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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Good-Bye Old Friend: A Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman

By now, most of us will have heard about the tragic death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman and the circumstances surrounding it. I've seen an outpouring of emotion on Facebook regarding this loss - pain, sorrow, sympathy. Philip was well known to have battled drug problems, was in and out of rehab, cleaned up and relapsed. There is also a lot of anger, and I'm confused and hurt by people who have lashed out at the actor for frittering away such talent and success, as if the lifestyle and behaviors he was known for were always completely by choice. I can say that they were not. Not always.

I grew up with Phil in Fairport, NY, knew him in high school, acted with him in drama productions. He was two years behind me, but he was well liked and respected by both those ahead of him and those younger. He was an infectious personality, quick to laugh but also quick to anger. He was endowed with more than his fair share of talent, wit, and intelligence, but no one ever begrudged him any of it. He was a good friend and a kind soul.

Over the course of my senior year, I got to know Phil very well. Our tight-knit group of cast members spent many a long night after rehearsals and performances partying. There was a lot of drinking involved, some drugs. Phil was into both. He enjoyed living outside of himself. I think he found who he was rather boring, so perhaps it's not surprising that he became a famous character actor. I hadn't spoken to him since high school.

I fondly recall the day, many years ago, when I first realized Phil had made it big. My wife and I were watching "Scent of a Woman" and I jumped up and cried, "That's Phil! I went to high school with him!"

Since then, I've been fascinated with the idea of how the lives of ordinary people might be influenced by celebrities both before and after fame. One of my first completed novels was a historical fiction about a girl who grows up with Neil Armstrong. Just last month I pulled the manuscript out of its digital drawer to polish up. I was planning on publishing it this fall under another pen name.

I am reminded of a line John Donne wrote: "Any man's death diminishes me." While true, it is the deaths of those who touched us personally which are especially hard to witness.

While digging through my old high school year book today, I came across an issue of the school paper, the Lampion and, in it, a photo of Phil with my best friend, Jeff Keesler, from the last play we put on that year, M*A*S*H. It was 1983, and the television series was airing its final episode. (I still have a postcard kicking around somewhere from Loretta Swit kindly declining our invitation to her for the performance.)

Jeff died in 1992, and it's in his memory that I write under this pen name. In January, I released the paperback version of my most recent book, Signs of Life (Jessie's Game, Book One), which was dedicated to him: "For Jeffrey, who was taken from us far too soon."

My thoughts and prayers go out to Phil's family and friends. He, too, was taken far too soon.

Phil, may you finally find peace, my brother.