It is beyond sad to lose the brilliant actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. His performance in Death of A Salesman quite simply tore me apart. As soon as he came on stage every detail of his artistry drew me into Willy Loman’s misery. It ended up shaking me to the core.
The performance had particular resonance for me because the character he played reminded me so much of my father. My father wasn’t exactly Willy Loman. And I’m certainly not Biff, but listen to this:
My father came to this country from India in the late 1940s. He became an aerospace engineer, married a brilliant and beautiful woman from Korea, bought a house in the suburbs with a pool, and had five children. He taught us to live as moral beings, to be the best in science and math, and to love music, literature and the arts. But, as Willy Loman and so many others discovered in times of economic change, the American Dream was illusory.
There was no happily ever after. When the space program cut back in the 1970s Papa was out of work. He declared bankruptcy but was still burdened with family responsibilities. We moved out of the house and my parents divorced. And my father, the rocket scientist, could not find work except, as he said in his last note to us, to build weapons, which he would not do.
A proud man, he always dressed neatly to pick up his unemployment check. Like Willy Loman, my father became superfluous when his particular set of skills was no longer needed.
In the play Willy Loman’s wife Linda tells their son Biff “he’s been trying to kill himself.” She had previously written to Biff about Willy’s accident driving off the road, but she found out later a witness said he had deliberately smashed into a railing.
When I was about thirteen, I read a news item of a man who had driven his car off a cliff but survived with only a broken arm. That man turned out to be my father. I did not realize at the time that it was his first attempt to commit suicide.
At some point my father came to the conclusion that he was worth more dead than alive.
Like Willy Loman, he made the awful, deliberate decision to take his life so that his family could have the insurance money. When I was sixteen, he succeeded.
I’d seen the Dustin Hoffman and Brian Dennehy revivals of Death of A Salesman. We all knew the story. Yet I hadn’t noticed how closely this play tracked my father’s death. It took Philip Seymour Hoffman’s searing performance to slash through the emotional fortress I had maintained for 38 years.
When you lose a parent at a young age and no one talks about it, you can bury it away into adulthood as a deep, unexpressed and unexamined sorrow. But the way Philip Seymour Hoffman captured the utter humanity of Willie Loman and his plight elevated the play to the realm of art. He illuminated my father’s own hard times, Papa’s love for his family, and his final lonely decision. As I watched the play my tears flowed freely, without judgment or anger, but with love and understanding for my Papa as a human being.
So thank you, Philip Seymour Hoffman, for performing with such intelligence, compassion and truth. But now your children have lost their father while young. I hope they find healing and peace. They have a difficult road ahead of them.