Most of the world knows him from his films, but the stage was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s first love, and his true home. I could rarely get him to come see a movie, but he was always eager to see a play. Once, walking out of a play that had been disappointing, Phil said, “Even in the worst play, even if the actors are having a bad night, you’re going to see something perfect and beautiful that is never, ever, ever going to happen again.”
I was lucky enough to see Phil in his first professional theatre role. It was a production of King Lear at Whole Theatre Company in Montclair, N.J., directed by Austin Pendleton. Phil played Edgar, and for a large chunk of time he careened around the stage stark naked. Phil and I had been friends for years when I realized it had been him in that production. Phil was sheepish about it; he shook his head and said that Austin was nice to cast him but he was sorry he had let him down. I later relayed this to Austin, who confided, “I was in awe of his ability to be so critical about such a brave, full piece of work.”
As a director, Phil helped me develop five of my own plays. Working on scripts with a director has always been a joyous experience for me—except when the director was Phil. I think it’s because I got a taste of what he would do to himself as he prepared for a role. When Phil said he wanted to direct a few readings of my play Oh, the Power at LAByrinth Theater Company, I was filled with dread. Not the usual writer’s dread of rewriting or audiences, but the dread of submitting myself and my work again to the unforgiving Phil truth machine.
Writers enjoy it when the audience actually likes their plays. Phil didn’t care. He would tell the actors, “No accents. Don’t act. Let’s just hear the play.” There are few things as much fun in theatre as watching expectant actors’ faces when Philip Seymour Hoffman tells them not to act.
The night of the second reading Phil and I sat together in the back of the theatre. It wasn’t going as well as the first night. “They’re anticipating the laughs,” Phil whispered to me. He then got up and sat back down on the steps leading to our seats facing away from the stage. “What are you doing?” I asked. “I don’t need to see them. I just want to listen to the words.” He then took out his lighter and started fiddling with it. I nudged him. “Will you stop that!” I whispered. He smiled at me rebelliously and flicked it, and flicked it and… a huge ball of flame erupted in front of him! Phil looked up at me in total shock and then we both burst out laughing. We got hysterical.
This happened at a very dramatic moment onstage. The actors could hear Phil laughing and thought he was laughing at them, so they kept getting more and more emotive. Phil just laughed louder and louder. The actors who could hear us looked like deer in headlights; Philip Seymour Hoffman was laughing at them, and no matter how they adapted their performance he wouldn’t stop! After the show Phil gave all the actors bear hugs.
I saw Phil almost every day as he was preparing to play Willy Loman. I am both haunted and inspired by what he did to himself for that part. Phil and I once had an argument about who owns a play more, the playwright or the actor in the leading role. He told me that after a few months it belongs to the actor. I didn’t agree with him until seeing him throw himself into Death of a Salesman. Reading and rereading it. Scouring through everything Kazan and Miller ever wrote about it. Asking how the children of Jewish immigrants spoke English. Researching what life was like for traveling salesmen of that time.
After he wrote Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller walked away. I don’t think Phil ever did. Miller went on to write other plays. But that was Phil’s last stage role. He couldn’t walk away from that play because he etched it into himself so powerfully that its drama and his own were forged together so that when Willy Loman bled, it was with Phil’s blood.
He trudged to that theatre every night in dread. Like a prophesy, Phil couldn’t escape the death that lay waiting for him in that theatre every night. He didn’t want to go. Oh, how he didn’t want to go. But every day, month after month, he walked onto the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre so the audience could see the beauty and pain in how a man dies.
My heart broke over and over watching him in that play, but never more so than when I saw the look on his face when he had to stand up there for applause at the end. Phil’s commitment to the truth of Loman’s existence was more important to him than his own well-being. The fundamental quality of most men is self-preservation. But Phil wasn’t most men, and he wasn’t most artists. He was the acting equivalent of a perfect line of poetry.
I keep picturing his face lit up by the ball of flame he set off during that reading. His deep unstoppable laugh. And I remember what he told me about those perfect beautiful moments that happen only once in a theatre and then never, ever, ever happen again.
Playwright David Bar Katz is a LAByrinth Theater Company member.