Paul Wilson: Actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman Exits Stage Left

philip seymour hoffmanPhilip Seymour Hoffman was late Sunday to pick up the three kids he had by his longtime girlfriend…

Hoffman never showed because he was found dead by two friends later that day in his Greenwich Village apartment, a heroin needle dangling from his arm. With 63 movie credits – six as producer, one as director and one for soundtrack – the guy kicked some serious creative butt in his 46 short years on the 3rd rock from the sun.

Field of Dreams” is a baseball movie that’s not really about baseball. It’s actually a Phillip Seymour Hoffman story that isn’t really about Hoffman.

It simply asks the question, why?

Dudley Moore as Arthur

Dudley Moore as Arthur

There’s a great line from the movie “Arthur” in which Dudley Moore says, “Everyone who drinks is not a poet; some of us drink because we’re not poets.”

However, in all too many cases, we tend to lose the poets; Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Charlie Parker, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger – the list is seemingly endless.

Untimely deaths of artists are so commonplace that we seem to almost expect it as some sort of high risk job hazard.

But what causes this self-destructive behavior, is it linked to creativity?

Is it a chicken versus egg debate – a la which comes first – the artist or the illness?

elvis-dead-newspaper_thumbOr do we just hear about it more often when it happens to them because they are front page news? TMZ, People Magazine, US, National Enquirer, there’s an entire industry that profits from keeping us informed of our favorite artist’s every move.

Albert Einstein collected cigarette butts, emptying them of their tobacco for his pipe. Howard Hughes stories were legendary in his germ free, OCD plagued existence.

What pains these people so greatly as they walk through life seeing the things we don’t? Feeling the things we aren’t attuned to. And where do these self destructive tendencies come from? Maya Angelou once said, “There’s no greater agony than carrying around an untold story inside yourself.”

I know too many artists not to understand what that means.

So much of their “art” comes from an internal, unrelenting suffering, or as Robin Williams once said, “All comedians are tortured souls.”

John Berryman

John Berryman

That might not make sense to run of the mill people. One doesn’t need doom and despair to function as an attorney, doctor or small time blog contributor. But listen to the poet John Berryman as he describes the role pain played in his writing;

“I do strongly feel that among the greatest pieces of luck for high achievement is ordeal. Certain great artists can make out without it, but mostly you need ordeal. My idea is this: The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business. Beethoven’s deafness, Goya’s deafness, Milton’s blindness, that kind of thing. And I think that what happens in my poetic work in the future will probably largely depend not on my sitting calmly on my ass as I think, ‘Hmm, hmm, a long poem again? Hmm, but on kinds of other things short of senile dementia. At that point, I’m out, but short of that, I don’t know, I hope to be nearly crucified. (Plimpton, 1976, p. 322)

Think about it,  hope to be nearly crucified!

Love_Is_Blind___Sketch_by_the_art_geekI’m close enough to that world to see some of these same struggles within myself and those around me. We can be a troubled lot; intensely independent and confident yet racked with self-doubt. A mix of extrovert and introvert, high levels of energy followed by periods of reclusiveness, naïve and brilliant, aged with wisdom and childlike, pride fighting against humility.

Artists give us our great works; our movies, concerts and music. We get mad at them when they die these needless deaths. Are they nothing more than irresponsible, coddled stars or do they truly feel, hurt and bleed on a level none of us can comprehend?

I would suggest that the real answer is most likely the latter.

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19 Responses to Paul Wilson: Actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman Exits Stage Left

  1. chuck says:

    Hemingway’s suicide note was written long in advance of his “accident”, in “A Farewell To Arms”. An indifferent God was too much to bear.

    If you get the chance, save the ants to save an artist.

  2. expat says:

    See your Beethoven, raise you Bach. See your Hemigway, raise you Twain. The only common denominator amongst successful (whatever way you want to define it) artists is they overcome resistance and produce output. Everything else is window dressing.

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      Expat, I didn’t know Bach personally or much of his history, but Twain was clearly no walk in the park. I’ll grant you there’s a sliding scale, but this tendency exists, more than not, in most creatives I know to some extent.
      And I’ll deeply trouble a friend who owns a drug rehab clinic who reads me from time to time, but I’m not a “disease” believer when it comes to the addict. The medical profession thinks they have a gene narrowed down, but in the 50/60’s the therapy world had all gays as mentally disturbed!

      • expat says:

        Who does have a walk in the park? Part of being human is suffering. The only people who don’t feel are psychopaths. On the other hand the world is full of junkies and losers who try to cast their suffering as art but never produce a thing; true artists have personal lives that are all over the map but have the one common aspect that they *do the work*.

        Synchronicity was at play when this showed up in my news feed. ‘Glamorizing suffering’ is a good term.

        “You know the cliché: You’re out on the town, you’re doing drugs, you’re drinking, you’re running on the walls, you’re pissing on the fireplace. It’s a cliché. Often you run into artists who live that life—and at one point, you find out that they’re not actually producing that much art. They’re living the life of the artist without the work.

        If you live the kind of life that Bergman does—spending long hours in solitude, working with your art—sometimes people use medicine to smooth things over. They drink or take pills or whatever they do in order to deal with the painful sides of this. But so do people who don’t produce art. It’s not like only artists drink to cope. Doing so doesn’t make you more interesting or creative—and it may even destroy you.”

        While it’s true that artists tend to be on the other end of the bell curve from psychopaths – instead of feeling nothing they feel too much – that is not a precondition to being an artist. Producing art is.

        That was extraordinarily hard to type on my iPhone so don’t expect any more comments from me on this topic.

  3. absmith says:

    What many view as self destructive is simply a matter of dealing with that internal chaos. Is it necessary? History would confirm that. Everyone deals with those internal demons in their own way. There are, however, many tortured souls that do NOT get the write ups in People magazine, Enquirer, etc that are no less talented, no less a tortured soul. A respectful nod and moment of introspection for all the artists of the world.

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      Well, a surprising guest appearance from one of the finest poets I have read! You’re dead on the money and thanks for having read the story!

  4. CG says:

    It will always be a mystery, especially with talent that has massive income and are well liked. I imagine Seymour fell into this group. Very sad. He did a ton of great work in his 46 years. He will be missed.

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      Craig, I would guess that you, having a front row seat to these guys lives, would be a great character witness to my story. One of my favorite people of all time is Lewis Black. Why? He’s ME without the stage and microphone. We could be brothers. The only time I met or talked to him was at your Westport joint years ago. He came out after the show and we talked one on one for twenty minutes and it was facinating. But bottom line, and you know him pretty well, dudes not normal, huh?
      Thanks for taking the time to come by and drop a line!

      • CG says:

        Yes Lewis is an interesting case. He had a rough go up til his 50’s in the biz, nobody paid attention to him. Then it all went his way. One of the late bloomers of all time in comedy. Lewis and I were close for several years after his early days at Stanfords. Black reminded me he kinda got his lift at Stanfords back in the 80’s. We booked him often then as an MC and middle act. His old photo as a 20 something kid was hanging on our all. I never noticed it was him til he pointed it out. Back then we had hundreds of photos of early comics we hired on the walls, he was one of them. Looked much different back in his early days.

        As his career heated up I booked him often, three times a year. He was our new “Larry”.. then Lewis, became LOU the big star, he did help me get my book rolling, even offered to write the story with me back around 2007. However Black became a mega star, got very busy, was harder to reach and well like so many guys who make it, became somewhat a ghost.

        Lewis did come back one more time to help open Legends in 07. Sold out two Sunday shows. Hard to do for anyone. We spoke a few more times, on radio he would always talk about his days with me and Stanfords fondly, but our relationship kinda ended. Money, fame and living in New York took him away. I miss our talks, miss the guy very much. He was a solid friend as much as he could be all those years ago.

        Lewis was not a drug abuser, he drank but not over the top. Today I think Lou would be close to 70. Wow, hard to believe. He finally got the story book life he dreamed of, fame, fortune, even some hot babes. Did it make him happy. I can’t really answer that one. I think he is as close to most of us ‘boomers’ as one can get. A normal guy dreaming of being a big star and finally became one, late in life. I like Lewis Black and I hope he found some happiness and joy. I think part of him did, but there is always some empty hole in most of us, even Lewis. I can’t answer why that is, maybe its just the long journey and when the few of us who get there do, its still not enough to make us smile all the time.

        I always think I would, but if Lewis is an example, maybe not. We all have our issues and demons. Even Lewis Black.

  5. chuck says:

    My favorite local celebrity who self destructed was Marshall Saper who frequently noted that suicide was an acceptable escape from this veil of tears. I worked with Nancy Saper, but she had moved by the time Marshall shuffled his mortal coil by way of a shot directly to the heart.

    I liked Nancy, she was an unabashed, unembarrassed missile of destruction for anyone who didn’t bend to her will.

  6. TCS says:

    Once again, your aberrant view is astonishingly insightful. Philip was one of my very favorite artists. I ache for those that suffer through such torment, both those that are lost from us and those not yet found. Their scintillating colors with which they paint do tend to come from dark and desolate palettes.

    • paulwilsonkc says:

      Oh man, I’m so honored you read this, as you….. are the American Dream! Thanks for your comment and understanding the plight. In the words of that great actress, you LIKE ME, you really LIKE ME!

    • the dude says:

      Guy was tits, very saddened to hear about his passing.
      Guess I’ll have to finally watch The Master and rewatch Synedoche as a proper mental send off to a great actor.

  7. chuck says:

    Here is a somewhat different opinion of the late great man, by Debbie Schlussel.

    She does make some very good points, at light speed, with prejudice, but still valid.


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