Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman left a legacy of inspiration and purpose to New York University students at the Tisch School of the Arts, who said his presence at his alma mater and in Washington Square Park was an ever-present reminder of the high standard he set in theater and film.
"He was an inspiration to everyone," said Eliza McNitt, 22, a filmmaker who graduated last May. "You would see him sitting at the fountain in Washington Square Park. I would look at him and wonder if I, too, could follow in his footsteps, or dream that one day I might work alongside him. That was the dream for many of us around campus."
Jack Kyser, 23, another recent graduate, met Hoffman at an intimate roundtable sit-down with about 15 other Tisch students last April. The actor, who got his bachelor of fine arts in drama in 1989, was known for giving back to the Tisch School.
"He was really honest and candid," Kyser said Monday. "It was wonderful to get advice. He was quick to share his experience, and then he would turn the question back to us to see what we were doing." His main take-away from the exchange? "I will never forget how seriously he took his work."
Kyser said he was 15 when he first met Hoffman. It was a week after Hoffman received the Academy Award for best actor in "Capote." "He was so approachable. My friend and I went up to him, and, of course, we were starstruck. We said to Mr. Hoffman how much he deserved the Academy Award. And instead of moving on, he was genuinely thankful and generous with his time."
Hoffman, 46, who had battled drug addiction, was found dead Sunday in his Greenwich Village apartment, apparently of a drug overdose. Authorities said they found envelopes believed to contain heroin.
The actor's duel with drugs illustrates the balance that many in the world of film and theater must navigate not to succumb to addiction, Kyser said.
"I also think that everyone struggles with something in their personal lives," he said. "It's devastating. It seems unreal to say that we live in a world without Philip Seymour Hoffman."
Anita Gupta, director of the Tisch Dean's Scholars group, which organized the roundtable with the actor, spoke of the students' sorrow. "I don't think Mr. Hoffman realized the effect he had on the students. It was like he was hanging out with his friends. That night he was incredible," Gupta said. "It was very easy to fall in love with him."
Hoffman was popular with students because he often took on roles packed with villainous stereotypes "that no one wanted," McNitt said. "I would like to think that, like him, our generation is about defying stereotypes."
She remembered Hoffman's 2009 NYU performance as Iago, the complex villain in Shakespeare's "Othello." "I was able to sneak up to the front row. I was so struck by his intensity and energy," she said. "I felt as if I was experiencing every moment on stage with him. It was remarkable."
On Sunday, before learning of Hoffman's death, McNitt said her thesis professor posed a question to her and others in her study group: "Who we thought was the actor of our time? He talked about James Dean speaking for his generation.
"It was strange. We were all at a loss for a response. But after we heard about Mr. Hoffman's death, it became clear that he was truly the voice of our generation," she said.