Creem Magazine's Lester Bangs was portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film 'Almost Famous.' Here, at its Birmingham office, Robert Duncan, left Susan Whitall and Bangs. (JoAnn Uhelszki)
Actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died Sunday at age 46 of a presumed drug overdose, is being remembered for the wide array of memorable characters he played during his all-too-short career.
For me, his most unforgettable role will always be rock writer Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film “Almost Famous.”
“Almost Famous” was a nostalgic look back at Crowe’s 1970s life as a teen-age music writer. Lester, as played by Hoffman, is one of the film’s “truth-tellers.” He encourages Cameron’s character, renamed “William Miller,” and advises him to be “honest and unmerciful” when writing about rock stars.
I worked alongside Lester for five years during the ’70s at Creem Magazine’s Birmingham office. I knew Crowe, too, although not as well because he was living in San Diego and only occasionally visited Detroit. (He memorialized one visit, when we went with Lester to a Tubes concert in Troy, by having the band “Stillwater” be from that city.)
“Lester was the first guy who said my writing was good — and you don’t forget a guy like that,” Crowe told me when the film came out. “He said, ‘Call me,’ and he gave me entree. He was the first older guy who didn’t treat me like a kid. I mean, you love a guy like that. Plus he was funny as hell.”
'Did I get him?'
When “Almost Famous” was due to come out, I interviewed Hoffman about playing Lester. He knew that I’d worked with Lester at Creem, so the first thing he asked me, after we exchanged greetings, was, “Did I get him?”
“You got his voice,” I said. “How did you do that?” It unsettled me a little to see Hoffman in the movie, looking nothing like Lester — his hair was reddish blond, Lester’s was dark brown, and Lester was a much larger, shambling presence — but there was Lester’s sonorous voice coming out of Hoffman’s body.
“I had some videotape of him, and a lot of audio tapes of Lester speaking,” the actor said. “ ‘CarburetorDung’ (the compilation of Lester’s writing) was very helpful.”
I’d never experienced a world-class actor performing a technical trick like that, up close. And really, how many of us know what Lester Bangs’ speaking voice sounded like? But Hoffman took pains to capture it.
Hoffman was born in 1967, just two years before Lester’s red Camaro came off the assembly line. But he felt he understood him, and thought that his generosity toward the Cameron/William Miller character was the heart of the film.
“The role isn’t that minor in the movie,” Hoffman said. “Time-wise, it might be. But I knew that for Cameron, it was essential. It was a great challenge for me to try to create a sense of Lester Bangs, of somebody I would have enjoyed partying with.”
It still wasn’t quite Lester, of course, for anyone who knew him; more like a charcoal sketch, cleaned up for public consumption and lacking some lurid details. And the movie “Lester” seems preoccupied with endless long-distance phone calls with William Miller/Cameron.
Lester was quite fond of staying up all night in our Birmingham Theater building office, racking up Creem’s long-distance phone bill, but it was calls to writer and musician friends around the country, not just Cameron. There’s no counting how many of us he mentored.
I remember the Lester voice, advising me that song lyrics were “whatever you hear them to be,” ranting gently as I complained, that there was “no such thing as writer’s block, just start typing and the (garbage) will fall away.”
He painstakingly outlined a Peter Frampton story for me once, even though I know he wasn’t a fan, coaxing out the gist of the story and the best parts of the interview. Then he slapped a cover headline onto it that was both shocking and sexist ... and wrong. And so it goes.
In real life, Lester was larger, taller, scruffier, warmer and messier than Hoffman, and even when he was doing obnoxious things, such as singing racially charged, made-up lyrics during an all-night sing-a-thon at former Temptation David Ruffin’s Detroit house, somehow he was forgiven, and even loved. (Ruffin found him hilarious, even though Lester had also been dancing provocatively with his girlfriend earlier.)
In “Almost Famous,” Hoffman wore a replica of Lester’s collarless black leather jacket, and his “Detroit Sucks” T-shirt. But you didn’t see Lester’s fondness for Canadian codeine/aspirin pills (shared by many, then) and Romilar cough syrup, which he delighted in pouring surreptitiously into my coffee cup.
What Hoffman sought to portray was the essence of Lester, the heart behind the brilliant, biting prose. It’s poignant to read what Hoffman said to me, considering that both men died alone, from accidental overdoses. In Hoffman’s case, it appears to be heroin. For Lester, it was his standard party mix of prescription and over-the-counter meds that vanquished him in 1982, age 33.
“I remember coming to Cameron, saying that I felt that, even though I didn’t know Lester, I could tell by some of his writing that he was a pretty lonely guy and that he had a huge heart for the down and out,” Hoffman told me.
“Lester is the man who lives with a broken heart, that’s what I got from his writing,” he added. “It’s very clear that the guy understood what it meant to be at home for days on end, yearning for someone. He was looking for that in music. Music constantly let him down.”