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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.)

41 Comments:

At 2:59 am, Blogger Dave Thackeray said...

Beautiful eulogy, man. Not before read a piece by anyone who knew him - everything else online is pure speculation and the usual obit drivel.

I found him one of the most spellbinding actors of his generation. Irrespective of how he passed, he was truly one of the greats.

Thanks for sharing your memories with me.

 
At 2:59 am, Blogger Dave Thackeray said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 4:18 am, Blogger Russell Arben Fox said...

Beautifully and kindly said, Matthew. Thank you.

 
At 5:21 am, Blogger Unknown said...

I love this. Thank you.

 
At 7:46 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think ya nailed it, both Phil and Fairport.

Michael
FHS Class of '88

 
At 10:26 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful tribute to a great man! Thank you

 
At 10:47 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very well written, and with much heart felt love. RIP Phil, and may your family find peace. <3

Taye Diggs is also an accomplished actor from Rochester too :)

 
At 11:27 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice eulogy for an extremely talented guy. And according to sources he's been sober, up until last year, since he was 22. But being from Rochester myself, I disagree with your comments about the place and surrounding environs. BTW, Tom Cruise is from Syracuse; no better and no worse than here. Yet John Lithgow, Garth Fagan, Taye Diggs and Mimi Kennedy (Cruise's 1st wife, too), Renee Fleming, Cab Calloway, Gerry Neiwood, Joe English, and more all came from here.

 
At 12:01 pm, Blogger Workman said...

Fair point re: accomplished people from Rochester. I didn't know about John Lithgow, but Cab Calloway was a glaring omission. (Taye Diggs, too, but the list was written from the perspective of the mid-80s, before Mr. Diggs made a name for himself.)

As for Syracuse, I had no idea about Tom Cruise being from there. I did know that the voice of Spongebob and Bob Goldthwait came from there. Syracuse is, indeed much like Rochester, but with a bigger university and no Kodak. Of course, these days, Rochester is much like Rochester without Kodak.

 
At 12:27 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well written... your words ring very true. Fairport has had several shining stars over the years, but we just lost one of the brightest.

Maybe see you at the 30th?
Noel

 
At 1:31 pm, Blogger Workman said...

Noel? As in Noel Goodspeed? The man who gave me my radio debut in his basement all those years ago?

I've not been to any of the reunions for several reasons. 1) I actually flunked out of school before graduating, so my name isn't on the graduation rolls. (I eventually went to college and FHS mailed me a diploma later on.)

2) I had such a miserable time at school, it's never been a time in my life I was interested in revisiting. Indeed, when I pulled out the junior high yearbook to scan the photos for this post, I noticed the dark marks under my picture... where I had crossed out the homophobic slurs someone had written under my picture after he stole my yearbook. Those were bad, bad times for me.

But to hear your name and having gotten back in touch with a few of the friends I had from school (and here I'm thinking specifically of Rachel Rhody), I'm starting to think that maybe I should come back for the next big reunion.

I'm in Portland now. Almost everyone I know from Fairport is long gone. When the planning for the 30th starts, get in touch.

Good to hear from you, Noel.

 
At 2:59 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this . I was a geek of sorts...I actually went to 3 nights of the Death of a Salesmen play at school...it was so good!! RIP Phil. My sincere condolences to his family...May God bring you peace at this sorrowful time.

CMD

 
At 3:40 pm, Blogger Workman said...

Not showing up to "Death of a Salesman" is high on my list of regrets from high school. But as mentioned, above, I really had a bad time in school and wasn't inclined to show up after hours for any reason.

Also, to the list of Fairport notables, we should add the former Andrea Nix (class of '87). She and her husband won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short last year.

 
At 4:21 pm, Anonymous Kristina said...

thank you for this, it was very lovely to read. devastated still, he had always been my favorite, and incredibly talented.

my heart grieves for his children and loved ones.

 
At 4:37 pm, Blogger Noel Goodspeed said...

Matt - LOL.. My dad's years in Buffalo Radio rubbed off, and I still enjoy DJ'ing even today - the equipment keeps getting heavier each year, though!

Junior High and even into high school were tumultuous times in all of our lives... some of us dealt with it and showed it better than others. Personally, there's not much of anything that I enjoyed about Martha Brown.

After attending the 25th reunion (the first I'd been to), it was clear that the walls we perceived in school were all gone. The "Caste system" you refer to was all in our minds, and we've all grown up. You are as much a part of 1987 as the rest of us, and we'd love to have you at the 30th.
Look me up on fb. It would be great to catch up!

 
At 4:43 pm, Blogger Noel Goodspeed said...

BTW: Don't forget to include Vijay (now) Iyer from 1988 and FHS Orchestra.

 
At 5:48 pm, Anonymous Tiffany Brown said...

Well said and beautiful!

 
At 6:18 pm, Blogger Meghan Kinsey said...

So beautifully said. As a mom who is raising three young sons...who is so hopeful that they will be healthy and happy and have coping mechanisms when they aren't healthy and happy....your piece really touched me. My heart goes out to Phil's mom, his siblings, his wife, and his kids. Such a loss. Thank you for such a wonderful piece to honor the boy that he was. Well done.

 
At 6:18 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

well said .. just a small correction, his middle name was not Seymour ... he needed a different name for the Screen Actor's Guild since Phillip Hoffman was taken .. he picked Seymour on a whim .... He told me that story himself :)

 
At 9:00 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the press he has been sober for years. Behind closed he was never clean. I know this per his family.He suffered for years. Eish someone actually stopped him. Sad that no ond did. We know his family and know they are suffering. We can only hope lessons are learned from this tragedy!

 
At 9:01 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, that story is known.

 
At 9:30 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been angry at Philip Seymour Hoffman for dying in this seemingly selfish way... until now. You have presented a personal side to him that made me love him again. Thank you for the wonderful perspective.

 
At 2:09 am, Blogger Brendon Wayne said...

Glad to be taken back time with his humble beginning. RIP Philip.
http://www.21stcenturynews.com.au/philip-hoffman-seymour-dead-apartment/

 
At 3:57 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. One correction, Lou Gramm is from Gates- Chili.

 
At 3:58 am, Blogger Jalene Szuba said...

I'm a Red Raider Class of '88 - thanks for sharing such a personal story and showing a side of Phil not many got to experience.

 
At 5:32 am, Blogger Val said...

Thank you for this. He was one of my favorite actors.

What a blessing his kindness to you back in school must have been! Those years are so rough, any kind face is a treasure.

I'm sorry for your loss.

 
At 5:41 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's not forget that his drug overdose might have nothing to do with his state of mind. Once a person becomes addicted it is the brain/body that substitute cravings for reasonings and it takes more than just a "kick in the pants or kick in the head" to give it up (for the rest of your life). No excuses but, Alcohol and Heroin are cruel taskmasters. You wrote a terrific reminder that all of us have a gift and his was one we got see over and over again. You should keep writing.
Thanks

 
At 6:53 am, Anonymous Jennifer Klossner said...

What a well written tribute to a man, who we all were proud of. He was one of the Greats that put Fairport on the map. His loss is being felt by everyone in Fairport, who knew him as "Phil". RIP

 
At 8:04 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom Cruise was born in Syracuse, but didn't live there. Richard Gere graduated from North Syracuse High School...

 
At 8:23 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Viggo Mortenson is also from Syracuse

 
At 9:05 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really appreciate your thoughts. You got me reflecting on my own times at FHS (87), something I rarely have time to think about these days. I barely remember Phil, but I do recall the buzz about Death of a Salesman. Those photos are a flashback. I lost a bunch of yearbooks and have almost no photos of my own from those days. I remember a few of the faces and fewer names -- Todd H comes to mind. I wish I had been more outgoing and aware of people back then, but I think as teens we were all pretty self-absorbed with our own issues.

-- Mitch C.

BTW, agreed, Noel G. was one of the guys I was glad to call a friend.

To add to the growing Upstate brushes with fame list: Richard Grieco was from Watertown (my wife's town), and Tom Coughlin was head coach at RIT.

 
At 12:40 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have sent this to a number of people to read now and I think it is perfect. I am from Fairport. I never knew Phil (but always knew him as such, not 3 names until much later). I practiced drama in the same auditorium with the same amazing teacher. Ms. M would regale us with tales of what Phil was doing now, what he had done before and what he would do in the future. He was not my friend, but he was a great friend to many people that I know. Fairport has lost a raider and we will mourn for him. "Once a Raider, Always a Raider"

 
At 6:13 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For those that don't own a map, Syracuse is nowhere near Rochester. Are we going to start naming people from Cleveland soon?

 
At 7:22 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I graduated from Fairport a year ahead of Phil. Great memories of him as well. The way his life ended does not define him. Addiction takes hold and lets very few escape. So sorry to see him gone and his positive influences in theatre gone as well. He was and always will be an amazing person! Thanks for a wonderful article about him as a person as well.

 
At 7:50 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fabulous blog about Phil. I didn't know Phil well, but I knew some of the same people and they always said kind things about him. Addiction is a terrible thing. Unless you struggle with trying to stay clean/sober one day at a time, it is something that is hard to explain what living in the grip is like. I know more about him as an addict than I ever knew as a schoolmate because I have this same disease. We have only today and sometimes that "today" bites. We have a saying in recovery, "Sometimes an addict dies so we can be grateful to be alive." and every time it happens, it sucks. Sad he is gone, grateful he isn't living in his private hell.

A grateful and blessed addict.

Chris C.

 
At 1:24 am, Blogger David Tornstrom said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful article

 
At 10:41 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved your post...your words about Phil, and about Fairport as well. Humorous, heartfelt, and very very real. Thank you.
I think your sis and I were buddies in first grade (maybe later grades too?) and I have an ultra-vague recollection of having spent a few afternoons at her (your!) house way back then. Hazy memories...
-Laurie

 
At 9:12 am, Blogger Jupiter Jim said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 9:19 am, Blogger Workman said...

Jupiter Jim: Thanks for the edit. Correction made.

 
At 11:45 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great piece. I think the kindness bleeds through in his work ( I am thinking of his character in "Magnolia", especially...

BTW, there is a Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman Facebook page...I saw on the FHS page his sister remarked that she had appreciated someone having posted an old wrestling pic and asked that it also be posted on the memorial page.

"It will be a great memory for his children..." she wrote of the wrestling pic.

I am sure this photo would also be appreciated.

Thanks.

 
At 4:58 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few corrections: Matt this is really sweet. A couple of things though- his middle name is actually Seymour. His given name is Philip (one "l") Seymour Hoffman. Seymour was his grandfathers name. It was Gordy and Emily Hoffman who were in The Miracle Worker and Emily wrote the longer Scene Mrs Marshall asked her to write for the blind kids. Phil wasn't acting at that point. DOAS at FHS. Played only one weekend. There was the required performances for the Junior class and then a Friday and Saturday show. All full houses. And Mrs Marshall believed in him and surely helped with college audition monologues - but he was discovered at NYU and Williamstown summer theater by others in that business- not introduced around by Midge. (Surely she was the first to notice his talent though).He did love doughnuts and your post is so kind. Thank you for taking the time to write it and remember him.

 

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