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The Philip Seymour Hoffman I 'Knew'

Editor's note: This article has been updated throughout to expand on the author's unique experience with PSH.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It was the best of times -- and damn, it was the very best of times.

It's the tale of two Philip Seymour Hoffmans -- one was my college classmate who was a brilliant actor and a sharp critic and the other allegedly died a shameful death, with a needle in his arm. I knew Phil about a well as you'd know any colleague whose work you critiqued several days a week for a few years. I never knew of his drug life back then.

Hoffman and I were actors in an elite program. Only one in every 2,000 applicants were chosen to train at the Circle in the Square program, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. We both graduated with Bachelors of Fine Arts in 1989. (I later received a Masters in Publishing from our alma mater.)

Hoffman and I studied under Alan Langdon and Jacqueline Brookes among other legends. After every performance, the class would critique "the work." Phil, I and few others were quite vocal when actors were "playing a part" rather than living it. We suffered no fakers. Either you would bring your raw emotions and stinky parts, with all the fibers of your being -- or go home in tears.

The point of this article is, I heard Phil's laugh. Not in a movie, in class. I remember his hand gestures when he was pissed off. I remember how he would shake his head left to right with disbelief or confusion after a scene.

I remember how, when I once got the instructions for a scene in Langdon's class so wrong, Phil looked at me, raised both hands as if to say, what the hell was that? I do not remember his words, because that was 28 years ago. But I remember how it made me feel. It confirmed that I had to be more focused and more dedicated, or choose another career.

The point of this article is not to give a eulogy -- that's a right I believe should be reserved for his loved ones. The point is, I and very few others in the world actually trained with Hoffman. Hoffman and I worked on developing our craft together. It was an amazing experience. 

My Personal Memoir 

What follows is a memoir of my time as a starlet at NYU.

Kristen Johnston (former actress in 3rd Rock from the Sun) also attended Tisch School for the Arts with us. We were not classmates (though she had classes with Phil), but she knew of my work and I knew of hers. One day in the hallway she said: Hey, Cherella. I heard about your masturbation scene. For the record, it was a wardrobe malfunction during a monologue on a squeaky bed.

Johnston too later had struggles with drugs and gives a raw account of her personal wars in her book Guts.

As a starlet, my life consisted of training with Hoffman and others by day, and partying with celebrities by night.

Chris Rock once called me obnoxious, at Nells nightclub, because I said his mentor, Eddie Murphy, was not a "real actor." After studying with Hoffman by day, I knew the difference and I had become arrogant.

I lived in the Brittany a couple of floors down from Adam Sandler. Sandler was friends with the late Ennis Cosby. I crashed a couple of his dorm-room parties. Can't say "I know" Sandler, though.

The pressures of stardom, as well as leading into dangerous territories like drugs, often shuts out old acquaintances. Hoffman and I could tear each other's work apart in school but he would have the last laugh, rising to stardom and forgetting some of his old colleagues.

Unlike Hoffman, I left acting after landing some wee acting parts, notably in Spike Lee films. Now I am the chief editor of contributors at TheStreet. They let me shoot videos here, too, which keeps my acting whistle wet.

I respected Hoffman as an actor -- one with natural talent and abandon. I "knew" him when you could get up close and personal. I was a starlet, but he became the star. Now Hoffman's flame has been extinguished, at 46, apparently by his own hands.

It can be sad how life turns, turns, turns.

-- Written by Cherella Cox in New York

Disclosure: TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors and reporters from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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