Fresh Ideas: Hoffman failed in playing life’s most important role

The untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, the Oscar-winning actor, has upset many Americans, even those who were not avid fans of his work in movies and plays. Hoffman, 46, died of an apparent heroin overdose in early February, alone in his New York City apartment.

As an actor, Hoffman was brilliant and unassuming, with an uncanny ability to become the character he was playing. Even renowned director Mike Nichols marveled at Hoffman’s exceptional prowess in a 2008 New York Times Magazine profile. Nichols said, “It’s that humanity that is so striking — when you watch Phil work, his entire constitution seems to change. He may look like Phil, but there’s something different in his eyes. And that means he’s reconstituted himself from within, willfully rearranging his molecules to become another human being.”

Heroin, the supporting actor in Hoffman’s death, is experiencing an ugly renaissance in 21st century America. The reach of its gnawing, destructive tentacles has no geographic or socioeconomic limits. Remote rural areas and accessible urban neighborhoods share the scourge of heroin.

The symbiotic relationship between abuse of painkillers and heroin is well-known. As prescription painkillers become harder to obtain, drug abusers turn to heroin. Nearly 80 percent of Vermont’s inmates are imprisoned for drug offenses. The epidemic is so widespread that Vermont’s governor, Peter Shumlin, devoted his entire State of the State address in January to strategies and solutions, including the need to treat addiction as a disease.

Shortly after Hoffman’s death, a poignant in-depth article in The New York Times reported on the overdose death of a 21-year-old woman in rural Wisconsin. Her addiction began with prescription drugs. It ended as a statistic — the seventh fatal heroin overdose in eight months in her small town.

And in the heart of New York City, addiction claimed a trophy — Philip Seymour Hoffman, who succumbed after decades of sobriety. Many believe Hoffman was the best actor of his generation. He was a gifted artist who struggled with every role; acting was hard work. In a recent interview, actor Dustin Hoffman (no relation) reflected on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. “I think if I had to guess ... I would guess that he didn’t feel deep down that he deserved his talent.”

Philip Seymour Hoffman could act any role. He was so talented he could become anyone on stage or in front of the camera. Sadly, the role he could not master was the most challenging character of all: himself.

Abby Johnson is a resident of Carson City and a part-time resident of Baker, Nev. She consults on community-development and nuclear waste issues. Her opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her clients.


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