Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead. Found in his New York apartment with a needle stuck in his arm, pretty much eliminating foul play or any sort of speculation over cause of death.
He was 46 years old. He had three kids that were waiting for him at the park with their mother.
And instead, he’s dead on the floor of his apartment.
His death took me back twenty years when I heard about River Phoenix and his last hours in the Viper Room. I still have the obituary from the New York Times. It was the first time I was so personally affected by a celebrity’s death. I was overwhelmed with sadness. It wasn’t just that it was River Phoenix, that beautiful man whose face decorated my wall for years. It was his talent, his potential, that was gone. I felt cheated. There was so much I wanted to see him do, so many films I wanted to watch. I mean, he was going to be the next Indiana Jones! It would never happen. It was over.
I also didn’t want to believe that he died from an overdose.
“No way! River? He was a vegetarian! Mr. Healthy! It’s a lie!”
Of course, it wasn’t a lie, but I refused to buy it anyway. At least for as long as I could deny the reports that were all over the news. I didn’t want to believe that someone with so much going for him could throw it away like that.
What a waste.
Flash forward 20 years or so and now there’s another dead talent. True, between River and Philip Seymour Hoffman there have been quite a number of talented people lost to drugs. But this was something different. This time, for some reason, I found myself back in 1993, remembering River. Feeling that same shock.
Maybe it’s because I have a connection to Philip Seymour Hoffman. I met him before he was famous. I ran into him and said, “Hey! Aren’t you that guy from Twister?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s me.” And I said, “That’s cool. I liked that movie.” We spoke for a bit. Nothing major. I didn’t ask for an autograph because he wasn’t really anybody back then. Plus, I didn’t even know his name. He was just some almost-famous guy who grudgingly spoke to me. When he started getting lead roles, that conversation became my little “brush with glory” and it was a cool story I would retell and embellish depending on my audience.
My shock over his death quickly gave way to anger. Anger at the same things from 1993: wasted talent, lost potential, meaningless death. So I tried to understand his death in the framework of addiction. I read the articles, listened to interviews that likened it to a disease like cancer, but I just wanted to yell, “No! It isn’t! Stop making excuses! He chose this!”
That’s when I realized I know nothing. A friend of mine put it into perspective for me: “Addiction isn’t real,” he said, “because you can’t fathom it.”
It’s true. The closest thing to addiction that I know is maybe my “battle” with nail biting. Or knowing that if I walk into a casino with $100, I’ll walk out in debt. I’ve gotten drunk at parties, but I’m hardly an alcoholic. I’ve done stupid things. But I recover. Laugh it off. Hide the pictures.
I don’t know what it’s like to be alone in an apartment, desperately needing heroin coursing through my veins. I don’t know what depths of despair can put someone there, what demons wander through his head, haunting at every turn. I don’t know how someone who seems to have everything can still crave the very thing that will destroy him. I don’t understand it.
It isn’t real. Not to me. But it most definitely exists. To people who have struggled with this beast.To people who have watched others spiral out of control even after years of being clean. It’s real. It’s tangible. It’s as blatant as a dead man with a needle in his arm.
I don’t know Philip Seymour Hoffman to say that I’ll miss him. Beyond that one moment when he was a nameless character, I know him the way the rest of the world does. A talented actor. A haunted man.
And it just leaves me so sad.