Sunday, February 2, 2014

Death Comes to Philip Seymour Hoffman

The actor Philip Seymour Hoffman was found dead today in his apartment’s bathroom. Hoffman is considered to be one of the most gifted and versatile actor/director/writer's today and his sudden, unexpected death has sent shock waves through not only the entertainment community but also those who love the arts.

The news stories coming out from the many media and talking heads are piecing together any tiny morsel of information and, so far, they have given us an unpleasant picture of the scene which confronted a friend this morning at a little after 11 o'clock. The actor was not fully clothed but, apparently, was in the process of preparing himself for the day and part of that preparation included injecting himself with heroin, an addiction that he had managed to suppress for some 23 years. Unlike many actors, Hoffman not only had his choice of roles, but also had recently completed two films, had a TV project in the works and was collaborating with a writer (the fellow who found him this morning) on a play. You could say that in his profession he truly stood out for his incredible creativity and productivity.

The press, of course, plays up the fact that he was found with a needle in his arm and several either empty or full bags of heroin nearby. Each bag had an identifying name on it that was well known to the police. I'm sure that, like me, you are wondering what made this man suddenly decide, after having successfully completed a stint in drug rehab just a short time ago, to return to the addiction. The talking heads will tell you that this is an addiction that must be fought day by day and it lives with the addict like a glowing ember that can suddenly burst into flame. What caused the flame for Hoffman? We may never know.

What we do know, however, is that he was a doting and loving father to his three children who attended a public school near where they lived. Neighbors talked about how he walked his children to school, rode his bicycle with them and always seemed to be concerned about their welfare. They are truly the victims here because I can't imagine how they will see this loving man as having destroyed himself. Perhaps at this point they will not be told the complete truth and I would think that's a good idea. The truth, especially when you are dealing with children, must be carefully tempered so that it does not cause the emotional turmoil that’s possible. The children will mourn the loss of their father and everyone has a duty to provide them with whatever will help their mourning process.

It was only a little over a year ago that I got to see Philip Seymour Hoffman on Broadway in "Death of a Salesman." I'd really wanted to see him because he was an actor I felt loved his craft and provided an incredible theatrical experience. I’d seen one of his lesser-known films, “Love Liza,” and I had no idea that he was an addict portraying an addict. I also wanted to see how his portrayal would stand up against that of Dustin Hoffman who tackled the role of Willy Loman in a TV production of the play. Unfortunately, Hoffman sounded too much like Dustin and only now does the irony of them having the same last name strike me.

I had an iPhone with me at the theatre and a friend and I stood outside the stage door hoping to get a photo or perhaps a video of Hoffman as he left the theater after the matinee. The huge, burly man at the door informed all of us that Hoffman would nap in his dressing room and would not be coming out as everyone else did. It was a major letdown for me because I really wanted to see him in the flesh as it were. My iPhone had enabled me to video capture a number of stars that were appearing on Broadway but this one would have been a real triumph. It wasn't to be and now it will never be.

Another bit of irony is that just the other day I wrote a blog about persons in the entertainment field who had died of drug overdoses and I was concerned about Justin Bieber and his legal brushes and the possibility that some drug use might be involved. Here it is just one day later and a major star has overdosed again.

As one of the reporters on television said, the governor of Vermont is so concerned about heroin use in his state that he made it the entire content of his state of the state speech just recently. We've also heard from authorities in Pennsylvania that emergency rooms are seeing a sharp increase in young patients being brought in with heroin overdoses. Of course, in Pennsylvania it's not just heroin that these young people are using because what they are buying has had a powerful painkiller used for cancer patients added to it; Fentanyl. But no matter where it is, the problem is very clear and heroin use seems to be on the rise again.

I can recall a few decades ago working in a facility where I did intake interviews and a young man had been sent by the courts for an evaluation and treatment of his addiction to heroin. He had agreed to this to avoid a jail sentence because in order to feed his addiction he had become what is known as a "cat burglar." In his particular case, he worked in a major city and on his lunch hour he would break into expensive apartments, stealing credit cards and jewelry that he would then give to a drug dealer who would pay him in heroin. His addiction was so strong and his need to hide his needle marks so great (he worked in a high-profile job) that he began to inject himself between his toes and this almost resulted in the loss of a leg because of an infection he got.

He wasn't alone and another young man soon came through the door with a similar story. He didn't have to steal, however, because his parents had large amounts of cash around the house and he just helped himself to it and had the drugs delivered to him with his lunch in his office. I don't know what happened to either of them. I can well imagine that their lives were going to be an incredible struggle for each and it wouldn't only be for them but for their families and everyone in their circle.

So, today, learning that Philip Seymour Hoffman has fallen victim to this terrible addiction provides yet another example of just how widely spread the problem is. Hoffman had money, access to superior treatment (he’d recently completed rehab), good friends and a loving family and he couldn’t disentangle himself from its grip.

I remember one young man saying to me that if you'd ever had heroin, you'd never want anything else because it was incredibly wonderful. “It’s better than an orgasm,” he said.

Is anything wonderful enough to give up your life for it? I don't think so.