When my wife and I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman play a gung-ho tornado chaser in “Twister,” we said, “It’s Brett Duke.”
He was a photographer we’d worked with at The Natchez Democrat, and the resemblance was hard to miss. The next time we watched a Hoffman film, we said, “There’s Brett Duke again,” but the comparison didn’t last.
Hoffman was the opposite of movie stars who grow rich by playing different versions of the same characters. Nothing’s wrong with that, but it wasn’t Hoffman’s game.
His art was to disappear into a role, so you weren’t watching him, you were watching Lester Bangs, Dean Trumbell, Truman Capote or whomever the script required him to be.
When he died in February, people from Hollywood to Broadway proclaimed him the greatest actor of his generation.
The loss was personal for Frank Vitolo, an actor and producer who splits time between New York and Snead, Ala.
He’s given acting workshops in Tupelo over the years. Pat Rasberry, Tupelo film commissioner, invited him to the Tupelo Film Festival to reminisce about his friend.
“I wouldn’t do it for anybody but Pat,” Frank said.
I spoke with him a few days before Friday’s screening of “Capote” and the Q&A session that followed. The festival continues today at the Malco.
Frank and “Phil” had known each other for more than 20 years, and both worked with the Labyrinth Theater Company in New York.
After Hoffman appeared in “Patch Adams” with Robin Williams, Frank suggested he do an action movie. It took a few years, but Hoffman was the bad guy for “Mission: Impossible III” with Tom Cruise.
“Tom had hired helicopters for the premier. Phil was like a little kid looking at them out the sun roof,” Frank said. “People were cheering and I said, ‘That’s for you. You’re the co-star.’ He said, ‘This is all Tom.’ He was so humble. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Frank happily gave away Hoffman’s acting secret, if you consider hard work a secret.
“For ‘Capote,’ the one he won the Oscar for, he read book after book after book and watched interview upon interview upon interview,” Frank said. “You know those notebooks, the marble on the front?”
“Composition books,” I said.
“He used to fill up composition books with notes about his character. Nobody could interpret the text of a script like Phil. He went so deep into who they were,” Frank said. “If he was going to play Scott Morris, he would find out how your wife brushes her teeth.”
When the entertainment world lost a giant talent, Frank lost a dear friend. The grief hasn’t gone far since February, but at least so many of the memories are sweet.
“Me and him laughed for the lifetime of 10 people,” Frank said. “I guarantee you, live 10 lifetimes, you won’t laugh as much as that.”
M. Scott Morris is a Daily Journal feature writer. Contact him at email@example.com or (662) 678-1589