The measure of a man

By now the news of the death of actor and Rochester native Philip Seymour Hoffman is worldwide news. The press is of course feasting on the apparent cause of his death: A heroin overdose, with the morbid detail of the needle being found in his arm when he was discovered unconscious. Yes, Phil Hoffman was an addict, even by his own admission. He said as much back in 2006 during a pre-Oscar interview with 60 Minutes. That he struggled with drug addiction off and on throughout a large portion of his life is a part of who he was as a person.

It was however, only one part of who he was, so why does it seem that people dismiss the rest of his life as meaning nothing because of his addiction and the way he died? I don’t make this statement lightly. After reading the comments on the news sites from people who seem to have made their minds up that the only thing that mattered about him was that he was, according to them, a junkie – rich, spoiled, and unappreciative of the opportunities he’d been given.

Given. Not earned. Given.

As if he never worked a day in his life to earn the good fortune that was bestowed upon him through his commitment to his craft as an actor. Ignorance may be bliss, but it also adds fuel to stupidity as well. Look, let’s make no mistake here: There is no one else to blame for the way Hoffman died except for Hoffman. His being an addict however, was only one part of who he was as a person, just like the rest of us. To dismiss everything else that made him a human being – a father, partner, brother, son, actor and director – is to dismiss the same aspects in everyone.

I’m not going to go into all his accomplishments as an actor, director, et. al. If you really need to know these things, do an IMDB search. It’s all there anyway. However, I lived in Rochester for fourteen years, and had the pleasure of acting on stage with several people who knew Hoffman and his family in a very personal way, and the one thing that always was said about him was that he really hadn’t changed on the whole from who he was when he set off for NYU in the mid-80’s. His ego was always kept in check, not only by himself, but by those he grew up with. By all accounts, he remained grounded to what was important in life, and to the people that he cared about. He came back to his old high school, Fairport High in Fairport, NY, on numerous occasions to conduct master acting classes for the theatre students. In addition to his mother, Marilyn O’Connor, it was his foray on to the stage in high school – nurtured by now retired Fairport acting teacher Midge Marshall – that fueled his passion to pursue acting as a career.

Older brother Gordy, also a Fairport alum, became a screenwriter. He wrote the movie Love,  Liza, which starred Phil in the title role. I had the opportunity to work with Gordy on a project related to his Blue Cat Screenplay competition; A live reading of the winning screenplay and the runner-up screenplay at Blackfriars Theatre, back in the mid-2000’s.

I met Phil on two occasions, both related to films he was in that were being screened at the Little Theater on East Ave in Rochester. They were brief, “Hi, really enjoy your work” kind of things. I did have the chance to tell him about how I took an acting class with his dad back in 2000. He chuckled, and said “Yeah, I forgot he told me about that.”

All this however will mean nothing to those who did not have a connection to him in one way or another. They will continue to see him through the narrow lens of what constitutes their view of Hollywood, celebrity, and yes, political affiliations. I’ve read comments that have said, with a vitriol that seeps through the screen, that he’s “just another dead liberal junkie.”

How many of us would like our lives dissected in this manner? To take the single most negative aspect of a life, and let it overshadow everything else? I’m not talking about people who commit heinous acts upon others. I’m talking about the average person, who like all people, have their own demons to conquer. Personal failings are just that: Personal. They need to be addressed by the individual, but that person needs to acknowledge and work at keeping them in check and no one else but themselves. Doing that allows them to do the best for others as well.

I dealt with acute depression for several years. I sought help, and worked hard to try to overcome it, but I know it always lurks in the background, waiting for the opportune moment to strike again. Will you judge me as weak? As unable to deal with reality? As simply lazy, and that I should just pull myself up and get on with life? Depression, like addiction, is a chronic, ongoing struggle against that which would drag me down. Yes, I am in a good place right now, but I have come close to falling down the rabbit hole again.

Hoffman fell down the hole, and was unable to get out this time. It did not make him an evil, uncaring person, as some might see him. He was human, just like the rest of us, and while his death is a tragic example of how addiction overpowers some, it is also a reminder that no one is immune to their own failings. Chasing the dragon was on his shoulders. It should still not be used as a means to dismiss the rest of who he was to so many others.

“He was a man, take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again.” Hamlet, Act I, Scene ii

(I would be remiss if I didn’t post my favorite Phil Hoffman scene, From Charlie Wilson’s War:

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3 thoughts on “The measure of a man

  1. Excellent piece, Dave. As you know, I struggle with the demon depression as well and sometimes find solace in, well, adult beverages. But getting and keeping at least a partial grip on what has been diagnosed in me as an organic, lifelong affliction has been key. And to anyone who says of Hoffman that he was a junkie and and depressive loser, I would ask them to look at themselves and really examine if they are as happy, well-adjusted, and inherently superior to the people they deride. My guess would be that a lot of those shitheads only have their anger and judgmental vitriol to make them whatever passes for happy.

    • Thank you, Dan. I had to look at my own past in many ways, because there was a time when I felt the same way, or close to it, as many of those who posted comments on the news sites. Time and experience have made me see some things differently. I just feel truly bad for my actor friends who knew him well.

  2. Well written, David. Having known you most of your life, I can appreciate what you have written and what you have gone through. Well done.

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