In memoriam: Philip Seymour Hoffman

If you love film, theater or great performances in general, then no one needs to explain to you the enormous void left by the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was simply one of the most profoundly gifted actors working today, and he leaves behind a brilliant body of work that has inspired his fellow actors and moved audiences. In The New York Times, Bruce Weber has accurately dubbed him “Philip Seymour Hoffman: Actor of Depth.”

Hoffman, age 46, was found dead in a Greenwich Village apartment in New York. The gruesome details are available on the internet for anyone to find, but at the time of this writing, he is assumed to have overdosed on heroin. His substance abuse problems date back 25 years, and his first stint in rehab was shortly after his graduation from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 1989.

I am an avid admirer of Hoffman’s work, but his death also brings back memories for me. Eight years ago, I lost my father to cocaine and heroin addiction. Hoffman leaves behind three young children, age 10, 7 and 5, and I can’t help but think of them as I think of the legacy of this wonderful artist and struggling man.

I never shy away from stating how my father died, even though I know it makes some people uncomfortable. There are three reasons for this. First, I hate the idea of drama or
self-pity, and acting like it’s a state secret would equate to that. Second, I don’t want to sugarcoat it. Some people have fathers who do hard drugs, and most people who do hard drugs die. This is not a public service announcement; it’s reality. And third, I don’t ever want to seem like I’m ashamed. I am very proud of my dad, and I don’t have to cover up the bad about him to celebrate the good. He was my best friend, a traveler and adventurer, and a one-of-a-kind character.

It is a real tragedy that Hoffman’s children are so young, but I hope, somehow, they grow to feel the same about their dad. It’s really too bad that the judgments of strangers try to compromise that. Whenever a celebrity dies of addiction, it becomes plain to see how ignorant people remain of this disease. Needless to say, Hoffman knew about his issues. He sought help for them multiple times. He struggled with something incredibly difficult and lost. The idea that his life and accomplishments are not worthy of honor and respect is despicable and an insult to my dad and the millions of other people who lose this same battle daily.

Supernatural actor Jared Padalecki took to Twitter to be the voice of the ignorant, tweeting, “‘Sad’ isn’t the word I’d use to describe a 46-year-old man throwing his life away to drugs. ‘Senseless’ is more like it. ‘Stupid.’” After the expected backlash, he deleted the tweet and clarified that he meant the word “tragedy” should be reserved for “St. Judes” and “genocide.” This line of thinking puts me in mind of something Alec Baldwin so brilliantly articulated recently: “Americans have fallen victim to a sanctimony about things they know
little about.”

Website Jezebel rightfully took Padalecki to task for his shocking insensitivity. The comment section was filled with people just like me who have lost brothers, sisters, parents, cousins and friends to drugs. None of us would describe our loved ones’ deaths as stupid, and we would not confine them to the word “addict.” They are described with words like beautiful, artistic, kind, funny, sensitive and unique. No doubt Hoffman’s family sees him this way. Certainly his colleagues and admirers do.

There have been positives, as well. Young television actor Shawn Pyfrom was so moved by Hoffman’s death that he took to his personal blog to write a heartfelt letter about his
five-month sobriety and his own struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. That’s another reason not to sugarcoat. If Hoffman’s death can inspire one person to get help or to avoid picking up a needle altogether, there is worth in that. If people like Pyfrom encourage the growth of a culture where it’s okay to be honest about these issues, that’s even better.

I mean all this, and yet it pains me to remember Philip Seymour Hoffman for how he died. I hope, in the future, when we think of him we’ll remember Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, his staggering work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, his Oscar-winning performance in Capote, Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt or even how he elevated The Hunger Games simply by showing up. Everyone has a favorite role or a favorite moment. I like to think of him as the Count in Richard Curtis’ Pirate Radio. If you haven’t seen that, man, you have to.

“These are the best days of our lives,” says the Count. “It’s a terrible thing to know, but I know it.” Maybe Hoffman knew when he was in the throes of his best days, and maybe he didn’t. In the end, we are left lamenting the fact that he didn’t have many more.