by Tom Ashley
Most of us remember John Ford, Martin Scorsese, Milos Forman, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg whose works brought magic to the movies and continue to captivate audiences.
Fortunately, The New York Times obituaries sometimes show great respect and admiration for people long forgotten by the general public, but whose accomplishments, if only for a single blip on history’s radar screen, are worthy of commemoration. These obituaries often manage to capture that defining instant. And so it was with the recently published and surprisingly long obituary of Jack Hofsiss.
Jack Hofsiss you say? His obituary was published this summer, along with a photograph of Jack taken outside of a Broadway theatre accompanied by the English actor Carole Shelley. They each had won a Tony that week in 1979 for the same play when Jack was only twenty-eight and the youngest director to have ever received that distinction. The play was The Elephant Man. Memories of this image from 37 years ago came rushing back to me. Jack was beautiful. Jack was charming, talented, polite, elegant and nice. Jack had it all. He was going to have a great ride and as his friend, I had a front row seat.
Jack’s brother-in-law, John Andariese, and I were best friends and business partners. Jack had graduated from my alma mater, Georgetown University. John and I had been observing this budding genius since high school.His career was moving forward like a launch from Cape Canaveral. Major film and television projects were coming his way non-stop. He was working with Henry Fonda, Jill Clayburgh and Kevin Bacon. Whenever a movie screening, a new play or a television premiere was held in New York, Jack invited us to join him along with all the Hal Princes, the William Paleys, the Richard Rodgerses and the usual hangers on. Jack knew how to cut the bullshit and put his family and friends first, giving us a wink when he was being dragged by his publicist through a group of “must meet” people. Demands on Jack’s time became huge yet, he did his best to stay connected with family and friends.
It all changed in an instant.
In 1982, when he was just 32, Jack suffered a life-altering accident. He broke three vertebrae in a swimming pool accident, leaving him a quadriplegic and a prisoner confined to a wheelchair for the remaining thirty one years of his life.
Oh, Jack worked now and then. He’d get the occasional play, the teaching position at the HB Studio. It may have looked important to some, but to his friends and colleagues and to Jack himself it was minor league stuff. The beautiful Jack began to waste away in that chair. He gained weight, he was always tired and his patience was in short supply. After seeing him we’d leave speechless ,in recognition of the tragedy of unfulfilled promise.The obituaries referenced how Jack had given serious thought to suicide off and on. It was understandable. For Jack it was all gone. I too often wondered what he had to live for. But Jack soldiered on. Eventually an infection ended his life..
I made my way for Jack’s wake at a modest funeral home on the West Side of Manhattan. I was stopped in my tracks upon entering. I’m never prepared for wakes and funerals. Who is? I saw an open casket just thirty feet from the door. So much raced through my mind. At first I thought Jack’s funeral would or should have been at Frank Campbell’s Funeral Home on Madison and 81st Street where the famous and the infamous made their last stop. But then I realized that this humble funeral home was just right for Jack. Gone were all of the press agents, the sycophants. It was so un-Hollywood. It was simple and sparse and deeply touching to see Jack in his plain pine casket. Those who remembered his kindness and brilliance showed up along with high school and neighborhood buddies. Beyond his family and some old friends I didn’t recognize anyone.
I thought that within a few years of his passing Jack would be forgotten. But his good friends and family would always remember him. The New York Times obituary and his simple funeral reminded me of what the world had lost —- not only his many gifts but most of all the character that accompanied his talents.
Taking many study groups over the years at the IRP has been a growing and stimulating process. In college, I dreaded my writing courses. I LOVE them now.