Philip Seymour Hoffman and the shock of losing a hometown hero

Philip Seymour Hoffman was the pride of my hometown. The obituaries say he was from Fairport, N.Y., but it’s more accurate to say he was from Perinton, the suburban town outside Rochester that includes the village of Fairport. Phil grew up in the upper-middle-class subdivisions built atop the farmland of Perinton in the 1960s and ’70s. For many of those years, he lived in the neighborhood next to mine.

Phil’s father, like mine, worked for Xerox. It seemed like Xerox, Kodak and Bausch & Lomb employed most of the dads in the newer, wealthier suburbs south and east of the city. And like my mom, it was Phil’s mom who made a point of introducing him to the theater, to the culture above the banality of the boob tubes flickering in everyone’s family room.

Phil, who graduated from Fairport High School three years before I did, also found a mentor in English teacher John Baynes. Baynes was in his 30s (relatively young for a teacher in the district back then) and was by far the coolest adult I’d come across in my first 17 years. An engaging educator comfortable enough with students to let his wise-cracking side show, Baynes was another bridge to the wonders beyond the wasteland of ’80s pop culture. He’d quote Bob Dylan more often than Dylan Thomas, and though he couldn’t assign us their books, he was the one who hipped us to writers like Jack Kerouac and Frederick Exley, autobiographical novelists whose work was inseparable from their alcoholism.

Baynes was careful not to equate substance abuse with artistic greatness. “Drugs and alcohol are for people who don’t know how to cry,” he’d say.

Baynes knows how to cry. “When I heard the news, I cried, and then I cried some more,” he told a local TV station earlier this week, his eyes red and watery. “I loved his art, but we loved him — I loved him — and he was always the same guy,” said Baynes, who still teaches at FHS and had stayed in touch with his famous former student, who was “super genuine … humble, generous, available and present to others. … He was unimpressed by fame, by anything surface. … He cared about what was underneath: the human soul, the depth of the human person.”

Phil Hoffman and John Baynes at Fairport High School in 2008. photo/via WHEC

Phil Hoffman and John Baynes at Fairport High School in 2008. photo/via WHEC 

Phil’s death from an apparent heroin overdose is especially shocking to those of us who grew up with him in Perinton. We hid in the woods to smoke weed and pounded cans of Genny Light along the Erie Canal, but hard drugs were hardly around. The idea of shooting smack seemed as outrageous as the idea of shooting yourself. But there were hints that Phil had more of an appetite for self-destruction.

My friend Wormy’s older sister worked with Phil at the Sears inside Eastview Mall. His strongest memory of his sister’s friend is of the day Phil showed up at the sledding hill behind one of the junior highs. Perinton was Marlboro and Camel Light Country. “Y’all like Lucky Strikes?” Phil asked, producing a pack. “I tried a few hits off an unfiltered Lucky Strike,” Wormy, then about 14, recalled. “Burned my lungs so bad I didn’t have another cigarette until college.”

Most Fairport grads went off to college, where the drinking and smoking of lots of things increased exponentially, but Phil’s excesses were such that, at age 22, he made the remarkable decision to go sober. While the rest of us wasted more years in the bars or settled into the suburban mold our parents made, Phil worked his way into becoming one of the finest actors of our generation.

I was proud to have sledded the same slopes as this man and walked the same high school hallways. Phil inspired me to aspire to greatness, and I often daydreamed about meeting this accomplished upperclassman, swapping stories about Baynes and the old stomping grounds.

One night in December of 2001, I thought I had my chance. I’d been invited to a private party at The Skinny, a nightclub on Congress Street, arranged for the band Weezer, which was ending its tour at the Civic Center. There was a paunchy, blondish actor there who looked familiar to my bloodshot eyes, so I approached and asked if he grew up in the Rochester area. No, he said, California. I had just met Jack Black, whose comedy-rock duo, Tenacious D, was opening the show.

I’ll never meet Phil now, but I won’t stop trying to follow the example of this immensely talented, hardworking and humble Perintonian, whose tragic death cannot diminish the brilliance of the life he led.

Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.