 121st Street” and “The Little Flower of East Orange” — all tempestuous works about urban life — and a fantasy biblical discourse, “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”
Also for Labyrinth, he played the title role in Robert Glaudini’s “Jack Goes Boating,” about the tentative love life of a pot-smoking limousine driver; Hoffman reprised the role in a 2010 adaptation, a film he also directed.
Labyrinth members were in a state of shock Sunday.
“I had no indication at all,” the actor Felix Solis said in an interview. “He was our hero; he was our leader.”
On Sunday afternoon outside the building where Hoffman died, more than 100 people had gathered to mourn. The body was removed at about 6:40 p.m., and police officers formed a barricade to prevent people from taking pictures.
“He’s a local. He’s a fixture in this neighborhood,” said Christian McCulloch, who said he lives nearby. “You see him with his kids in the coffee shops. He is so sweet. It’s desperately sad. ”