Philip Seymour Hoffman: A Man We All Knew (But Didn’t)

In the wake of the actor’s demise, let’s not make a sport out of dredging up the details of his final moments

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I admit it: It’s become easy to glaze over yet another story of a celebrity’s life lost to drugs.

But my reaction to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was different.

When I was little, the Breaking News jingle would trigger an anxious reaction. These days I get goosebumps when a celebrity’s name trends on Twitter. This past Sunday morning I scanned the social networks for the usual garbage but instead saw postings claiming Hoffman’s death had to be a hoax and RIP to such talent. When I saw his hashtagged name splashed all over Twitter I headed to TMZ — the only website with the authority to confirm such a disturbing rumor. There it was: Philip Seymour Hoffman Dead of Apparent Heroin OD. And because dignity seems to have no place in this day and age, we learned he was found in the bathroom, slumped over, with a needle sticking out of his arm.

Without question, the guy was one of the greatest actors of our generation (or, perhaps, any generation). And from what I’ve read over the past few days, he was a pretty great human being and father, too. He was also a person whose personal life I never really wanted to know much about. Hoffman’s demeanor didn’t really scream “celebrity,” so much as “artist.”

When I lived in Manhattan I’d see him sporadically at Starbucks or strolling around the West Village with his kids. It always gave me a rush to know I was lucky enough to live in a city where a treasure such as Philip Seymour Hoffman could order a latte behind a plain ol’ gal like me. What a regular guy genius he was. Of course, I still made sure to give him some space and avoid eye contact because, hey, it’s New York and the guy is famous.

Part of his charm as an actor stemmed from his willingness to be completely disgusting and unselfconscious on camera. His tiny tank tops in “Boogie Nights” left something to be desired (more fabric). Those phone calls in “Happiness” had a lasting effect on me (never pick up the phone). He was even endearing  portraying rich assholes in “Scent of a Woman” and “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” The only way for someone to get away with being so brilliantly despicable on screen must come from being normal and likeable in real life.

I was surprised when Hoffman entered rehab last May. But given how many stars go to rehab these days, the news kind of lost its edge. I figured he’d pull himself out of this rut eventually. He’s too rich and talented not to! But the (invasive) photos coming out of him prior to his death — drunk at an Atlanta bar in late January; slumped over his iPad on an airplane; eventually plucked from the gate by a waiting airport golf cart — show a man sunk to seemingly past rock bottom. As though dying with a needle in his arm wasn’t low enough, it seems the tabloids are good with taking whatever remaining shreds of dignity the guy had left and slowly grinding it down into a fine dust.

My heart broke on Sunday for the passing of a man I knew via his artistic gift. As fans, we know the work, but generally not the person and often not the demons. And yet, the two can’t be separated, especially for a man who excelled at playing those whose demons defined them.

As the media voraciously tries to piece together the increasingly sordid details behind his death, I’m actually going out of my way to avoid them. To me, it just feels disrespectful to look at photos of the grieving family and friends of a man who went out of his way to shield his personal life from the press. It seems that the least we can do, maybe the only thing left to do at this point, is just avoid eye contact and give him (and his loved ones) some space.

Michelle Collins is a comedian and writer living in Los Angeles. She is a contributor to Vanity FairGQ, and Elle and is considered a “pop culture expert” by most basic cable television stations (including Bravo, E! and VH1).

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