Philip Seymour Hoffman, a death in the Village confirmed via radio

Nothing’s true until it has been uttered on National Public Radio.

1010 Wins Radio; National Public Radio

It’s 1.58pm, 2 February, Super Bowl Sunday. The rolling news channel 1010 Wins in New York is reporting that the annual prediction of the weather guru groundhog is for “six more weeks of hard winter”. All the stories on 1010 Wins are delivered too briefly over the sound of a typewriter tapping away in the background like in the scene in Bugsy Malone in which the foreign reporters are crushed into phone booths delivering copy.

Tap, tap, tap. “Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has been found dead in his West Village apartment from a suspected heroin overdose. The actor was 46.” Tap, tap, tap. “Another winter storm is on the way, in case you needed another excuse not to go to work tomorrow.” What?

When River Phoenix died from drugs in 1993, the sadness was intense but different. There was nothing to show that Phoenix was ever going to be great, really: it’s more that he was unusually unconfected and had such a lovely uneasiness with his own beauty. But PSH?

This is a serious loss. There have been few actors so mature, so grown-up, who ever gave off such a thrill; few able to transmit such moral queasiness or a sense of inner disgrace. Think of him flinging himself out of his sports car as Freddie in The Talented Mr Ripley and crossing the road, sneering, to kiss Jude Law on both cheeks – the exquisite aggression. Or as George in Scent of a Woman: he was only 25 and yet already smoking in that seemingly decades-practised, film noir way (also particular to Jeff Bridges and Robert Mitchum), going about prodding people sharply in the shoulders with those thick, freckled fingers. Still slim in that movie, he walked like someone who either anticipated an important belly or had a deep sense memory of one. The latter-day Hoffman’s gut was as great as Orson Welles’s or Brando’s.

The only thing to do was turn to National Public Radio (NPR), at that moment inoccuously reporting on the cornerback Richard Sherman’s preparations for the evening’s kick-off. “It might not be true,” was the gist of the station’s online message board. “In the case of news,” wrote Voltaire, “we should always wait for the sacrament of confirmation.” In the United States, nothing’s true until it’s on NPR. And soon enough, it was.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Talented Mr Ripley.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive