Friday, March 19, 2004 | 8:28 a.m.
"Cancer can take away all my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart and it cannot touch my soul."
-- Jim Valvano
Not long ago, the words from a 1993 award-acceptance speech given by the late, great North Carolina State basketball coach "ran in my head over and over," Monty Hoffman recalls. They struck so close to home.
It's been little more than a year since the comedian was diagnosed with throat cancer, and only months since he completed radiation treatment. These days Hoffman -- who headlines at Riviera Comedy Club through Sunday -- is focused on reinventing and revitalizing his comedy career, along with rediscovering himself.
The diagnosis was the latest in a long line of unfortunate turns New York-bred Hoffman's life has taken during his 51 years. When he was a kid, his father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to raise nine children by herself.
"We never really had much, so rejection was always part of my life," he recalled during a recent call from his home in Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley.
For a decade, Hoffman (who also suffers from diabetes) was addicted to drugs and alcohol. Though he's been clean and sober for more than four years, he laments, "It ruined my life."
A former Army man who held a slew of odd jobs after leaving the service, at age 30 Hoffman took an acting class at San Francisco State University. A professor spotted his ability and urged him to take lessons with a local improv group, with which Robin Williams frequently performed stand-up comedy.
"I would sit there and watch this guy and I said, 'This is what I wanna do.' " After breaking onto San Fran's comedy scene, Hoffman began making headway, performing stand-up and competing in comedy competitions. He moved to Los Angeles, and in the early '90s was offered a sitcom-development deal, which ultimately failed to materialize.
Still, his acting career gained steam, and he's appeared on dozens of series, including "Everybody Loves Raymond," "The Drew Carey Show," "Roseanne" and "Married With Children."
It was while performing his stand-up act in Las Vegas in late 2002 that Hoffman discovered a lump beneath his ear. He received official word of the cancer from his doctor shortly after -- just as his health insurance was about to expire.
"My knees just buckled," Hoffman remembers. After undergoing surgery to remove the tumor, and later enduring 40 rounds of radiation treatment, his salivary glands were obliterated. He also lost a lot of weight and most of his strength.
Hoffman's bank account also withered away. A friend took him in during the recovery process and moved him to her Colorado home, where he spent the bulk of 2003. He emerged "flat broke. But I knew God had given me another chance, so I knew I had to come back."
Last fall, mere months after completing his final radiation treatments, Hoffman drove himself from Colorado to California and began working one-night gigs to pay his rent. Still weak from his illness, onstage "I would be able to stand for like 10 minutes and then I had to sit down."
Though he continues working to regain his strength, he says he's noticed a change -- an improvement, in fact -- in his recent performances. Hoffman, who plays Las Vegas four times per year and also takes comedy-club stages in Biloxi, Miss., calls to a recent set as having been "the show of my life ... It was like all of a sudden, the rebirth of the phoenix. I came out of the ashes that one night. It was the most unbelievable feeling -- it was the payback."
Hoffman realizes, however, that after 20 years in the business he still has work to do, especially when it comes to his material, which was once "bitter and angry" and "abusive towards women." These days, "I want women to find me friendly, and I want to be friendly to them," he says.
"I'm content with who I am and what I am right now, and I can make fun of myself ... I still talk about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll -- well, not the rock 'n' roll anymore; I think I'm more into classical. I've slowed down."
On a personal front, Hoffman says he also wants to help others avoid the pitfalls he's encountered.
"I'm not out to change the world. When I was an addict, nobody could tell me nothing. But I know the dangers and the insanity and the real horrors of it, so if you can't learn from me -- I have the scars to show it. If I could save a kid of a life of misery, of what I had, then God can take me."
The good news is, it doesn't sound like that the latter will happen anytime soon: Recent medical tests confirmed that Hoffman is cancer free.
"Somebody is looking out for me," he says.
Despite all that he's overcome (but, more likely, because of it), Hoffman contends, "I've really had a wonderful life, when you look through all the hell. Sure, I get depressed about certain things, but I move forward everyday. You know what I think, when you get all these curves and you survive, you kind of feel better about yourself. You didn't eat the bullet."
Out for laughs
The future looked bleak for another cancer-battling comedian, Sean Kent, when last summer he was the first funny housemate to be voted off the NBC reality series "Last Comic Standing." But the cowboy hat-wearing Texas native is back in the saddle: He's slated to play March 30 through April 4 at The Improv at Harrah's.
Some huge comedy names are scheduled to grace the stage of The Mirage's Danny Gans Theatre in the coming months, starting with Wayne Brady (April 16 and April 17, June 11 and June 12), followed by Dana Carvey (April 30 through May 1), Kevin James (May 14 and May 15) and Jay Leno (May 28 through May 30, June 25 and June 26).
Bobby Collins -- who was profiled Jan. 30 in this space -- returns to town May 24 through May 30 to headline The Comedy Stop at The Trop.