Monday, February 3, 2014

Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Death of a (Super) Salesman

The morning of the Super Bowl, I (like millions of other movie fans) was shocked to read about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman. All signs have pointed toward a drug overdose, and I’m surprised by the depth of my own sadness and disappointment. I can shrug off the premature passing of a music legend destroyed by years of living large: immaturity and lack of impulse controls seem to go with the territory for pop idols and rock gods. I was sorry when the promising young actor River Phoenix died at 23, but I could attribute his drug abuse to an eccentric upbringing, followed by stardom at a too-young age. I felt much the same when learning of the passing of  28-year-old Heath Ledger, who seemed to have succumbed (via an accidental overdose of sleeping pills and anti-anxiety meds) to the pressures of having too much success too soon.

But Hoffman? He struck me as intelligent, mature, a grown-up. Apparently in many ways he was. At age 46, he was a doting dad to three school-aged children; the parents of their classmates have spoken of him as a regular guy, an involved member of the school community. Yes, while in his early twenties, he felt the lure of drink and drugs, but he long ago went public about his decades of sobriety. The word is that last May he briefly went off the wagon, then immediately checked himself into rehab. In the long run, alas, it didn’t work.

Why? I suspect even those closest to him are wrestling with that question. What did he need that life didn’t give him? In his chosen profession he had succeeded gloriously: though he lacked the looks of a classic leading man, there were plum roles, big paychecks, critical adulation, an Oscar. He had the respect of his peers, and a loving family. He also had, apparently, an addictive personality: he was naturally drawn to excess of all sorts. As he told a British journalist in 2011, “I had no interest in drinking in moderation. And I still don't.  Just because all that time’s passed doesn't mean maybe it was just a phase. That's, you know, who I am.” Happily for me, I don’t know what it’s like to spend your life constantly fighting addiction. But others, I think, have staved off that harsh disease, even if they can never entirely conquer it.

I can’t help looking to Hoffman’s acting career as both a symptom and an underlying cause of his problems. He was best known for playing men on the edge, those who struggled with power, with sexual confusion, with greed, with obsession, with secrets they couldn’t even admit to themselves. Often his characters were abusers of some sort. Since the heyday of the Actors Studio, many American actors have been trained to probe their own emotional memories and then look for connections between themselves and their roles. I know  little about Hoffman’s personal methodology, but I’d guess that bonding so intensely with the outrageous characters he played on stage and screen would ultimately take its toll.

Two of his recent powerhouse Broadway appearances stand out in my mind. Eugene O’Neill’s autobiographical Long  Day’s Journey into Night  lays bare a family destroyed by addiction. Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is not exactly an addict, but rather a man fatally determined to win success by making himself well-liked. Willie Loman’s “smile and a shoeshine” brand of salesmanship strikes me as remarkably close to an actor’s life. Hoffman smiled; sold himself for the crowd’s applause; died much too soon.   


  1. He was certainly a marvelous actor - a little younger than me, which makes this all the more bewildering to me. I definitely have my little addictions - thankfully none as powerful - or powerfully bad for you - as those this gentleman had. I do believe his methods of acting and the characters he played were a factor; it's sad that what we enjoy so much - might have done so much damage to him. RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman.

  2. You've said it all, Mr. Craig. And I thank you.