Monday, February 03, 2014

Phil Hoffman, RIP

Phil Hoffman, circa 1982

I woke up Sunday morning to the news Philip Seymour Hoffman had died, and the news hurt more than a normal celebrity passing would. I grew up with Phil. We weren’t friends, really. He was two years older than me, in my sister’s grade. But we rode the same school bus from elementary school on, and knew a lot of the same people.

Phil Hoffman (that’s how he was known in school, I didn’t know his middle name* until I saw it on the big screen) was friendly, outgoing, and athletic. In the interactions we had, I was struck by his kindness. In short, he was kind to me.

I was not a terribly popular kid in junior high. I had basically no friends. To remedy that, a social worker suggested I become the equipment manager for the freshman football team. My duties involved checking out equipment and then ducking off to Wegmans to buy doughnuts that I would then resell at an obscene profit. Phil would buy my doughnuts. And he was nice to me. At that stage in my life, that was really important to me. Phil’s younger sister, Emily, was also always unfailingly nice to me despite the fact I had absolutely no status in the school caste system. My impression was that the Hoffmans where raised to be kind people.

In high school, Phil’s talent as an actor started to emerge and you didn’t have to be all that perceptive to figure out that he was immensely talented. The school’s drama teacher, Ms. Marshall, quickly realized Phil was special. The school staged one drama and one musical every year, but in 1985 they added a third play: “Death of a Salesman.” It was staged as a special assembly for the seniors and it also ran at night for a week or so. I didn’t go. But the people who did said they saw something really special.

So it wasn’t a surprise when Phil went to New York City after high school. Rumor had it Ms. Marshall, who had a background in the NYC theater scene, had taken him down to the city and had introduced him to several casting directors and agents.

In a seemingly short period of time, he was in the movies. My sisters and I rented “Scent of a Woman” just to see his relatively small role as a smug prep-school guy. I still remember the first time I actually saw him on the big screen. I was with a friend watching “Boogie Nights” in a theater in Los Angeles when Phil appeared in a scene, with an odd red bob and his gut hanging out of a tank top. I leaned over to my friend and said, “Oh my gosh, I went to high school with that guy.” She chuckled and said, “Yeah, I think we all did.” To which I replied, “No, I mean, that guy, that guy up there, he went to Fairport High School!”

I think most people from Fairport had that moment of shock and delight and pride when they first saw Phil on the big screen. It’s not like Fairport was some no-hope dead end kind of town, it was a relatively insignificant middle class suburb southeast of a relatively insignificant mid-sized city in upstate New York. The idea that someone from your town could be in a movie with Tom Cruise or some other big star was amazing.  And the fact that he was holding his own against a-list talent was even more remarkable.

The fact is, Phil could have been a crap actor and we all still would have loved him. Rochester and its suburbs don’t have many hometown boys who made it big. Irondequoit had Lou Grahm, the lead singer of Foreigner. Flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione was born in Rochester, and we never let him forget how proud we were that he wrote the theme to the 1980 Winter Olympics. Comedian Foster Brooks worked in radio in Rochester for a short time early in his career and we immediately adopted him as our own. The newspaper once even did a big write-up for the guy who played a supporting role in the teen sexploitation film “Hardbodies.” (Update: This paragraph wasn't all that fair. If you want examples of Fairport and Rochester locals who made good, check out the comments section.)

But Phil wasn’t crap, instead, he was probably the best actor of his generation. I’ve not seen every film he’s made, but he was the best thing in every film I ever saw him in. And as he grew in fame, we could still recognize him as one of ours. In a “60 Minutes” profile on Phil in 2006, he’s seen walking down the street in Manhattan wearing an ill-fitting brown plaid shirt and sweat pants (we Rochesterians, we’re not a fashionable people). He still returned to Fairport High to lecture and teach drama to students.

And because he never fully abandoned Rochester (full disclosure, I haven’t been back since 2004), we all counted Phil’s success as partly our own. We beamed with pride when he won the Best Actor Oscar for “Capote.” It was like everyone from Fairport was suddenly his grandmother, “My grandson Phil is doing very well in the movies these days. Did you hear he won an Oscar?”

Now that he’s died, this young, and in this way, it’s crushing. From a standpoint of his art, Phil certainly had much more great work in him that would have made many people happy for many years. And from a personal side, we can put faces to the names of those of his family members who mourn him tonight.

But to learn that he died of a drug overdose opens the door to a darker reality all of us hometown boosters now must confront. Somewhere, in a place most of us didn’t know about, there was a struggle or a pain or something Phil was treating with heroin. We were all willing to bask in the reflected glow of his accomplishments, but were we willing to help take on this other burden?

That’s not really a fair question, I know. How were any of us to know about this in the first place? And even if we did, what exactly would we have done to help out? You can’t really pick up the phone and say, “Hey, Phil. I used to sell you doughnuts in junior high and you were friendly with my sister. I think it’s time you got some help.” But still…

Whatever the case, we mourn the loss of a great actor tonight, and somebody who made us proud to be from a dinky little suburb nobody would have cared about otherwise. And we can thank him for sharing his gifts with us for as many years as he did.

(*UPDATE: Phil's middle name wasn't "Seymour" it was just a name he chose on a lark. I had actually thought it was a reference to a production of the Miracle Worker we appeared in when I was in the sixth grade. We were supposed to come up with a scene for the blind kids at Ann Sullivan's school and, as a joke, we all chose sight related names. I was "Luke" and when my name was called, everyone looked in different directions and said, "where?" My sister was "Iris," and the jokes went on from there. Someone in that sketch was named "Seymour," and I assumed it was Phil. However, I found the program for that production and Phil's name isn't anywhere in it. So I'm left to assume I've mis-remembered who was in that play. In case you're wondering, we never performed our little sketch. Ms. Marshal was in a bad mood the day we were going to do it and we decided to go with the serious scene we had written instead.)

(UPDATE UPDATE: My sister found the program from that production of The Miracle Worker and Phil Hoffman was, in fact, in it. However, it's unlikely he saw the skit as he didn't portray one of the blind kids.)

Friday, May 20, 2011


I heard Jon Stewart say something funny today and I thought it would make a good ringtone. So here it is:


Saturday, April 23, 2011

Contractual Obligation

You win, Grandparents (and Patti), we had an Easter egg hunt, and we made a video of it, and now you're posting it here. I don't know how long it's interesting to watch a video of children looking for plastic eggs, but I'm pretty sure it's not nearly as long as this video. So for the rest of you, you're excused from watching this. If you're a grandparent, here's your red meat...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


A month or two ago, I was waxing nostalgic for an old George Michael tune. Apparently, Iron And Wine were, too. Here's what they did with it...

Iron And Wine covers George Michael

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Back in the ‘90s, I used to perform with a sketch troupe and we had a regular gig at the Comedy Store on Sunset. During that time, we saw a lot of bad comedy. Some of the worst came from an improv troupe called “At the Drop of a Hat.” They were a bunch of middle aged people who did unfunny improv while accompanied by an on-stage cellist. (To his credit, the cellist was actually pretty good.)

One week, they got the call to perform at the Comedy Store’s La Jolla venue. It was kind of a big deal to get invited to La Jolla. You got a free meal and could stay the night in Mitzi Shore’s condo on the ocean at Pacific Beach. Naturally, my troupe was wildly jealous and wished “At the Drop of a Hat” ill as they headed south on the 405 freeway.

We got our wish.

A few minutes into their performance, someone on stage made some crack about SDSU that didn’t go over well with the crowd. So someone out there in the darkness just said, in a dispassionate tone, “boo.” He didn’t yell it or draw out the “o” so he was actually booing the group, he just said “boo.”

A few seconds later, someone else said it. “Boo.”

More and more people started in, and before long, people were actually booing “At the Drop of a Hat.” It started in the middle of the room, and spread out the edges. Pretty soon, it was loud, “booooooooooo!”

It was at this point that someone in “At the Drop of a Hat” actually thought he could retake the situation. He smiled and laughed and said, “Ok, I get it. ‘Boo.’ Now, someone give me a location where two strangers might meet…”


It wasn’t going to work. The audience had gotten a taste of their own power, and they wouldn’t be satisfied until “At the Drop of a Hat” walked off the stage in shame.

About four minutes later, the battle was over. The humiliated comedians walked off the stage, through the hostile crowd, and out the door, to the thunderous cheers of the audience. (The La Jolla Comedy Store has no back exit, making their walk of shame all the more terrible.)

So this afternoon I’m watching the news from Egypt on Al Jazeera English (fine, put me on the “do not fly” list, those guys have covered this story better than anyone else) and I thought of “At the Drop of a Hat.”

On one side of the screen was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, addressing his nation. On the other side, a live shot of protesters in Ciaro. At first, the protesters were silent, watching the speech on TVs set up around the square.

Mubarak starts by telling people how great he is and how much good he has done for Egypt. But after a few minutes, it becomes clear that he’s not going anywhere. He’s not going to resign. Instead, he’s talking about a constitutional committee he’s set up to produce reforms and talking about how he was wild and impetuous as a young man.

Somewhere among the protesters in Ciaro, someone took off his shoe and held it over his head, a sign of great disrespect. Pretty soon, others were doing the same. By the time Mubarak repeated that he would not step down before his term ended in September, the people in the crowd were shaking their fists and chanting something like, “he must go now.”

Is it possible the president of Egypt has even less skill in reading crowds than the worst improv comedy group in LA? Apparently so. To an outside observer, it’s hard to believe just how wrong he got this.

But make no mistake, the audience has gotten sense of their own power, and they won’t be satisfied until the performer leaves the stage.

(Note to Mubarak… who certainly reads this blog and is frustrated that I don’t post here enough: get onto Wikipedia and look up Nicolae Ceauşescu. These things don’t end well for people in your situation. Get your luxury flat in Dubai and get the hell out. The alternative for you is much, much worse.)

Monday, February 07, 2011


Today's "The Story with Dick Gordon" features an interview with me about my love of some far-distant islands and the origins of the Faroe Islands Podcast.

The show airs in the United States on public radio stations and broadcast times can vary from city to city. So you can check here to see when (or if) the show is airing in your town.

No luck? Never fear. The interview is online here:

Sunday, January 16, 2011


The part of me that wishes I was cool doesn’t want to feel any resonance with this particular artist. But tonight I must grudgingly admit that a few of his songs have played a role in my life.

It started innocently enough tonight as I logged into iTunes. A few shameful music purchases have caused the good people at Apple to believe that I want a lot of cheesy 80s music in my life. So there in the “recommended” list was “Faith” by George Michael. My mind was cast back to my late teens when my older sister owned this album and we gleefully danced to “I Want Your Sex” with the idea that it would shock our parents. (I have no idea of this was successful or not, but if it was my parents lever let on.)

So, just for old time’s sake, I click on the link. But the song I decide to preview isn’t the one of the popular songs. Instead, I click on is the rather sappy and overwrought ballad, “One More Try.” In the 90 seconds you can get for free, I am immediately transported to an exact moment in my teenage life.

I’m on a United Airlines 727 headed from Salt Lake City to Chicago, O’Hare. In Chicago, I’ll change planes and continue my journey home to Rochester. But now, I’m just burrowing into my seat and putting a cassette into my Walkman to help me pass the time.

As I listen to music and look out the window, I think about the past four months. I was away at school in Idaho. My first time living away from home. While Southeastern Idaho didn’t agree with me at all, it did have one thing going for it: an astounding male to female ratio… something like 1:4. As a result, even a socially inept person like me could have a pretty thriving dating life. And, improbable as it was, I actually had a girlfriend; my first ever.

Her name was Barbara and we kissed amid giant snowflakes as they slowly fell on a cold Rexburg night. It was my first kiss and, corny as it might sound, it was kinda magical. She was from Boulder City, Nevada, the daughter of a florist, and 21. That’s right, an older woman. For whatever reason, she took a liking to a terrifyingly skinny guy from upstate New York. So we started going out. It wasn’t the most mature relationship in the world, consisting mostly of making out and going to movies, but for teenage first-love*, it was pretty good. (*Or whatever it is when you’re a teenager. I think “love” in the sense adults know it is maybe a bit too strong, but “like” isn’t strong enough, and “lust” doesn’t really work either as it neglects the fact that there was a genuine and rather sweet affection to be found in the relationship.)

But the semester ended and we prepared to go our separate ways. I was a few weeks shy of 19, meaning I would soon leave for a 2 year Mormon mission. Barbara would head home for the summer, and then back to school in Idaho in the fall. It’s custom for girlfriends to say they’ll wait for their boyfriend to return from serving a mission. It’s also custom for that vow to be broken after about a year or so. I suggested that we not even go through that charade and just leave things on good terms and commit to look each other up in two years if she hadn’t gotten involved with anyone else. I remember that rather practical and realistic suggestion was not greeted with much enthusiasm.

So, without any real game plan for the future, she got into a car and headed back to Nevada. Someone standing with me asked, “so, is your little heart just a’ breakin’?” (She was from Oklahoma.) I was actually a bit annoyed at the suggestion. After all, I was striving to be an unemotional person boldly looking to the future, not the past.

A few hours later, my grandfather picks me up and drives me to down to Salt Lake, where I board a flight for home. And the tape I’ve got in my Walkman is a copy of “Faith” I copied off my sister. I go through the first three tracks which include the infamous, “I Want Your Sex” and am confronted with “One More Try.”

I’m not paying that much attention to the song, so I don’t really know what it’s about, but it’s slow and kind of sad sounding and affects me in a way I’m not quite prepared for. After a minute or so, I notice I’m starting to tear up a bit, so I reach into my pocket and throw on a pair of Ray Bans and look out the window.

This is all new to me and I don’t know what to make of it. But it quickly becomes apparent that my first real romantic relationship is over. What I don’t know then is that we’d actually bump into each other about a year later when I’m a missionary. It will be an awkward encounter where we shake hands (missionaries are forbidden to hug members of the opposite sex) and it’s apparent that whatever spark there was between us is now gone and her mountain of a father will look at me with eyes that say, “my daughter dated this putz? “ Sitting in that plane, I also don’t know that Barbara will be married 18 months later.

I don’t know any of these things, but as the final synthesized string chord hits on “One More Try” I know it’s over, and I know I’m sad about it. As much as I protested, my Oklahoma friend was right, my little heart was a’ breakin’.

I stop listening to George Michael and instead turn on “Rock the House” by this new group called “DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince” so I’d have a more positive outlook when I arrive home several hours later.

Back in 2011, I decide to purchase “One More Try.” It’s going to ruin my “suggestions” on iTunes forever, but if George Michael can evoke such a vivid memory, I figure he deserves $1.29. It’s the least I can do.

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