As the son of a professional actress and a stage director/theater scholar, and the brother of a former manager for a Tony Award-winning theater company, I’ve seen quite a lot of theater in my time.
Of all the many wonderful productions I’ve been privileged to see, one that I have not and will never forget is the 2003 Broadway production of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy, Robert Sean Leonard, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Ms. Redgrave was the draw, and she was certainly astounding. The other cast member whose performance left the most indelible impression was Mr. Hoffman.
Not every critic at the time was won over by his interpretation of the part, but maybe because it was simply not what they expected or wanted: there was such a strikingly authentic quality to the performance, with a jarring, recognizably human seesawing between the moods of the character, that at times, as with Ms. Redgrave, I wasn’t sure I was watching acting so much as I was peering in on an all-too-real life. It was uncomfortable; he was cruel and frightening, and he was also pitiable. Maybe it was too much. Maybe it was just right. I don’t know — for me, it worked and has stayed with me ever since.
How true this was for so many of his performances, on both stage and screen.
I’m sad he’s gone, and so are many, many others. In the last few days, there have been quite a few wonderful pieces written about the various dimensions of Mr. Hoffman, in particular his remarkable qualities as a parent, a New Yorker, a struggling addict, and, of course, an actor.
I’m even more sad that so many others are lost every day to the same fate as Mr. Hoffman. Following his death, one of my students posted this link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Facebook, with this snippet from the text there:
Deaths from drug overdose have been rising steadily over the past two decades and have become the leading cause of injury death in the United States. Every day in the United States, 105 people die as a result of drug overdose, and another 6,748 are treated in emergency departments (ED) for the misuse or abuse of drugs.
Robert S. Hoffman, an emergency physician at NYU Langone Medical Center and Bellevue Hospital and the director of the Division of Medical Toxicology at the New York University School of Medicine, writes helpfully for the New York Times this weekend about legislative steps being taken and that we can take to prevent these deaths and close calls. Let’s listen to what he and others have to say. We’ve got to do more to take care of ourselves and look after each other, as so much of Mr. Hoffman’s best work reminded us.
At the moment, though, we say “rest in peace” to a man who, to paraphrase his character in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (with apologies to Dante Gabriel Rossetti), we could also now call “No More, Too Late, Farewell.”