An actor’s death by heroin

On Monday, a complete stranger came up to me and said, “Hey, you know who you look like?”

“No,” I said.

“That actor who just died.  What was his name?”

“Philip Seymour Hoffman.”

It never occurred to me that we looked like each other, but maybe we did.  I have been lamenting his death–not because now he can’t play me in the movie of my life, but because I have long been so impressed with his work and it’s such a waste that he died because of his taste for heroin.

It started when I watched “Capote” and “Mission Impossible III” within a short span of time and realized that the same guy was in both movies playing opposite kinds of characters.  In “Capote,” he was the fey literary artiste, and in “Mission Impossible III, he was the malevolent super villain.  It wasn’t just that Hoffman was perfect in both roles.  His acting ability was superhuman.  For example, he somehow made himself seem short in Capote and toweringly tall in “Impossible.” I know the director’s tricks in creating this illusion, as in the Hobbit movies, but this had to do with the different ways he could project his charisma.

Most “movie stars” always play the same character, namely, themselves.  John Wayne is always John Wayne.  The same can be said of Tom Cruise and most of the other actors who make the most money by attracting audiences by virtue of their “star power.”  That’s not a bad thing, necessarily.  But contrast the star with the “character actor.”  That’s the actor or actress who makes a living by playing many different roles, often in the background.  Stars project themselves onto a part.  Character actors subordinate themselves to a part.  The best ones are often hardly even recognizable, so thoroughly do they inhabit a role.  Philip Seymour Hoffman was a character actor who also became a star, of sorts, whose recognizable  and consistent persona was to churn out compelling performances.

And now he is dead at the age of 46.  From a heroin overdose.  We usually associate heroin with the despairing and down-and-out.   Hoffman was wealthy, famous, and seemingly had everything going for him.  Cocaine, amphetamine, and ecstasy make a person “high,” creating a feeling of exhilaration and pleasure with few rivals.  One can see the attraction.  Heroin, though, from what I have heard, is almost the opposite, bringing a person “down,” into a kind of personal black hole.  What is that attraction?  Why would someone like Hoffman get into that death-like and death-causing addiction?

He’s not the only artist to die by heroin.  (Check out this list of famous people who died from drug overdoses.)  Many artists, though by no means all, find their creativity in depression, inwardness, and detachment.  They have a kind of death wish.  So some of them play around with heroin and the like.

But it’s sad when it happens.

 

Him?  Or me?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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