CULVER CITY, Calif. >> A speeding Ford Fiesta passed the Sony Pictures gate and swerved into a parking lot across the street. It was 1:07 p.m. Was this finally him?
Frannie and Irwin don’t like to wait.
A young man in a tight sweater tumbled out of the car. Clutching a black binder overflowing with scripts, he started to walk-run toward the Culver City Senior Center. “Ta-da!” he said as he a pproached the entrance, adding a little ankle turn for effect. He hugged me — we had never met before — and apologized profusely for his harried schedule:
“Girl, it has been a morning.”
Matthew Hoffman’s basic story is as old as Hollywood itself. After studying theater at the Boston Conservatory, part of the Berklee College of Music, he packed a suitcase and moved to Los Angeles in 2006, determined to become a star. He got a roommate and a restaurant job and started to audition.
But then life took an unexpected turn.
Hoffman, now in his late 30s (and fussy about it), has become a celebrity, if not quite the kind he had envisioned. A few years ago he started to volunteer at the senior center as a type of acting coach. He helps people in their 70s, 80s and 90s perform scenes from films like “Casablanca,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “The Wizard of Oz,” even providing wigs and costumes for special videotaped performances, which they toast with Champagne flutes filled with vanilla Ensure.
The classes, known as Tuesdays With Matthew and held once a week for an hour or so, have made him an essential part of the senior community in “the heart of screenland,” as Culver City calls itself.
Nick Pietroforte, 90, a retired musician, told me that Hoffman’s sessions and blindingly bright personality “make me forget my pain.” Hoffman is greeted like royalty when he walks into the senior center: hugs, cheers, giggles.
“He makes me feel seen,” said Fran Friday, 81, a former kindergarten teacher. “Just for a little bit, I am someone.”
Hoffman has also received a lot from his “scene-iors,” as he calls them, and he might start to cry if you press him about it. His showboating is a bit of a facade, a way to mask a tender heart.
“This town can be very, very, very lonely, and when things have not been going well in my life, these people have always been there for me,” he said. “They also live authentic lives. They don’t care what anyone thinks. Do. Not. Care. That gives me the courage to be my high-haired, theater-loving self.”
But now Hoffman has a conundrum: At long last, his Hollywood career has started to take off.
Acting was his first calling. As a teenager growing up in Lynbrook on Long Island, Hoffman landed the role of Young Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” at Madison Square Garden.
Somewhere along the way, he decided to abandon his craft and turn toward “hosting” — talk shows, game shows, celebrity news shows. Think Ryan Seacrest on the E! red carpet, except with jazz hands.
Earlier this year CBS hired Hoffman as the snarky narrator for its “Love Island” reality series. (“Warning! The following program contains love, lust and tropical back-stabbing.”) Season 2 starts production in the coming months.
Hoffman will appear as a correspondent on the ABC News special “The Year With Robin Roberts.” Regal Cinemas pays him to interview celebrities at film junkets and premieres; the videos are distributed online.
So much work has started to come Hoffman’s way, in fact, that volunteering in Culver City has been taking a bit of a back seat, much to the dismay of Irwin Turek, 70, a retired county clerk who enjoys playing Dabney Coleman’s misogynistic role in “9 to 5” and channeling Burt Reynolds in “Smokey and the Bandit.”
“I’m always very disappointed when Matthew can’t come, which has been quite often this year,” Turek said. “I’m worried that he will forget about us.”
“If he ever left, I’d have a disaster on my hands,” Jill Thomsen, recreation and community services coordinator at the center, told me one afternoon in November.
I don’t think she was exaggerating. Hoffman has long been more than a volunteer acting coach to the seniors who cycle through Thomsen’s hallways. He doubles as a friend and confidant — and a surrogate son, perhaps — helping them cope with the daily indignities of growing older. He listens to their stories and treats them like contemporaries.
“I was sick recently and missed a few weeks, and Matthew called me to check on me,” Turek said. “It made me feel like I was important enough for someone to worry about.”
Funerals, alas, are part of this gig. One center mainstay, Dee Burress, a plain-spoken woman who liked to perform, died last year at 76. Hoffman brought flowers to class and placed them on her preferred seat. He keeps her photo on the cover of his script binder. “It sounds lofty and weird, but Tuesdays has transformed me as a human being,” he said. “I discovered who I am.”
The meandering path that brought Hoffman to the Culver City Senior Center started, strangely enough, with Anna Wintour, the high priestess of Conde Nast.
After college he had moved to New York and set his sights on Broadway. One day, while hanging out in a coffee shop, he met Wintour’s daughter, Bee Shaffer. They became friends.
When her mother had an extra ticket to the Tony Awards in June 2005, she offered it to Hoffman. During a commercial break, that year’s host, Hugh Jackman, appeared onstage at Radio City Music Hall to keep attendees entertained. Guess who got pulled out of the crowd to help?
Page Six wrote a blurb about it. Hoffman decided that was his big break. He flew to Los Angeles and, carrying copies of the newspaper item, tried to get an agent. One whom he met with offered some tough love: If he ever wanted to get a host job, he needed to put together a video resume showing him engaged in witty repartee with people.
“I had no one to interview and was sort of crushed,” Hoffman recalled. Then he passed a senior center near Beverly Hills. A light bulb went off.
Hoffman hit it off with some of the people he encountered at the center, and they invited him back. His visits evolved into Tuesdays With Matthew, moving locations (and days) after one participant, Pietroforte, discovered the livelier Culver City Senior Center.
After Hoffman started posting videos of special performances on YouTube as a way to raise money for Meals on Wheels, the directors of senior centers in other cities contacted him: Would he come do one of his costumes-and-props sessions there?
Last year he agreed, traveling within California to a center in Bakersfield and one near Fresno. He found a sponsor for the Fresno trip, raising $5,166 for Meals on Wheels. But his work schedule has put the brakes on fundraising. This year he has reached only about 35% of his goal.
“Love Island,” for instance, required all of Hoffman’s attention over the summer. Even before that he was stressed out by trying to balance his career with his volunteer work. After a class in the spring, he sat on a bench outside the center and broke down about it.
“I’m at a big crossroads personally and professionally,” he said, wiping away a tear. “These people have been my family out here.”
He drove away. The center seemed to turn from Technicolor to black and white.
My phone rang. It was a steadier Hoffman. “I don’t care how busy I get,” he said. “I will somehow make it work. I am not leaving them.”