My favorite Hoffman ever is Abbie Hoffman, the 1960s political radical, social activist, and guerrilla anarchist. He stirred it up, all right. He did it with a sense of humor. And for about one minute that seemed forever, he was my most surprising brush with celebrity.
If you’re not familiar with Abbie Hoffman’s antics back in the ’60s, give Aaron Sorkin’s just-released The Trial of the Chicago 7 a watch on Netflix (read the CultureMap review here). Sacha Baron Cohen, yes Borat, delivers a brilliant performance as Hoffman, on trial with six other political radicals accused of inciting a riot, and other mayhem, at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
Hoffman and Jerry Rubin organized the Youth International Party, the Yippies, and were determined to protest, specifically the Vietnam War, but everything that moved at the convention. Sorkin’s telling of the trial is a fascinating, satirical metaphor for the explosive ’60s decade.
The judge at the Trial of the Chicago Seven was Julius Hoffman, no relation to Abbie or me. Every time Abbie Hoffman called Julius Hoffman “dad” – bang, contempt of court. The defendants were found guilty of inciting a riot, and about a thousand contempt of court fines, but the verdicts were overturned on appeal.
Hoffman wrote several books during his career as a counter-culture jester. I’ve read them all: Revolution for the Hell of It, Woodstock Nation, Steal This Book, Vote!, To America With Love, Letters from the Underground, Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture, and Steal This Urine Test.
Steal This Book was so instructional that bookstores stopped stocking it — people were taking the title literally.
Hoffman went on the Merv Griffin Show in 1970 wearing a shirt made from the American flag. Producers blurred the shirt because they weren’t sure if Hoffman’s shirt amounted to desecration of the flag. Meanwhile, nobody seemed to mind when Roy Rogers and Dale Evans wore similar shirts. Hoffman later was arrested on drug charges and jumped bail while waiting to be sentenced.
He had cosmetic surgery on his face, adopted the name Barry Freed, and became an environmentalist. He eventually revealed his identity, was sentenced to one year in jail and was released after four months. A few years later, Hoffman killed himself by overdosing in phenobarbital and alcohol.
Okay, now for my strangest celebrity brush. I attended a press conference in New York where Hoffman and other members of the Chicago Seven spoke. They were seated behind a table with name plates in front of them.
When it was over, I snuck up and stole the cardboard name plate with Hoffman’s name. I found Hoffman in the hotel lobby and approached him, I told him,
“My name is Hoffman, too. We’re not related, but you’re my favorite Hoffman. Would you sign this name plate for me?”
And that’s when Abbie Hoffman, a leading architect of protest in the wild ’60s, tackled me, knocking me to the floor. It was a weird moment for sure. Was he serious? Did I say something that he found insulting? Was he going to hurt me?
I grabbed his arms so he couldn’t hit me. We rolled around on the floor for about a minute, when he started laughing and let me up. He signed the name plate and asked if I was sure we weren’t related. I assured him that we weren’t, but I wish.
The next dog I adopted, I named Abby. His son is named Andrew — so’s mine. The cardboard name plate is yellowing now, but it still sits on my desk at home.