Weekend Reads: Neil Hope Edition

Young Neil Hope.

Usually on Weekend Reads, we focus on what people are saying about drugs and alcohol. When we covered Whitney Houston, we looked at the ways in which journalists and pundits baldly pronounced the singer’s drug to be a central aspect of her legacy. Last week’s reflection on the Ryan Braun “scandal” focused more on the ways in which media members heavy-handedly turned the Milwaukee Brewers slugger into a villain, a figure to be targeted by Major League Baseball’s half-crazed war on steroid use. Sometimes, however, one can learn as much about the way people discuss addiction from what pundits and journalists don’t say. The story of Neil Hope gives that new perspective.

In late February of this year, family members confirmed the Hope’s death, explaining that he had passed away and had been buried in a Hamilton, Ontario cemetery five years earlier. The bizarre circumstances of Hope’s death – how could he have been gone for five years before anyone noticed? – set off a wave of speculation about causality that subtly reverberates throughout even the most objective reporting.

A D-list celebrity by American standards, Hope was quite famous in Canada for starring on the iconic Degrassi television series, a good-natured, values-based young adult program that thrived on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for twelve years (1979-1991) and found new success in syndication on American PBS affiliates. Producers set the rough-yet-charming show in a working-class neighborhood in Toronto’s west end, and they carefully addressed all manner of social issues, from teen pregnancy to shoplifting to dating, without ever descending into preachy dictums or maudlin melodrama. The kids on the show weren’t actors – they had been cast from a variety of Toronto elementary schools in 1979 – and it often showed.

Neil Hope was one of the cast members who stuck around for Degrassi’s entire run (the show evolved in real time), starting on The Kids of Degrassi Street at the age of 10 before moving on to Degrassi Junior High and then Degrassi High. Hope played “Wheels,” a moderately intelligent, moderately handsome, moderately likeable adopted child whose main calling card in the show was just how darn unexceptional he was. The final season of Degrassi High, however, changed the longtime perception of the character, deeply affecting the way the media has interpreted his death. In the last few episodes of Degrassi High, Wheels struggles with alcoholism before and, driving in a drunken stupor, kills one pedestrian and blinds another. In a Degrassi reunion show set a decade later, Wheels was out of jail, but was living a deeply sad and isolated life.

As the old saw goes, life imitates art, and this was the case with Neil Hope to some extent. Degrassi’s finale was, by all accounts, hard on the young actor who found life outside of the public eye hard to adjust to. He drifted around Southern Ontario, working a variety of service jobs while slowly drifting away from his friends and family. On November 25, 2007, police discovered his corpse in a Hamilton boarding house. A city coroner chalked up the death to natural causes, though nobody could identify the body. The young man – he was only 35 – went unidentified until March 2008, at which time city officials buried him in a municipal cemetery. It was not until three weeks ago that Hope’s family confirmed that he had passed away, presenting us with a startling reminder of how disconnected Hope had become. At the time of the announcement, the wildly popular Degrassi: The Next Generation – a remake/continuation of the original series – was midway through its eleventh season. 

Read more