Philip Seymour Hoffman: The Actor, The Philosopher, The Master, The Wrestler

I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck this morning, trying to absorb the reports that drug addiction has apparently taken the magnificent actor Philip Seymour Hoffman from us.

In a way, we mourn the deaths of actors because we love the characters we played, not because we knew who they were as individuals. And it’s plain to see that Hoffman was fighting a terrible battle behind closed doors, while audiences enjoyed what he could do to bring other personalities to life.

But we did know some things about him. For example, we know that he was enthralled by the life of Christ. If you read anything about Philip Seymour Hoffman this week, read this, by the insightful and inspiring Fr. James Martin, SJ: “The Gospel According to Philip Seymour Hoffman.”  When I read it a few years ago, my admiration for Mr. Hoffman increased significantly.

Here’s a piece of it:

His perspective changed when one of his two sisters became active in a Christian evangelical movement, to which she still belongs today. She encouraged her brother to accompany her to meetings with her friends, and Phil went along happily. “There was something that was so heartfelt and emotional,” he said. “Nothing about it felt crazy at all. And my sister was certainly the sanest person you could ever meet. It all felt very real, very guttural, even rebellious.”

The idea that a young person could be sane, generous, intelligent and Christian held out great appeal for him. So did the palpable sense of community he felt with his sister and her friends. Still, he held back from the total commitment that his sister made. “It was a little too much for me,” he said. “And by that time I was more into partying and acting.”

So Phil, who describes himself as a believer and someone who prays from time to time, carried this positive approach to Christianity with him into the Public Theater during the rehearsals for the new play about Jesus and Judas. “My time with my sister and her circle of friends is something I still think about today.” He noted that he is often defensive about the way that many actors react to the idea of evangelical Christians. Is there a bias, I asked, against that kind of person in the acting community?

“Absolutely!” he said. “It pisses me off that there is this knee-jerk reaction against them. There is certainly an antipathy against them in the acting world, just like there is an antipathy in the politically liberal world. And, as a result, the liberal Christian is not heard from as much. And, you know, a liberal person who has a deep belief in Christianity can be a very powerful influence on things.”

His natural curiosity also prompted a desire for further study of the Gospel narratives. Consequently, Phil was sometimes the most animated person at the table readings at the Public Theater, especially when we talked about Jesus of Nazareth. “My image of Jesus is someone who is exciting,” he said after the show had closed. Though that word is too infrequently used to describe Jesus, I agreed with him.

“Were he alive today, he would be causing havoc!”

Today, I lend my voice to the chorus who are lamenting the loss of this extraordinary talent. But I also pray that God will have mercy on Mr. Hoffman, and that this tormented man will now know peace and rest and everlasting joy in the presence of his Master.

Meanwhile, I wonder about those in my own circle who are are struggling behind closed doors the way he struggled. I’m fairly certain I could do more to reflect the comforting and invigorating grace that gives me hope every day.

Moreover, I am inspired to remember that even if all of my worldly dreams come true and I gain riches and fame and respect, I am still vulnerable. I have no place to speak any words of judgment over the circumstances of Hoffman’s death. In my moments of clear-thinking, I know that I have my own addictions. I have my own secrets that exist in direct contradiction to what I profess and what I long to be. By grace, I’ve been spared all kinds of devastating consequences. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner, and upon us all.

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In memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I offer my series of posts about the film the featured what most would agree was his greatest performance — Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master — as well as a review of Doubt.

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2/2/2014 UPDATE: Don’t miss this heartfelt reflection from Alissa Wilkinson.

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  • Annie

    I knew there was something special about this man….he will be greatly missed. Being a believer in the Hollywood community is a constant battle just to survive. Many have fallen to its evil soul-burning crimes. My hope is that he is getting all the love he deserves through the arms of our savior. My prayer is that we could only have more Philip Seymour Hoffman’s in this world, but that may bear the full armor of Christ to stand up against the arrows of the deceiver

  • Rodney Reeves

    Jeff, me too.

  • GoodBerean

    Jesus IS alive today, sitting at the right hand of His Heavenly Father. And He causes peace and not “havoc” — the peace that passes all understanding. Apart from Him, there is no true peace.

    John Lofton
    Director, The God And Government Project
    JLof@aol.com

  • cheriwilke

    Russel Brand, in an editorial comment in the Guardian on Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death, stated, “In spite of his life seeming superficially great, in spite of all the praise and accolades, in spite of all the loving friends and family, there is a predominant voice in the mind of an addict that supersedes all reason and that voice wants you dead. This voice is the unrelenting echo of an unfulfillable void.”

    So many creative souls struggle with that void, either filling it with drugs or fighting the never ending battles of depression (as I know of firsthand). I believe that God is near to the broken hearted and hears their cries, therefor he was near to Mr. Hoffman. Now…as he is face to face with his maker, that void, that longing, that need that could not be filled or calmed nor satiated on earth is healed.

  • Expat in ME

    Thank you so much, Mr. Overstreet, for this thoughtful post. I just learned a few minutes ago of Mr. Hoffman’s death and was shocked and saddened by it. While we don’t know for certain where he was in relationship with the Lord Jesus, your comments offer much hope. I don’t keep up on celebrity news much, but I often pray for actors. The practice of their craft is important for it can give the viewer keen insight into the lives of others and thus increase our level of empathy or wisdom or knowledge. However, too much is made of them from a cultural standpoint–while it may make them money, I think it actually causes them harm in the long run. They also, sadly, seem so often to come from broken homes. In many ways, their acting is the best part of them. I ask for the Lord of mercy to have great mercy on Philip Seymour Hoffman. And I ask those who pray to join me in that request. Thank you, again, Mr. Overstreet.

    • Mo86

      The Lord DID have mercy on Mr. Hoffman. It looks like he had a sister who was a follower of Christ. From the article it seems he had numerous opportunities to hear the gospel.

      Whether he responded in repentance, we don’t know. But once someone is dead, that’s it. There is no purpose in praying for them any longer, since Scriptures says we die once and then comes judgment. (Hebrews 9:27)

      • jeffreyoverstreet

        I respectfully disagree.

        In II Timothy, Paul lifts up a prayer for Onesiphorus … who happens to already be dead. “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day.”

        I’m not a Catholic, but I find much of this commentary by Mark Shea thought-provoking and encouraging. Even those who are not Catholics should read this and give it a fair hearing. Read the whole thing. (And if you want more, this is helpful.)

        I’m not interested in letting this page devoted to the memory of Philip Seymour Hoffman devolve into a debate about praying for the dead, so I’ll let the matter rest here. I hope the article encourages readers to reflection. And to prayer.


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