Phillip Seymour Hoffman: the high school years

In 2006 I wrote an article on Phillip Seymour Hoffman, on the eve of his Capote Oscar, for the arts magazine, Metropolitan, in Rochester, NY – his and my hometown.

I interviewed his former high school drama teacher from the suburb of Fairport, a quiet town with solid neighborhoods, where parents and teachers communicate with each other. Phillip’s drama teacher knew his mother because she already had his older brother, Gordon, as a student. She knew Phillip’s main reason for enrolling in drama was that he’d hurt himself wrestling and could no longer pursue sports.

His teacher soon found Hoffman to be serious and hardworking. His first role, in tenth grade, was Radar, in MASH. She admitted the play had a bad script and was likely the worst she’d ever directed. But Hoffman had immediate audience appeal. “He came out with his push broom and swept his way accross the stage,” she said.

As a senior, he played the lead role in Death of a Salesman. In case of disciplinary problems arising from 700 students having to sit through a two-and-one-half-hour play about an old man, extra teachers were stationed in the auditorium. Hoffman, however, held the audience and at curtain call won a spontaneous standing ovation.

His teacher then referred him – at 17 – to the director of the Shipping Dock Theatre, in Rochester. There, he landed his first paid part as the teenage son of dysfunctional parents in Breeze from the Gulf, an intense three-character drama.

The director recalled that the local newspaper critic didn’t care for the play but liked Hoffman. “When I saw how he handled that part, I knew he’d make it,” the Director said. “I don’t mean in terms of winning awards but in terms of doing something well that he was passionate about. He had talent and talent can’t be taught. You can’t teach someone to feel. It has to come from the artist.”

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