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.)

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