Ask any writer and he’ll tell you, or she’ll tell you, that beginnings are easy but endings can be brutally difficult. I was thinking of this last week in regards to the final scene of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s life. I don’t know if it was tragic, exactly. I suppose there can be tragic accidents. Certainly it was messy and far from elegant. And so very sad. Not at all the kind of ending anyone would want for their worst enemy, let alone an artist who touched so many lives during his wonderful career.
17 years ago or so, Phil, as I knew him, and I both ended up at a play-reading marathon sponsored by the Manhattan Class Company, which took place at an old monastery on the far end of Long Island. (That I got a ride out there with the amazing Kathleen Chalfant is another story entirely. What a truly beautiful woman she is. That was a brush with greatness like no other.)
At that time, Phil and I were near, at least, the beginnings of our careers. I had had a couple of hits in Calgary, and those plays were being done in other theatres across the land. I thought I had done well to get the attention of a New York theatre and an invitation to such an event. I was there with my play A Guide to Mourning. Phil, who was certainly in the ascendancy of his career, was cast as Rex in my play, a down-on-his-luck-but-loveable-loser-of-no-fixed-address character who comes back to the family home on the occasion of his father’s death. (The play is published in Two Plays by Eugene Stickland by Red Deer College Press.)
Well, if you know his work, you would know such a role wasn’t too big a stretch for Phil. He actually looked the part. He gave a wonderful reading, and genuinely seemed to like the play. I always hoped that the company would produce it and get Phil to play the part, but for a number of reasons (which I never really understood), that never came to be.
Over the course of that weekend, we heard a number of plays read. We lived rather communally in the monastery, taking our meals together and generally getting to know one another. It was really a magical event in my life.
(Isn’t it strange to think how in only ten years, Facebook has changed our ability to stay in touch with one another after such events have ended. “I’ll add you on Facebook,” we say, and we do. But back then, people didn’t really expect to stay in touch, and we didn’t. I only retained one friend from that weekend, a director from New York. We still stay in touch, but not on Facebook, by email. Oh, and I once emailed Kathleen, and she even remembered me and wrote back.)
On any account, back on Long Island, in the evenings, we would haul a big metal tub full of ice and beer down to the water’s edge and there we would congregate around a bonfire as the sun went down and the waves of the Atlantic Ocean washed up on shore.
Well, I’m not the kind of person to leave when there is still beer in the tub, so to speak, and neither was Phil. For at least two nights, we were the last two standing, or sitting, probably, enjoying a few beers and some conversation under the canopy of stars after all the others had gone off to bed.
It was just the way it would be between two guys, a writer and an actor, say, just hanging out. He was hardly famous at the time, although soon to be so. And I was just a playwright from a city in Canada that some of those New Yorkers had never even heard of. We weren’t out to impress each other. We were just chillin’, in the best sense of the word. I’m not saying he was my best friend, just that for that brief period of time we got to hang out together, I genuinely liked him. He was a good guy. His death saddened and somehow diminished me. I know so many people who feel the same.
Sometime after I got home, back in the day when I was still married, my wife, Carrie, was watching a movie on tv. I walked through the room and wasn’t I surprised to see Phil on the screen? And so I said, “Hey, that’s Phil!”
She looked at me rather coldly and said, “Phil? That’s not Phil. That’s Philip Seymour Hoffman.” I had never known his full name, or if I had, I had forgotten it. So I said, “Whatever you want to call him, he and I drank a mess of beers on Long Island last year.”
End of conversation.
So it seemed that Phil had gone his way, obviously right to the top. I returned to Canada and we produced A Guide to Mourning at Alberta Theatre Projects with Dennis Fitzgerald playing the part of Rex. Dennis was every bit as good as Phil had been in the role. And come to think of it, Dennis and I drank a whole mess of beers together, too! Our production even won some awards and the play went on to be produced a number of times, mostly in Canada, but never in New York.
Throughout the intervening years, I saw so many examples of Phil’s escalating fame, and I was so happy for him. While he was becoming a household name and a true celebrity, my life didn’t really change that much. I was a father, still am. (A good father, not such a great husband.) I taught. I kept writing plays. I wrote for a newspaper for five years. Now I’m waiting for another new play to get produced (it will be my 19th) and have started work on a new new play. I’m writing a novel. I’m writing this blog. But I don’t really expect any of these things to change my life or lead to the kind of fame that Phil had.
Admittedly, over the years, when I struggled to pay my rent, there were times when I must have envied Phil and his flirtation with what Tennessee William called “the bitch-goddess, success.” But now I just feel bad for the ending that he had and I realize that I don’t have it so bad myself. It reminds me of the old saying, “Be careful what you wish for, it might come true.”
And so, bereft of fame and fortune which so far have eluded me (especially fortune), I will soldier on, towards what ever end awaits me. I don’t mind if it doesn’t come anytime soon, as I feel I still have much work to do. But whenever it comes, I will hope for a better ending than Phil got for himself.
Thanks for reading . . .
Here’s the best song there is about it.