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On Influence | Appreciating Robin Williams

By Mike Kuczkowski

After Robin Williams’ death last week, many media outlets produced some fine tributes (and some have done some disgraceful things, too.) If you have not listened to Mark Maron’s podcast with Williams, you should.

Having just published a piece about Philip Seymour Hoffman, I didn’t want to write about Williams at first. But, I realized that while people were talking a lot about Williams’ career and his legacy, there was a point to be made about his influence that I thought was important and unsaid.

I think influence is something that we all think about in communications, and Williams had a tremendous and powerful influence, both within comedy and acting, and on the culture at large.

Williams meant a lot of things to people. Some people loved him as “Mork” in the 1970s, though, candidly, I never understood why. Some loved his comedic acting, in movies like “Good Morning Vietnam” or “Mrs. Doubtfire.” Others loved him in dramatic roles, like the teacher in “Dead Poet’s Society” or the psychologist in “Good Will Hunting.” As an actor, he credibly ranks among the best of his era, though he also starred in some clunkers. (One example of his star status: In The Birdcage, Williams got top billing over Gene Hackman and Nathan Lane. Not too shabby.)

But Williams was more than an actor. As a comedian, he was one of the greatest of all time. I was a huge fan of Williams’ standup comedy. My best friend in grade school looked a bit like Williams and proved adept mimicking Williams’ impressions. We had a lot of fun with it. We did Williams doing Jim Nabors. And Williams doing John Wayne. Williams doing a redneck and a gay hairdresser and an Arab and a Japanese tourist.

Williams was not a master impressionist, like Rich Little. His impressions were good, but not precise. It was as though, as NPR’s Terry Gross described it, he had a coterie of different personalities inside him, and it was never clear which would come out next.

But, his content was brilliant. In 1986, in “A Night at the Met,” he said “I’m Robin Leach, a man with a voice so loud even animals go ‘Who the f*ck are you?’” Where did that come from? I don’t even think Leach was particularly loud. But Leach, the host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” was obnoxious, pretentious and overbearing in a manner best described as loud.

Williams pierced the cultural zeitgeist with his humor. And, whether it was true in the sense of accuracy or not, it did hang together.

As a kid who imitated comics, I could recite the dentist’s chair scene from Bill Cosby’s “Himself.” Or, Eddie Murphy’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” Those were acts; you could deliver those lines. But, Williams’ performances moved so quickly from one persona to another that following them gave you the comedy equivalent of whiplash. You couldn’t recreate him out of context.

This, however, gave his admirers the freedom to invent. We couldn’t recite the lines. Heck, it was hard to understand them, and I still don’t get all the references. But, we could tie together random things that seemed disparate and create something funny, at least part of the time, because he did.

In the tributes of the past week, many observers — particularly critics who had to try to represent his brilliance in print — have said of Williams that ‘you had to be there’ to appreciate his genius. I think it’s because the performance just isn’t that funny if you’re not there to see the free association happen. The brilliance is embedded in the high wire act of seeing him jump from topic to topic and then back again, and in not knowing what’s hiding around the next curve.

We talk about Williams as an improv genius, but I really don’t think that’s right. He was an associative genius. He took us on journeys, with bits that travelled from Walt Disney to Ronald Reagan to Moammar Quadafi, to Colonel Sanders to fast-food workers. (“You want fries with that?”) These are things that did not fit together, except through him.

In fact, this is the thing I think we don’t yet appreciate about Williams. His comedy made the randomness of life, at a time when the world was becoming increasingly random, make sense.

You know, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s was a very confusing time. (I’m sure it’s possible to insert any decade into that sentence, but indulge me for a moment.) We were born into the nuclear era, under the threat of the Cold War. We experienced American hostages in Iran, assassination attempts on the Pope and the president, the rise of Michael Jackson and MTV, the eruption of Mount St. Helens and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It all seemed fairly random, if not terrifying.

And here came this guy, Robin Williams. A fast-talking comic who changed topics and personas so quickly you barely had a chance to keep up. He talked about everything. Sometimes in one long, wildly meandering sentence. And, while we never knew where he’d be taking us, the ride often was more sense-making than the evening news. Much as Jon Stewart does today, on a nightly basis.

And the brilliance of it was that, while he was clearly a genius, he didn’t try to seem smarter than us or try to make some grand statement about what it all meant. He had the courage to leave it there and say “yep.” Much like we all had to do on pretty much a daily basis.

That’s what makes me most sad about Williams’ death. Robin Williams could look at the strange, random absurdity in the world, and, tie it together imperfectly but hilariously, and make you laugh until your guts hurt and then —— as he did when he walked off stage at “A Night at the Met” hand-in-hand with his imaginary 3-year-old son —– say ‘f*ck it’ in a three-year-old toddler’s voice. It made you feel like you could laugh it off, too.

Like Walter Cronkite in my parents’ generation, Robin Williams looked at the world and helped us make sense of it. And, his passing makes it make a little less sense overall.


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Robin Williams | Awardscore

Last month, to evaluate Philip Seymour Hoffman’s acting career, we created a framework called the Awardscore [1]. Here’s a look at where Robin Williams ranks.

Actor Age Noms Wins Oscar Noms Oscar Wins Awardscore
Jack Nicholson 77 71 95 12 3 351
Daniel Day-Lewis 57 35 127 5 3 344
Tom Hanks 58 86 71 5 2 288
Denzel Washington 59 85 73 6 2 281
Philip Seymour Hoffman 46 64 88 4 1 270
Javier Bardem 45 53 91 3 1 260
Sean Penn 54 63 76 5 2 260
George Clooney 53 92 60 4 1 242
Leonardo DiCaprio 39 122 50 4 0 242
Robin Williams 63 60 70 4 1 220

Among the peer set of Best Actor nominees for the past 30 years, Williams ranks 10th. He is also arguably the greatest star to cross over from comedy to drama. While one could make the case that Tom Hanks similarly moved from sitcom acting to a serious big screen drama career, none of the actors on this list were standup comedians of note besides Williams.

Which brings us to another unique point. Grammy awards are not included in our acting analysis. (Nor, some have noted, are Tony awards. Or women.) But if the Grammy award is included, and it is rated like an Oscar, Williams moves into elite territory.

Williams was nominated for seven Grammy awards and won five overall, four for best Comedy Album. (His fifth was for best spoken word album, in a collaboration with Ry Cooder.) Applying a similar Awardscore formula to Grammy awards, Williams would rank fifth behind Bill Cosby (7W, 12N), George Carlin (5W, 16N), Richard Pryor (5W, 10N) and Steve Martin (4W, 9N) among comedians.

An impressive career, however you look at it.

It’s worth noting that there are some flaws or distortions in this exercise. As film festivals and awards have proliferated in recent years, the rankings of older actors such as DeNiro, Newman, Pacino and Albert Finney, fall further behind the younger generation. Which, it’s worth noting, makes Jack Nicholson’s status as top dog among the past 30 years of Best Actor nominees all the more impressive.

[1] NOTE: As a reminder, the Awardscore gives actors 10 points for an Oscar win, five points for an Oscar nomination and two and one points, respectively, for overall acting awards and nominations listed in the IMDB.com database. For this ranking, we expanded our set of actors in the analysis to include all nominees for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role dating back to 1984. For the Hoffman piece, we were looking for objective data about the claim that he was “The Greatest Actor of His Generation,” which only took us back to 1997.

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Pouring Cold Water On A Viral Movement

Tesla CEO Elon Musk and his five sons share in his #icebucketchallenge video

By Mike Kuczkowski

We know the story by now: On July 31, 29-year-old Pete Frates, of Boston, filmed a 52-second video that sparked a movement.

The video itself is unremarkable. Frates stares into the camera, moving his head back and forth to the beat of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice Baby.” He says nothing. He writes a message naming nine people in it, tags it #icebucketchallenge and posts it to his Facebook page.

The story behind it, however, is incredibly moving. Frates was a former star outfielder for Boston College’s Division I baseball team. As team captain, he had led the 2007 team with five home runs and 19 stolen bases. In April of that year, he set a modern BC record with eight runs batted in in one game.

Yet, like the Hall of Fame Yankees star Lou Gehrig, Frates’ baseball career was cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), an incurable progressive neurodegenerative disease. Frates was diagnosed in 2012 and is now confined to a wheelchair. He cannot speak. He eats through a feeding tube. He types using ocular recognition technology.

Frates’ Facebook post was a flash, and the tinderbox of social media channels ignited in response. Athletes, celebrities and ordinary people were tagged by their friends and acquaintances.They heard Frates’s story and were inspired. They began filming #icebucketchallenge videos, posting them to Facebook and Twitter, giving money to ALS and challenging their friends to do the same. It works essentially like a chain letter: if you accept the challenge and film a video, you give $10 to the charity and nominate three others to do a video; if you don’t film a video, you pay the charity $100.

The roster of those who have doused themselves reads like a list of the Forbes Most Powerful. Bill Gates took the challenge, as did Oprah. Jimmy Fallon and the Roots took the challenge, as did Justin Timberlake, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Martha Stewart, Mark Zuckerberg, Tim McGraw. The list — and the elaborateness of the contraptions involved — grows more impressive by the day.

As has the volume of donations to the ALS Association: $7.6 million in two weeks, compared to $1.1 million in the same period last year, including gifts from more than 100,000 new donors. On Aug. 15, Facebook reported that 1.2 million ice bucket challenge videos had been posted, and 15 million had posted, commented or “liked” a post about the challenge.

Is this a lesson in social media virality? Is Frates a one-man maven and connector?

This chart, released by Facebook, supports the notion that the #icebucketchallenge is a viral, social media phenomenon (worth noting, the Facebook charts are based only on Facebook data).


And here’s a graphic shows the spread of the ice bucket challenge across the country, with a clear epicenter in Boston, where Frates lives.


In fact, the story is more complicated. The ice bucket challenge had actually been around for more than six weeks before Frates posted his video. My 13-year-old son received the cold water challenge on his Instagram account from a classmate on June 16. (He ignored it; there was no tie to charity at the time.) The challenge started as a dare.

And, as it morphed and added a charity component, it received significant mainstream media attention. On July 14, two weeks before Frates’ post, golfer Greg Norman challenged Today Show host Matt Lauer, who filmed his challenge on air. Lauer gave a donation to Hospice of Palm Beach County. Ironically, now that the phenomenon has become so closely associated with ALS, Lauer has been criticized for not mentioning the charity.

Frates also wasn’t the first person with an ALS association to post a video. A golfer in Sarasota, Fl., dedicated his video to an ALS patient July 14. Dan Quinn, whose brother Pat also suffers from ALS – posted a video to his brother’s “Quinn for the Win” page on July 26, urging people to learn more about ALS. Quinn’s and Frates’ networks overlap, and Frates tagged #Quinnforthewin in his July 31 post.[i]

But what can this tell us about social movements? Could anyone in marketing, public relations or fundraising, have predicted that Frates would be such an influential figure in this movement?

Doubtful. Because while Frates was definitely influential in all of this, he had a lot of help. There are four major factors of influence that matter when it comes to understanding how an idea can become a social movement: context, consensus, catalyst and calls to action.

Contextmay be the most important part. How are the environmental conditions right for this movement to take off? This is difficult to assess in the context of the ice bucket challenge. It would appear that the challenge had been around for a while, and that ALS awareness is lower than it perhaps should be (only 50 percent of Americans apparently are familiar with the disease. I guess, unlike in my own household, “Pride of the Yankees” is no longer required viewing.)

It’s also a hot summer in many parts of the country. From my standpoint, I don’t think the context is aligned with the challenge, and that’s part of why I and many others may feel some dissonance around it.

Consensus: There must to be some momentum around a need that audiences or stakeholders feel must change. And, I think there’s a latent consensus that something should be done to cure ALS: more research, better drugs. But again, nothing that has much of a ‘wow’ factor in this aspect.

The third factor is a catalyst. And, whatever the origins of all this, Pete Frates appears to be that. Some event or actor galvanizes public opinion that prompts some action. It’s interesting to note that Frates seems to have been extremely focused on raising awareness for ALS this year. He wrote a moving piece for the sports website Bleacher Report — with no mention of ice — about his diagnosis and experiences on July 2 to mark the 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s famous “Luckiest Man” speech. He is also well-connected on social media, with hundreds of followers and a family actively supporting his awareness and fundraising efforts. Critically, his personal story provides a great hook to turn a nascent movement into something more powerful.

Calls to Action: Ultimately participation in a movement requires something people can do. And, this is where I think the ice bucket challenge wins big. As this post explains, the challenge involves something that is easy to do (film a video) and something we have been programmed to do since we were toddlers (play tag). And we all like to watch people do silly things, which is why so many of us have played these videos, whether from friends of celebrities, over the past three weeks.

Even given all that, there are three significant factors that have been extremely influential, but are getting far less attention than the ‘man who sparked a movement’ narrative:

Mainstream media: In terms of reach, Facebook says 15 million people were exposed to an #icebucketchallenge post on social media, an impressive figure. But let’s take a look at other channels. Lauer’s Today Show segment alone reached 4.2 million. Between Aug. 1 and Aug. 19, some 996 unique print articles are listed in the Factiva database with the term “ice bucket challenge.” The number of broadcast mentions probably dwarfs that figure. This may well be a case where the number of people exposed to mainstream media coverage of the challenge is 10 times the number of people exposed to it on social media.

Celebrity: A remarkable number of celebrities, each of whom has a greater than average number of followers, were caught up in this. As mentioned earlier, this challenge has been taken on by tons of athletes, musicians, politicians and business leaders. Today, each of those has his or her own followings on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Jimmy Fallon’s YouTube channel has four million subscribers, and his ice bucket video has been viewed two million times. Bill Gates’ video has been viewed 9 million times. Those two alone nearly match the Facebook engagement of #icebucketchallenge to date.

The Law of Numbers: Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the math. As a challenge like this gains participation, the number of participants grows exponentially, just as a consequence of each challenge spreading to three more people. We modeled the rules of the ice bucket challenge in an Excel spreadsheet and charted the results below in what we call the “chain letter effect.”

Looks a lot like the graph Facebook released on the #icebucketchallenge.


So what does this all mean? What appears to be a social media viral phenomenon may just be a phenomenon. One where a catalyst and a call to action — facilitated by social media, boosted by mainstream media and the special sauce of celebrity participation — caught on and ultimately conformed to the chain letter effect. A young man suffering from a terrible disease did a good thing and gained attention for an important cause. And lots of people got wet. Cold and wet.

It’s unclear whether the boon of fund raising for ALS will sustain itself or pass. Studies show that many people give roughly the same amount of money to charity each year, suggesting there may be some cannibalization of nonprofit resources in ALS’s funding increase. What would really help, to state the obvious, is progress toward a cure.

In this respect, it is as it was in 1939, when Gehrig, one of the most famous men on the planet, retired suddenly from baseball after an astonishingly successful career, and gave one of the most moving speeches in history, one broadcast around the globe and celebrated to this day. He died two years later. Let’s hope today’s contributions lead to a cure long before we celebrate the 75th anniversary of Pete Frates’ viral ice bucket moment.

[i] John Frates — Pete’s dad — taped a video July 29, in response to a challenge from his son Andrew, of his own ice bucket challenge. You can see Pete in the video next to him. In contrast to Elon Musk’s sophisticated 5-bucket contraption, Frates’s dad has a friend dump a wheelbarrow of ice on him. Old school.

Orangefiery Memo | Open Letter To Tim Cook


DATE:       August 19, 2014

TO:             Tim Cook, CEO, Apple

FROM:     Mike Kuczkowski

RE:             Apple Communications Leadership

Much has changed since Apple hired its last communications leader in 1996. We thought we’d offer some thoughts about the communications function and the role of chief communications officer, as you head up a search for the successor to Katie Cotton, who retired at the end of May.

Admittedly, we don’t know much about Apple’s communications. We know Ms. Cotton was highly respected and regarded as a gate-keeper of Apple news and the Apple brand. We know the company has not used agencies, has a strong internal team, has been highly secretive (note: paywall) about company developments and discourages employees from speaking publicly about the company. We also know Apple has been a tremendously successful company, particularly in the period of 1997 to present. It tops the league in rankings of brand value and corporate reputation. And, it cares deeply about the clarity and quality of its communications. All of which begs the question: Why change? Fair enough, we’ll try to address that along the way.

What’s new

Communications has always been a critical business function, but the explosion of information, technology, connectivity and communications channels in the past 15 years has made it far more complex.

Here are the biggest trends:

  • The media environment today is always on and global, so the notion of a news cycle no longer exists.
  • The ease of online publishing means that stakeholders have powerful ways to communicate and advance their personal agendas without the traditional media’s editorial filter.
  • The rise of social networks means that news moves faster than ever.
  • And the nature of influence, by virtue of all these factors, has changed, though few people can say precisely how.

For Apple, this creates competing tensions. On the one hand, you increasingly need communications people with highly specialized skills that can master the nuances of engagement in all these channels. On the other hand, you need someone who can connect all the dots. It’s all one brand. It’s all one voice. For better, or worse.


Communications strategy must align with business strategy. We don’t know your business strategy intimately, so here are our assumptions:

  1. Apple will continue to bring new products to market in new categories while improving products in existing categories, consistent with its track record of innovation. We don’t care if it’s an iWatch, iHealth, iTV or an iCar… (actually, we’d really like an iCar). But we assume that in general you will continue to disrupt new categories with remarkable products.
  1. Apple will continue to face considerable scrutiny for anti-competitive behavior, IP and trade practices, Foxconn and labor practices, tax policies, collusion with other technology companies on hiring practices and environmental issues.
  1. You are leading Apple through a subtle but significant shift, empowering developers to collaborate more within its operating ecosystem and breaking down traditional barriers to openness in the context of its products.


Based on these assumptions, and the changes in communications and the marketplace, we offer the following recommendations for your lead communicator and the function overall:

1)     Corporate storytelling: You need someone who can articulate and advance Apple’s corporate story in multiple ways and across multiple channels. You clearly understand this, based on the more narrative approach you’ve recently taken to product marketing communications (e.g., ‘Stickers’). This doesn’t mean you should hire a children’s book author as your lead communicator, but you should hire someone with the ability to convey powerful, simple, clear stories about the company moving forward.

2)     Integration: Your leader needs to be able to integrate your stories to Wall Street and Main Street, and beyond. As the silos between audiences have broken down, people expect to see how it all ties together. You can’t have a story about sapphire iPhone screens and not anticipate some reactions – even ill-advised ones – from outsiders, for example. Your communications leader must be exceptionally strong at this and at identifying areas where you are at risk of delivering potentially dissonant messages to developers, suppliers or consumers. Again, the notion of a singular voice and brand will be brought to life by your communications function, and it’s critical that your leader be adept at this.

3)     Systems thinking: The world of communications moves so fast today, it is virtually impossible to maintain a centralized command-and-control approach. (And we say that while maintaining that there is nothing wrong with pushing for confidentiality and secrecy in product planning cycles.) Think of your communications infrastructure as a network. Most of the action — the interface with the outside world – happens at the nodes, rather than at the center. You need a communications leader who can empower the system of communications – whether through internal communicators, leaders, agencies or a combination of all three – and get great results. This will require substantial amounts of centralized planning, training and performance enhancement. This means you’ll also need someone who’s highly collaborative and willing to invest in talent development.

4)     Multi-channel skills: Don’t just hire someone who’s good at media relations. Hire someone – and surround them with a team – who can think about how to leverage all the potential channels in which you can tell your story. You also need to activate corporate embassies on Twitter and Facebook. Apple has the power to be a social business success story, but it can’t be if it’s not active in the social media space.

5)     Research capabilities: Your communications group should be constantly absorbing qualitative and quantitative data about your audiences, looking for insights and advising the organization about its actions. There’s so much data now about, well… everything. Your communications team should be facile with data, ask smart questions, and be able to find meaning in the numbers.

6)     Two-way orientation: Related to the research point above and the accountability point below, communications at its best is a two-way function, delivering insights to the organization while also representing the organization to the outside world. This is both art and a science. But if the proper channels are established internally to turn insights into actions, the communications team can be a powerful partner on key strategic (public) issues.

7)     Transparency: This is one of the few strategic choices companies can make from a communications perspective to build and maintain trust. Historically, you’ve gone the opposite way. There’s no obligation to be transparent about upcoming product releases. Until you launch something, it’s not news. But you can and should drive greater transparency around your environmental footprint, labor practices, privacy policies and other issues.

8)     Accountability: The public relations industry is a mess when it comes to measurement, but the function itself should be measurable and accountable to leadership. There’s a huge lexicon gap between marketing and public relations, but with all the data we’re now gathering about people, their behaviors, and what influences them, we should be able to do more to understand the impact that effective messages/narratives and smart, strategic deployment of those messages can have on stakeholders.

That’s it. Eight points. We thought there might be more. We wish you tremendous success finding that leader and building the infrastructure and the team. [1]

[1] Full disclosure: We have been Apple customers since 1989, when we bought our first Apple Macintosh SE. We’ve followed the company closely, and currently own two iMacs, a Macbook Pro, three iPhones, an iPad an iPod, as well as multiple peripherals and more iTunes songs and movies than we care to admit. We may sound critical, but we want you to succeed.


Ferguson & The Power Of An Effective Spokesman

By Mike Kuczkowski

The events in Ferguson, Mo., last week have not been a proud moment for America.

On Aug. 9, a white police officer fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old. Since then, the world has seen pictures of protests, looting and confrontations with police. The police — armed with military-grade rifles, body armor and mine-resistant vehicles — have been criticized for a ‘militarized’ response. Disputes hang over the details of the shooting itself. (Vox has a good summary.) Debates about the state of race and justice in our country have become front-page news, yet again.

Against this backdrop, Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, has given a master class in what it means to be an effective spokesperson in a crisis.

In our experience, being an effective spokesperson is a combination of art and science. There are elements that can be evaluated objectively, such as the use of key messages and proof points, taking questions and maintaining credibility as a voice and source of authority. There are also things like tone, style and body language that contribute strongly to ones effectiveness, and are harder to quantify. In a way, giving the press briefing in a crisis situation is a performance art.

We reviewed the press conferences held Friday by Ferguson Mo. Police Chief Tom Jackson, whose officer was involved in the fatal shooting, and Johnson, who was dispatched to Ferguson by Gov. Jay Nixon to maintain order in Ferguson.

Here’s a breakdown of how they did on what we believe are key dimensions of effective spokesperson-ship:

                                  Missouri State Highway Patrol
Capt. Ronald S. Johnson
Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson
Demeanor Calm Calm
Body language Stands with confidence at podium, shoulders square Dons reading glasses, holds paper at a distance
First comment “Good afternoon. If you can’t hear me, I’ll step out into the crowd a little bit.” “I brought some notes this time, so I’d get it right.”
Engagement Invites community to come closer, takes questions, listens Says he will not take questions
Messaging Has key messages, the goal of maintaining people’s right to free speech while maintaining peace. Offers proof points to bolster argument that things are going well. No key messages, says he is responding to information requests, creates confusion by releasing name of officer involved in shooting and tape of robbery simultaneously
Accessibility 39:56 minute press conference, takes questions 4:30 minute press conference, no questions
Tone Clear, accessible, candid Technical, language pulled from police reports
Control Shares control of briefing with other leaders and with protestors Maintains firm control throughout

SOURCE: Orangefiery analysis

Johnson is a voice of calm in an extremely tense situation. He listens. He uses effective messaging. He is patient. He doesn’t hide his own concerns or dissatisfaction. He’s real.

The irony is, by ceding control of the flow of the press briefing, Johnson establishes himself as the person most in control of the conversation.

Both in front of and away from the podium, Johnson has used symbolism to his advantage. He has walked amid protestors, cameras in tow, earning their trust. At his Friday press briefing, when asked what people should do, he related a story he told his daughter about Jesus and Peter in the New Testament, urging people to have faith.

He’s also disarmingly candid. At Chief Jackson’s press conference, where he released the name of the police officer involved in the shooting along with a 19-page police report about a robbery in which the victim was apparently a suspect — a move that mixed two unrelated issues — Johnson said “I would have liked to have been consulted.”

He didn’t have to be that honest. In fact there’s risk in him doing so. If he’s not being consulted, how can he have any real influence? Yet by highlighting an area where things did not go as he expected, he showed he could handle the situation calmly and rationally without turning angry.

This realness makes Johnson credible and trustworthy, which is exactly what the community of Ferguson needs at this moment — a credible, trustworthy leader with a badge. It’s telling to note that Johnson is originally from the Ferguson area, and his knowledge and empathy for the people there is evident. The fact that Johnson, like the victim and many of the protestors, is African-American may be a comfort to some locally. Any critics who point to his race as a source of his authority and effectiveness are simply wrong.

Johnson has managed to increase trust with the community and reduce tensions. He’s earned widespread praise by media organizations, including a piece in The New York Times.

A good spokesperson isn’t going to make a crisis go away, and outcomes in Ferguson are still uncertain. But an effective spokesperson in a crisis can improve communication, increase information flow, ease tensions, and bring clarity to situations where confusion could be a spark for violence. More importantly, by executing the role of a spokesperson well, Johnson is bringing a level of calm to a volatile situation. He’s giving the people of Ferguson evidence that a person in uniform will listen, at a moment when people feel at odds with the police.

Ferguson is still in a state of unrest, and it’s impossible to predict how things will resolve themselves. Sunday, Johnson had to backpedal on his open stance, as a 5-hour curfew was imposed. Still, by maintaining a posture of firmness, empathy and engagement, he greatly increases the odds that things in Ferguson will improve, something the whole world would like to see.

The Least-Heralded Greatest Actor of His Generation

Photo Credit: Andrea Raffin / Shutterstock.com

Did the Media Hype Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Life at his Death, or Did It Miss The Story?

By Mike Kuczkowski


There he is, as vital as ever, impossibly alive in character: Philip Seymour Hoffman, playing a John LeCarré spymaster in “A Most Wanted Man.” Another great Hoffman performance, punctuating our loss of his presence in cinema.

In February, when I heard Hoffman had died, I experienced that odd range of emotions reserved for those who have touched us but with whom we have no personal relationship. Surprise. Shock. Sadness. A sense of loss. A sense that something pained and vulnerable must have been behind those pained and vulnerable characters he played with such consistent excellence on the big screen.

I recalled his turns as the bratty snitch in “Scent of A Woman.” And as Ben Stiller’s gross sidekick in “Along Came Polly.” And Scotty J., Lester Bangs, Father Flynn, Capote, The Master… a long line of characters, all of whom were made more remarkable by the craft Hoffman brought to the roles.

Then came the claim “the greatest actor of his generation.”  Was he? Maybe so. He was a fine actor, no question about it. But the greatest of his generation? I really didn’t know.

As someone who sees a fair number of movies each year and consumes even more movie reviews and film industry media coverage, I felt like I should have known the answer to that question. Had I missed the memo from the critics, or was this something that was just unsaid before his too-early passing. And, if it was the latter, how does that square with our relentless, 24/7, gossip-tinged media coverage of Hollywood, in which the least significant celebrity sighting can get top billing from TMZ.com?

Rating a Generation

Let’s break it down. The first step is to define what constitutes Hoffman’s ”generation” of actors. This is trickier than it might appear. He’s clearly not part of the Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino cohort, all of whom are 70+. Is he in the same generation as George Clooney? Or Leonardo DiCaprio? If so, how does he compare?

I looked at the 66 actors who have been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Performance as an Actor in a Leading Role from 1997. Of those, 21 actors are between the ages of 39 and 50. Let’s say that’s Hoffman’s “generation.” (Clooney, at 53, misses the cut.)

Using data from IMDB.com, I looked at how many awards these actors have been nominated for and won. I created a metric, which I’ll call “Awardscore.” The Awardscore gives each star 10 points for an Oscar win – whether in a supporting or leading role – and five for an acting Oscar nomination. Wins and nominations for less prestigious awards were given two and one points, respectively.

The results (see chart below) make a strong case that Philip Seymour Hoffman was indeed the greatest, or at least the most decorated, actor of his generation.

Best Actors of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Generation

Actor Age Noms Wins Oscar Noms Oscar Wins Awardscore
Philip Seymour Hoffman 46 64 88 4 1 270
Javier Bardem 45 53 91 3 1 260
Leonardo DiCaprio 39 122 50 4 0 242
Brad Pitt 50 84 54 3 0 207
Johnny Depp 51 80 54 3 0 203
Heath Ledger 35 36 71 2 1 198
Will Smith 46 87 48 2 0 193
Christian Bale 40 56 58 2 1 192
Jamie Foxx 46 58 49 2 1 176
Russell Crowe 50 52 43 3 1 163
Matt Damon 43 80 33 2 0 156
Chiwetel Ejiofor 37 52 47 1 0 151
Joaquin Phoenix 40 70 32 3 0 149
Robert Downey Jr. 49 69 33 2 0 145
Nicolas Cage 50 45 39 2 1 143
Don Cheadle 50 77 30 1 0 142
Matthew McConaughey 45 38 40 1 1 133

SOURCE: Orangefiery analysis of data from imdb.com, search conducted Aug. 4, 2014, updated Aug. 23.

I also looked at Metascore, from the review aggregator site “Metacritic.” On this metric, which measures the quality of the films in which he appeared, Hoffman again outperformed his peers with a lifetime Metascore of 67, five points ahead of Bardem, Damon and Renner, who lead the rest of the pack. Given the volume and range of films in which he appeared, from “Almost Famous” to the forgettable “Patch Adams,” I was surprised that his lead was so pronounced. He’s a full 11 points above the average, 20% better than the mean. This suggests Hoffman took the films he was in and made them better.

Assessing the Critics

So, there is a strong case that Hoffman was his generation’s greatest actor. Which leads to my last question: Was this something unsaid, or something I had missed?

The Factiva media database shows were 338 articles published between January 1, 2000 and January 31, 2014 using the phrase “greatest actor of his generation”. Of those, most referred to Sir Laurence Olivier (20+), Marlon Brando (20+ times, mostly focused on his death in 2004), Robert DeNiro (15), Sean Penn (12) and Daniel Day-Lewis (8). (Note: Day-Lewis, at 57, has a very strong claim to being today’s greatest actor with five Oscar nominations and a record three wins and an Awardscore of 332 in just 29 credited roles).

Of Hoffman’s contemporaries, DiCaprio was mentioned eight times. Robert Downey Jr. also had eight articles mention him with that phrase, often immediately contrasted with his drug problems. Russell Crowe received five mentions, including two lengthy examinations of his career in his native Australian press. Ryan Gosling was associated with the phrase four times. Ed Norton and Kevin Spacey, three each.

Hoffman was mentioned in four articles, always in passing. Once by Sean Penn, in an interview with Piers Morgan (Morgan replied, “Really?”). Once James Corden, in his 2012 Tony Award acceptance speech (Hoffman had been nominated for his performance in “Death of a Salesman.”) New York Times critic A.O. Scott mentions Hoffman as the second-greatest working actor, behind Day-Lewis, in a 2013 Oscar preview with Charlie Rose. No in-depth appreciation, no feature piece on his body of work in a major publication. It’s as though he was appreciated by his peers as a great actor, but the media just wasn’t interested.

A similar search for the phrase “best actor of his generation” yielded 278 articles. Many more mentions for Norton, Crowe, Spacey, DiCaprio. New mentions of Johnny Depp and Joaquin Phoenix. Hoffman? Not a single one.

Perhaps the most prescient, if not ironic, piece of coverage is a 2012 New York Times blog that asked the question, “Is Mark Wahlberg the Greatest Actor of His Generation?” The piece explores how many Oscar-worthy roles Wahlberg had, compared with the likes of Matt Damon, DiCaprio, Paul Giamatti and (describing him as the “big gun”) Hoffman. Tongue firmly in cheek, author Adam Sternbergh says “raise your hand if you thought the Greatest Actor of His Generation title bout would come down to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Mark Wahlberg.” Huh.

So there it is, like a needle in a haystack. The clearest declaration that Hoffman was the best of his time came at 4:12 pm on February 2, 2014, when The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson declared, “Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Greatest Actor of His Generation.” Just less than 6 hours after the Wall Street Journal broke the news that Hoffman had died in his Manhattan apartment. After that, 17 additional unique pieces echoed the sentiment. Suddenly, a critical consensus had formed.

Parting Thoughts

So, yes, Hoffman was one of the greatest actors of his generation. And, no, we didn’t say so while he might have heard us. One wonders if it would have made a difference. To Hoffman, and equally to us. I suppose it’s an unfortunate human tendency, to save the kindest words and most meaningful critical appraisals for obituaries.

It’s also easy, but accurate, to say that media coverage of an actor’s untimely death represents us at our worst. The media said so little when it might have mattered, and then pried so much when tragedy struck. It’s a phenomenon best described by the singer-songwriter Marc Mulcahy in “Where’s the Indifference Now?” — a song inspired by media coverage surrounding the death of Heath Ledger:

Get a picture of his girlfriend crying

Flowers strewn around the entrance

His parents are asking for some time to grieve

Even better can’t just everybody leave

Still, it does make me feel as though we could do better when it comes to appreciating the cumulative contributions being made by our great artists. Some stars, like Crowe or Downey Jr., seem to attract media star treatment, perhaps because they are bold enough to declare their ambitions aloud. Others gain coverage for their striking handsomeness, if not their public trials and travails. Perhaps Hoffman was overlooked because he was not as attractive, generally, as others on this list. One way or the other, we missed a big story.

One thing I would urge the media to do: assign a major piece on Javier Bardem. He wasn’t mentioned a single time with the phrase “greatest actor of his generation.” And with Hoffman gone, there’s a compelling case that he is.

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