By Jack Hofsiss
September 14, 1987 12:00 PM

If success is always sweet, for years director Jack Hofsiss’ life was very sweet indeed. A graduate of Georgetown University, by the age of 28 he had made his Broadway directorial debut with 1979’s The Elephant Man—and won a Tony. Since then he directed the movie I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can and Showtime’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But his greatest triumph came this summer with the off-Broadway opening of No Way To Treat a Lady. This time, the play wasn’t the thing: The larger drama was Hofsiss’ return to the New York stage after a two-year absence. In 1985 he fractured his spine in a freak swimming accident that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He credits the love and support of friends and family with pulling him through the near-fatal mishap and the dark days that followed.

Now wheelchair-bound but with an unbridled sense of humor and optimism, Hofsiss, 36, talked about his accident and its aftermath with Assistant Editor Bonnie Johnson in his airy, five-room Upper West Side apartment.

I had taken a month off from work and rented a house on Fire Island [a summer resort off Long Island]. On the morning of the accident, I dived into the deep end of the pool and, as it has been explained to me, I hit my head on the bottom, which fractured vertebrae six and seven in my cervical spine. [Hofsiss has filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the pool’s owners and manufacturer and, because of that, would not discuss his accident in detail.] I passed out and remained submerged for awhile. When I didn’t surface, three friends jumped in, pulled me out and resuscitated me. A few hours elapsed before the paramedics from the mainland arrived. I came to and passed out on and off while I was still lying at the side of the pool. I had some vague conscious awareness, including what is called a near-death experience. I remember watching myself take a long trip down a dark road, but I felt an odd sense of peace about it.

I was taken to the intensive care unit at Brookhaven hospital on Long Island. There was a young doctor there who wanted to have a real heart-to-heart. I kept saying to him, “Don’t tell me now.” I sort of knew what had happened, but I needed all of my energy at that point just to stay alive.

My darkest hours came several weeks later after I was transferred to New York’s Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine. I wasn’t in great physical pain, although I always was in discomfort of some sort. Still am. Psychologically, however, I became very depressed. I had never been in a hospital before, and it was there that they laid it all out for me, exactly what my limitations were. They told me unless something miraculous happened, I would never walk again. I wanted to avoid that conversation as long as possible. I’m in show business. I don’t want reality.

In those early days I didn’t have any movement below the middle of my chest, and I couldn’t even move my arms, although most of my arm movement gradually returned. Also, I had suffered neurological damage that impaired my eyesight, my memory and my cognitive powers. I had double vision and I was often confused. When my reasoning ability began to return (about a month after the accident), and I realized enough to know what had happened to me, I was pushed into my deepest depression. I knew I would never walk and feel like a whole human being again. But far and away my greatest fear was that I might never work again. That’s when I said, “My life is over.” I thought about suicide, although I never got down to the methodology of it. The Rusk people anticipate this kind of despair, and I got psychological counseling. They try to focus you on the things that you can do. That helped me, and so did so many of my friends. They were really steadfast in those dark days, sitting with me for hours at a time even though I was nasty and angry—not angry at anyone but more a “Why me?” kind of anger.

Most comforting were the friends who had been through periods of extreme duress in their own lives. Ann-Margret came, and Eileen Brennan, both of whom had had very severe accidents. I called them the Great Disaster Divas. Just the fact that they were standing at the end of the bed—and my knowing they both were back working to the highest of their capabilities—was a great inspiration.

Once my eyesight improved, which took about two months, I began doing a lot of reading. When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner is a simple book but a very good starting point for anybody who is feeling victimized by life. It helped me realize that I had to stop asking the “why” questions. There are no answers, and they prevent you from moving on. Though there were all these good people around willing to help me, it was up to me to face my situation and do something about it.

I began physical therapy. Just getting me out of bed was a major event. They put you on a tilt table, which is like a rack, and then each day they’d increase the angle a little more. Every day I’d yell, “Put me down!” There was the physical discomfort of moving, because you’ve been prone for so long, and with that comes extreme dizziness. They also started me on a series of exercise routines, such as lifting weights strapped to my arms. I was crabby about those, too, but I did them and still do. They’ve halted my muscle atrophy so that if at some point I do get some motor return, my muscles will be healthy enough to respond.

I had been at Rusk for five months when Josie Abady, the artistic director of the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, Mass., came to visit me in the fall of 1985 and asked me to direct a play the following summer. I wasn’t sure I would be well enough in time to do it, but it was something to focus on and a profound vote of confidence for which I will always be deeply grateful.

After eight months at Rusk, I was sent home. I had always lived alone, and it was evident that I was going to need help. So one of the nurses, Maureen Laffey, came home with me. She was supposed to stay for a few weeks to help me get things set up, but I had no intention of letting her go back. We really hit it off, and she now lives here full-time as my friend and paid helper. In theory my lack of independence was a very difficult thing to accept, but not in reality. I rely on Maureen for most of my physical needs and for my psychological support. When I get depressed or moody, she yells, “Oh, shut up!” and gives me a hug. Or she reminds me that my life is still in my own control.

In July, 1986 I went up to Stockbridge to direct Tad Mosel’s All The Way Home. Going back to work was scary. I was smart enough to cast the play with people I knew, but even they were initially wary. So on the first day of rehearsal, I said, “Look, I’m not fragile,” and after that, we became immersed in the play. But I had to rethink my methodology. I was never a jump-up-and-show-the-actor-how-to-do-it kind of director, but I certainly worked off my nervous energy by pacing around. That was no longer possible. As a result I was forced to become more articulate and concise, not such bad attributes, but not so easy either.

Before my accident I had never really been aware of the disabled. I sort of lumped them into one large category of people who were, in some form or another, sick and, to a degree, invisible. This experience has certainly dispelled those prejudices. On the street, strangers, particularly older ladies, constantly come up and talk to me nicely. Taxi drivers don’t always stop, but when they do, Maureen just hoists me in, folds up my chair and away we go. I won’t stop traveling, which you have to do with my job. I had tried sitting in my apartment with the blinds drawn when I came home from the hospital, but that was not a valid choice. I’m obviously going to be around, so I’m going to make the best out of it.

The hardest thing of all, though, is people feeling sorry for me. It either angers you or feeds into your own self-pity. I have lost some friends. Maybe I reminded them of their own vulnerabilities or perhaps they had expectations that I could no longer live up to, and that disturbs them. I don’t know. But I’ve stopped judging people. They don’t know what’s going on inside of me, and I realize I don’t know what’s going on inside of them.

My priorities have changed completely—and for the better. Certainly the John Simons of the world [Simon is an acerbic New York theater critic] don’t matter much anymore. This whole thing has made me realize the extent to which I depended on external approval for happiness before. Praise and money are nice, but I’m not living for that anymore. My happiness is within now, based upon what I’m doing and my own self-satisfaction. It’s ironic, but I’m capable of making myself much happier now than I ever was before.