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Playing cards with Philip Seymour Hoffman

For Phil, an old friend 

The performance: David (left), Phil and Stephen.

Photo courtesy of David Klein

The performance: David (left), Phil and Stephen.

I've been watching Philip Seymour Hoffman play his best parts for the last day: the supercilious lacky in The Big Lebowski, the hooked agent in Charlie Wilson's War, the rock critic dropping wisdom in Almost Famous. Since he died of a probable drug overdose last Sunday, those moments have filled the feeds of my social media. He was a consummate scene-stealer. In my own head, I've replayed a scene that's not so easy to share. No one was around to tape it.

In the early '90s, I shared an apartment in the East Village with my oldest friend, Johnny, who'd recently entered a substance-abuse program. There he'd met Phil Hoffman, similarly new to sobriety. Many nights, Johnny and his clean buddies, Phil included, would gather at our place—playing cards, smoking cigarettes, generally supporting one another. Phil's career was just starting to click: "Phil's flying to Texas to film a movie with Steve Martin. And Meat Loaf," Johnny once told me. Not long after, it was, "You're not gonna believe who Phil just auditioned for—Al fucking Pacino!"

Johnny moved to Brazil to start a business, and those late-night card games ceased. He stayed clean, made some dough and managed to fall in love with a woman who walked by him on Ipanema Beach—yes, just like the song. A wedding date was set, and in 1999, I flew down and shared a hotel room for a week with Stephen, who'd been a pal since those card games, too.

On the flight, we began singing "The Girl From Ipanema," as you do when going to Rio. We composed some new lyrics, too, eventually transforming Astrud Gilberto's tune into a chronicle of the bride and groom. We were tough on him: Instead of "But each day as she walks to the sea/she looks straight ahead not at me," we crooned, "Oh relax this guy's learned a lot/he gave up the crack and the pot."

The night of the rehearsal dinner, Stephen and I were set to sing for the gathered guests. The song was in bad taste, but we were sticking to it. Phil had just played Allen, the chronic masturbator in the extremely unsettling Happiness, so I suppose he was up for anything. He asked if he could perform with us. We became, briefly, a trio. True to form, Phil was fully committed to the moment, even a truly ridiculous one.

In the next decade, Phil became a married man, a father, an Oscar winner. Like the rest of the wedding party, he kept his sobriety. They all kept it up for so long that it seemed like it was a done deal. But before the news went public last year that Phil had slipped, done some heroin and entered a rehab facility, he stopped going to his sobriety meetings and started allowing himself to drink a few beers. His pals had started to worry, but he protested their concern: He was in his 20s when he'd gotten clean, he said, so he could handle it now.

After he left rehab last April, Phil became harder to get ahold of and increasingly defensive when he sensed his friends were checking on him. They talked about doing an intervention, but it was hard to pull the trigger. He was intimidating. They all wish they'd tried harder. As Johnny told me on the phone this morning, "You just don't think he's gonna die."

  • Playing cards with Philip Seymour Hoffman

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