“You think you can save people?” a friend of mine asked me this last summer.
We were in a West Village coffee joint. Phil had just joined us, and -- before heading to the restroom -- had thanked me for emails I had been sending him since he got out of rehab that May.
Once he left the table, I said to our friend how much it bothered me to think that Phil had been going through all of this, and how alone he must have felt, how if I’d known what was happening maybe...
I trailed off.
That’s when the above question came.
We love to think we can save people. We love our Batmans, Supermans, Tony Starks. Whatever your bent, there is a super hero for you.
However the real super heroes are not those who are faster than speeding bullets. The real super heroes are those who show you your worth, who can look through the smoke and mirrors of our souls into those places we hide our true selves in the hope of being accepted, and allow a little light in, and for a time make it not so scary to be who we are.
Phil Hoffman was indeed one of those heroes. And I can’t believe he’s gone.
I came to know Phil in 2005 when I was hired to work at his (and John Ortiz’s) LAByrinth theater company. It was crazy and exhausting and exhilarating. We did amazing things, with amazing people -- and what I learned and how I grew as a person, and eventually an artist? Well, it was all exactly why I’d moved my family to New York three years earlier.
Being in a rehearsal room with Phil was always an incredible experience, and if you paid attention you would leave the room better than when you entered, both in your craft and as a human.
What I will always remember and what I will keep with me in my heart is his laugh.
Phil had a fucking awesome laugh.
Most of the times it was a chuckle -- a guffaw even, if you will. It would come from his throat, and a small smile would crack, and his shoulders would bounce. It would sound like that sexy, gravelly voice of his, but more lyrical. Then there was the laugh that was a bit more open, still from the back of this throat, but a little looser, sometimes accompanied with a “hee hee” type of sound. There was the laugh of derision, never one you wanted to hear directed at you, saved mainly for small-hearted people, fools who took their own amusement at another’s expense. Phil did not suffer those kinds of people well.
And then there was the big laugh. The mack daddy of laughs -- the unabashed, from-the-soul laugh. The one that burst open and shone upon you, like the sun coming out from behind a cloud -- like a child’s laugh, exuding nothing but joy. That laugh that was the embodiment of his art, of how he brought those characters to life, that showed us that no matter our demons, no matter our mistakes, we all had that humanity inside of us.
That we all were SOMEBODIES.
I can’t believe I’ll never hear that laugh again. I can’t believe he is gone. I am sad. I am so very sad.
As we gather at vigils and memorials and just with each other, we all look like lost kids, looking around us, unable to truly comprehend that this gracious person who bound us, who taught us, who loved us, is gone. It is truly incomprehensible, and yet it is fact.
Back at that coffee shop -- with that question still hanging there, “You think you can save people?” -- I took a moment to really think about it.
And finally I replied, “No, I don’t. But I think what I can do, what we all can do, is make sure the people in our lives know that we love them, that they are not alone. It won’t save them, but it will allow them to know they have worth. No matter what.”
And now it is Phil who is saving us -- our love for him, for his family, and most especially for his children. Now it is up to us to spread that humanity -- to take what he gave us and give it to others, by loving as he did, by seeing the possibilities in others as he did, and by laughing as he did.
No matter what.