The Part Philip Seymour Hoffman Didn’t Play by Lazarus Barnhill

Philip Seymour HoffmanMy uncle was Ben Whitekiller. He was also Robert Vessey. Actually, of course, his name was Herbert — not Ben or Robert.

Herb was a peace officer in central Oklahoma and I grew up adoring him. As I became an adult and understood more of what it means to be a grown up, I began to see Herb in a clearer light, to have more of a circumspect understanding of his life. After he died in 2005, I wrote him in as two of the main characters in my police procedural, The Medicine People. Herb was the embodiment of Ben Whitekiller, the aging Native American, recovering alcoholic, who knows he has to come back to his little hometown to settle accounts from his misspent youth. Herb was also the essence of Robert Vessey, the whip-smart, jaded police lieutenant and investigator who never forgot what an encounter with Whitekiller had cost him. The resolution of the conflict between those two men was, in its way, my resolving of Herb’s legacy in my own heart.

So if you are like me, some of the characters in the books you write are conceived, developed and refined with a specific individual in mind — not always, but sometimes. And because that’s the case, I particularly mourned the death of the actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

When I created the fictional character Magnus Thorsen in my novel East Light, I tried to envision a tall, clever, shaggy-headed, blonde fellow. Thorsen is an artist, a complicated, high-achieving, substance abuser who is discontent with what he has made of his life. He lives on the North Carolina coast in a cottage, the third story of which is an art studio that faces the rising sun. When he decides to take his life, he goes to his favorite secluded beach, only to discover a terribly injured young woman, whose life he saves. Throughout the remainder of the book, Thorsen engages in a complicated dance with Lt. Dot Stipling, the African-American detective who figures out his suicidal intentions and needs to keep him alive at least long enough to prosecute the girl’s attackers. I always thought the ideal person to play the part of Magnus Thorsen—complex, determined, supremely artistic—would have been Hoffman.

So here is my homage to Philip Seymour Hoffman and the part he never played. The book, by the way, will coming out this summer from Second Wind:


Magnus opened the big glass doors onto the deck and slid open the screens.  He stepped out to the railing and looked down.  The tide was going out.  Down the beach someone was throwing tennis balls into the surf for a retriever to chase.  Twenty yards away, a gull was hanging nearly motionless in the air, waiting in case Magnus had food crumbs to throw.

“Forget it.  I’m not a tourist,” he muttered.

It was nearly thirty-five feet from where he stood to the dunes below.  Almost forty if he stood on top of the handrail.  When he first decided to kill himself, he thought about jumping from this upper deck, making it look like an accident.  Only, if he had been pretending that he didn’t mean to die, he couldn’t leave notes for his son and parents and lawyer and bookkeeper.  Then too, he might have survived the fall and been crippled by it.  He also thought about hanging himself from this railing.  The problem was that, if he didn’t break his neck, hanging would be slow and awful.  And no one in the family would want to live in the cottage.  And its worth on the real estate market would have diminished as well.

Where was the lieutenant, he wondered.  Turning from the water, he saw her walking around the room, looking at the canvases on the walls and easels.

“See anything you like?”

“They’re really very beautiful.”

“You think?”

She faced him.  “I can’t help but notice that they are all finished.”

“. . . Well most of them are fairly old.  I didn’t do any of these for customers.  I did them for myself, or to try a new technique, or to demonstrate something to someone.”

“Where are your ‘works in progress?’”

He shrugged.

“Did you run out of clients who wanted portraits done?”

“I have a whole stack of work over there on my desk.  I just haven’t started them yet.”

“Why haven’t you?”

Magnus took a drink of his coffee.  “Just waiting for my muse, I guess.”

She walked through the studio toward him.  “You know what I think?  I think you finished everything you were working on and didn’t start anything new because you intended to take your life.  Everything about this place and your actions before you stumbled onto Lisa Faucet reveals an intent to commit suicide.”

She stood beside his main drawing table, her hands on her hips.  It was a place, he noticed, where—with the sun streaming into the studio—the pure consistency of her complexion and the finely etched lines of her face appeared to glow with their own light.  And at that instant she didn’t seem to Magnus to be a police officer hounding him, but an exquisite countenance, begging to be captured on canvas.

“I have a friend who is a musician,” Magnus said.  “To him, the whole world is reducible to beat and melody.  If you’re a doctor, you view everything according to how it impacts a person’s health.  And if you’re a police officer, everything and everyone is suspicious.”

She smiled grimly.  “Mr. Thorsen, you can change the subject all you want.  You can have me follow you from one room of your house to another.  You can try to distract me with egg coffee and beautiful artwork.  But nothing changes the reality that you were going to kill yourself yesterday.”

Slowly he shook his head.  “That is strictly your assumption.”

The phone rang.

“Now what!” he exclaimed.  He looked at the little clock on the supply table.  “It’s just now 7:45!”  The phone rang again.  “How did I get so popular?”

She stared at him.  “Aren’t you going to answer it?”


“Might be the hospital.”

There was a third ring.

“No,” he said.  “The hospital has my cell number.  Nobody who has my home number would dare call me before 8 a.m.”

“Why’s that?”

There was a fourth ring.

“Because they know I’m painting.”

The answering machine, with a robotic voice, spoke, “Please leave a message after the tone.”

There was a protracted beeping sound and suddenly Grady’s angry words were amplified through the room: “Mag-man!  What’s this shit in today’s paper?  You better pick up.  I saw your name listed by a gun permit.  What the hell you need a gun for?  This has something to do with going down to Scotch Bonnet by yourself, don’t it?  You didn’t tell me nothing about no goddamn gun, son.  You better, by-god, be calling me back or I’m calling that hot police lady myself about this.  And you better, by-god, be at the meeting tonight.”  There was the sound of Grady abruptly slamming down the phone.

Magnus stared at the answering machine, refusing to look at her.  He didn’t know what to say, and he felt like a little boy caught in some naughty act.

“Hot police lady?”

He shook his head.  “That’s not what I called you.”

“So he is talking about me,” she said.  “I take it that’s you A.A. sponsor?”

“Well he was, up until a minute ago.”

“. . . You have a black sponsor?”
He tilted his head and looked at her.  “Yeah.  Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know.  Just surprised me.”

“Surprised him,” Magnus said, “when I told him that a black woman is Chief of Detectives. . . .  I told him he would have met you before I did, if he just hadn’t sobered up.”

She laughed.  She had a beautiful smile.  Somehow it was a relief to Magnus to see her smile.


Lazarus Barnhill is the author of Lacey Took a Holiday, The Medicine People, and Come Home to Me, Child (with Sally Jones).


Filed under books, Lazarus Barnhill, writing

3 responses to “The Part Philip Seymour Hoffman Didn’t Play by Lazarus Barnhill

  1. Shame he won’t get to play it.

  2. Hoffman was one of those actors who always seem to be under the radar. Incredible talent – when you saw clips of his work post mortem, you realized that. An A list talent with C list visibility.

  3. He played some wonderful roles… Your new book sounds great. One of advance readers just finished reading Blue Belle, and one of the first things she mentioned was that she loved Michael, and keeps thinking about what actor should play him when the screen version comes out. (Love her confidence in my books!) A girl can dream.

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