Karine Jean-Pierre
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Why My Friend Silvio Horta’s Life and Death Matter

Silvio Horta

I first met Silvio Horta around Christmas of 2010. Our mutual friend invited me to go on a ski trip up in Mammoth Mountain, with a group of guys I mostly didn’t know, and I was nervous about being the odd man out. But Silvio welcomed me in, and he and I hit it off almost instantly. He was this goofy guy who liked dancing around the house and singing along to music he didn’t really know the words to and recording it on his third-generation iPhone, and I was game for all of that.

On that first trip, we quickly realized that we shared a really strong interest in politics and world events. And he also opened up to me about his struggles with alcoholism and some other addictions. I related because I’d had my own struggles in the past and because I came from a family of addicts. We were all such a crazy bunch that on New Year’s Eve I crashed early. When I woke up after midnight, I raced downstairs into the dark, empty house, furious that everyone had left for the fun parties without me, only to discover that everyone was out cold after a long day of skiing. It might have been the best New Year’s I’ve ever had.

Back in Los Angeles, Silvio invited me to dinner with his mom, Ana — who we would lovingly call Mama H — and I saw right away what an important bond they shared. He loved his mom more than anything. I think my middling Spanish and a bad, inappropriate, and poorly translated joke about being Silvio’s long-lost cousin got me the approval of Mama H. And then we were off.

We became inseparable very quickly. Movies, workouts, long phone calls, more trips. But it also didn’t take long before our friendship crossed over into a working relationship. He’d generously offered to read some of my writing, and I guess, adequately satisfied with my abilities, asked if I would help him and his writing partner at the time rework a movie they’d been toiling away on.

Those early days working together were absolutely electrifying for me. Silvio and I clicked right into place. I’d never understood the desire to have a creative partner, but with Silvio, not only did we share a wavelength unlike anyone else I’d ever worked with, but he was an incredibly talented, experienced, and generous person who I could learn an enormous amount from and who seemed eager to pass his knowledge on to me. And most importantly, we made each other laugh constantly.

This was in 2011, shortly after his show Ugly Betty had ended and he was figuring out the next chapter of his life. He accepted an overall deal at a studio — in which he was paid a lump sum in exchange for ownership over any new TV projects. As part of that deal, he brought me on as his "development executive." That title didn’t really even begin to capture what we were doing together, but it seemed like the easiest way to formalize our work and also get me paid.

We would have daily work sessions where we alternated between lying in front of our laptops and pacing around his living room. We shared articles and discussed the latest political crises or crazy stories we read on Gawker. We got to a place where we finished each other’s sentences. If either of us had an idea, he’d stand up and flail about the room while the other raced to write it down. We freely and sometimes gleefully told each other when the other person’s ideas were stupid or clichéd or didn’t make any sense whatsoever. We argued, we laughed endlessly, we messed with each other like brothers, we gossiped and bemoaned our romantic exploits.

Silvio always had an eye out for an interesting character or a twist on a classic character that you’d never seen before. It was something he really imparted to me, and it set the foundation for how we would approach any new project. Find incredible characters with very human stories, and either build a world around them, or find a world that was ripe for filling with as many different kinds of underrepresented people as possible — all long before such a thing was even remotely in vogue.

Between writing sessions, Silvio would always be plotting the next adventure or the next party, whether it was a ski trip, a mad excursion to Brazil, a weekend in London, or a giant Christmas bash in his house that he was constantly renovating or upgrading in some inexplicable manner. (Did his Spanish pool tile really need to be the blue slate he fell in love with in Mykonos? Did he have to have a snow machine at his Christmas party in L.A.?) He always wanted to be on the move, but to him, it was all an excuse to bring together all of his favorite people under one roof. In those first years, I was often very tan and overworked, and I don’t remember ever being more excited about what the future had in store.

And then, of course, there was another side to it all. I mentioned that Silvio had let me in on the fact that he was struggling with alcohol and drug abuse. He’d been in and out of AA, counting days or months or a year, only to slip and have to start all over. Sometimes he would fall off the grid for a few days at a time, and when he’d finally turn up, I’d come over to check on him only to find him looking like a shell of himself, curled up in his den with his little dog Dutch, watching marathons of Real Housewives, responding to my inquiries with monosyllabic utterances.

About a year into our friendship, he finally confessed to me that he wasn’t just struggling with one of your run-of-the-mill addictions like pills or cocaine … this was something much more insidious. It’s a word whose very mention has come to give me involuntary shudders: meth.

I didn’t know anything about meth other than it was something that people in trailer parks did and it made their teeth rot out. I set about researching as much as I could, trying to get to the bottom of whatever it was that I was starting to see was slowly eating away at the incredible person I had come to love like family.

I learned that meth is certainly not a drug just for people in trailer parks. It is incredibly prevalent in all parts of society, and particularly in gay culture. Statistically, gay men are four times more likely than straight men to try it. It is also one of the most addictive single substances known to man, if not the most addictive. People can become addicted after a single dose, and once people form a dependency, the chances for recovery are shockingly low. It drastically alters a user's brain chemistry so that he is unable to feel pleasure unless he is using the drug.

Silvio told me the story of how he was at a party one night when someone handed him a pipe of what he thought was weed. When he hit it, he quickly realized it was not weed, but crystal methamphetamine — a chemical compound created in a lab or bathtub somewhere and designed to flood your body with dopamine and energy. It would be several more years before he became a full-fledged addict, but that initial hit set the stage for a dark and perilous journey that would lead to his ultimate destruction.

While our professional relationship seemed to be soaring — we’d set up exciting projects all over town with the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek — the periods of time when he’d go missing and the amount of time it would take him to recover were becoming increasingly concerning. We warned him that the next time it happened, we were going to call his mom and explain everything that was going on. We thought that might be enough of a deterrent, but soon enough, he was gone again, and we had to break the news to the dear, sweet Mama H that her son was in grave danger.

Silvio Horta
Pictured: Andy Maher and Silvio Horta

We found a professional to help us organize an intervention, flew out Mama H and his sister, Hilda, and gathered his closest friends. The morning of the intervention, it was my job to keep watch over him while everyone gathered elsewhere to make a plan of attack. I was sitting in his kitchen working on my “intervention letter” to him when he came in, sat across from me, and looked me right in the eye.

“What time is everyone gonna be here?” I looked at him deadpan. “What time is who gonna be here?” He was always one step ahead of everyone. It turned out that one of his ex-boyfriends had shown up the night before, left his phone open while he went to the bathroom, and Silvio saw our email exchange secretly plotting his intervention. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “I’ll still act surprised.” Silvio loved surprises. In fact, I’d helped him plan several of his own surprise birthday parties. But I told him that was beside the point. This wasn’t about acting surprised. These things just tend to work better when you’re not anticipating your own intervention.

Still, we went ahead. We all read our letters and wept and sobbed in each other’s arms. We stopped pretending there wasn’t a problem and we laid it all on the table. At the end of it, Silvio agreed to go off to the rehab we’d chosen for him, one of those plush Malibu places that’s more yoga retreat than Betty Ford and has a name that sounds like a salad from Café Gratitude.

Little did I know this was just the beginning of a whole different kind of cycle.

Thirty days later, Silvio came back looking like his old self, optimistic and bright and committed to his sobriety. We returned to work, just like the good old days. One day Silvio came to me and told me he had a dream, and he thought it was an idea for a show. “A man washes up on the beach in Miami, totally naked, disheveled, and he doesn’t know who he is.” “Okayyyyy…,” I said. “I’m not exactly sure how that’s a show, but I love that visual.”

Over the course of a few weeks, we paced around the house, building on top of that single image. What if the guy is an escaped refugee? What if he left Cuba in 1965 and washes up in Miami and suddenly it’s 2015? We took a lot of elements of Silvio’s own background, growing up in Miami with a single mother, herself a Cuban refugee. Both my grandmothers died of Alzheimer’s, and we worked that into the central premise of the series, exploring the themes of time, memory, and how both are intricately interwoven into our identities.

We thought it was a crazy, out-there idea that no one would want. But we brought the pitch to Warner Bros., who immediately loved it. They had us title it The Curse of the Fuentes Women and set us up to take it to all the major networks. Everywhere we pitched it made an offer to buy the project, but we decided NBC would be the place most likely to see it through.

That was the most fun and natural creative process I’ve ever had. The story and the characters flowed out of us. We were super excited about having an all-Latinx cast, having the first trans series regular, and telling a beautiful, strange, magical-realist story all on a network where it would reach a huge audience. We got the opportunity to spend two months in Puerto Rico, pretending it was Cuba and Miami, bringing the things that were born in our heads to life on the screen. We spent a week hanging out in Café Fuentes, the exact café we’d spent the better part of a year imagining, and populated it with the characters we’d spent long nights dreaming up, played by an unbelievable cast of actors.

It was also one of the most trying times of my life. The night before our table read in Puerto Rico, Silvio and I had a layover in Miami and, feeling the immense pressure of our upcoming production, he went out and relapsed. In the ensuing chaos, all eyes turned to me to figure out what the hell was going on. I was getting frantic calls from the head of the studio while trying desperately to pretend that everything was just fine, that Silvio was just experiencing one more in a long line of perfectly normal family emergencies, and that I, Andy Maher, a person with almost no experience, knowledge, or understanding, had everything absolutely under control. I could feel the whole thing starting to collapse around me. But through a series of small miracles and an amazing team of people supporting us, the studio and network accepted that we had it all under control, and we were in business.

Silvio and I almost never spoke again after that … for about all of five days. As so many people can and have attested, he had a huge, warm smile. He was kind and generous to a fault, and almost impossible to stay mad at. When production wrapped, we and a few friends took a trip into the Puerto Rican jungle and hashed things out. It was probably my curse, but I could just never stay mad at my friend.

As proud as we were with the way The Curse of the Fuentes Women turned out, we should have known before we ever even started that there was no place for it on network TV. The feedback we got was “How do you market a show about three Latina women with no famous actresses and no case of the week?” I didn’t have the answer at the time, but in retrospect it’s increasingly apparent that there are massive audiences looking for exactly that. Like I said, Silvio was always just a little bit ahead of the curve.

Our relationship did begin to stray after that experience, though. I realized I wouldn’t be able to count on him much longer. After a few more projects, we amicably separated the business part of our relationship, and I took a job running development for another producer at the same studio, an opportunity that never would have been possible if not for my time with Silvio.

But we never stopped being friends. His struggles continued … in and out of rehab. Binge, recover. Binge, recover. Binge even longer, recover for weeks. A vicious cycle I’d already witnessed up close and personal too many times.

A few months ago, he called me, frantic, and asked me to come over. Mama H was there, looking particularly distraught. He was about to accept a new, very high-paying staff job on another network show, but he didn’t feel he was in the state of mind to be able to do it. He had been sober for almost a year, but after his last drug binge, he’d experienced a sort of shift. He was suffering from something called anhedonia, the inability to experience any joy or pleasure at all. It’s not uncommon for long-term meth users to develop this disorder, and if the damage is serious enough, there may be no coming back from it. After some more prying, he finally confessed to me the last thing I wanted to hear.

The week before, having done a bunch of research, Silvio had ordered poison off of the dark web with the intention of taking his own life. When it arrived, he placed it in the safe in his house, with plans to carry out the act the following day. But the next morning, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service showed up on his front door and told him they tracked the package to his house. At first, he denied it, but they went on to tell him about a young boy in Michigan who’d ordered from the same supplier and was now lying in a hospital bed on life support, likely brain-damaged for the rest of his life. Silvio took the men inside, led them to his safe, and turned over the poison. The only reason they didn’t arrest him was that his mom was there pleading for them to leave him so she could take care of him herself.

He told me all this with the cool detached affect he would use to tell me about a bad date. But I realized in that moment that my worst nightmares were being realized. I was staring at a man who didn’t just lack the will to live. He specifically didn’t want to live this life any longer. He’d damaged himself, possibly beyond the point of ever being able to derive pleasure from life again. We’d always thrived on our totally open and honest relationship, and it was hard to look him in the face and tell him that he was being ridiculous and that he just needed to give it time. That everything would be OK if he just hung in there. Of course, I did say that, and he listened and pretended to believe me.

A few weeks later, as he was leaving L.A. to go live with his mom full-time in Miami so she could watch over him, I came by the house to say goodbye. He kept trying to give me things … trinkets, statues, artwork. “Oh, no,” I said. “We’re not doing the suicide thing where you give your friends all your personal belongings. I don’t want any of it.” “This is not that,” he said. “But do you want the TV? It’s practically brand-new.” I eyed the 65-inch LED. “Fine, I’ll take the TV, but only because it’s so impersonal and my TV just broke.”

When he hugged me goodbye, he told me it might be the last time we ever saw each other. I genuinely thought that was ludicrous and told him so. “Just go to Miami, stay with your mom, heal, take the time, and I’ll see you soon.” Another long hug and I was out and back to my busy life.

In the following months, we texted often and talked on the phone once a week. Every time it was the same story. He was miserable. He felt suffocated living in such close quarters with his mom and his sister and her two kids. And his brain, he claimed, wasn’t getting any better, even though he kept sounding better every time we spoke.

Over the holidays, I went with a group of friends to Mexico, and on New Year's Eve, I lost my phone on the beach. When my phone was miraculously returned to me on New Year's Day, Silvio was the first person I called. I’d been missing him, and I thought that he would appreciate the crazy story of what happened on the beach with my phone. As I regaled him with the story, he laughed along at all the right places and seemed engaged. He talked to me a bit about what he’d been watching on TV and what was going on in the world. I thought that seemed promising and said as much. But nope. He assured me he was exactly as miserable and hopeless as every other time we’d spoken. I told him I wished there was something I could do and that I loved him a lot, and we hung up the phone.

On Tuesday, January 7, I woke up early to my phone buzzing with a call from Hilda, Silvio’s sister. My first thought when I saw her name was that Silvio is dead. I picked up. “There’s an emergency. Silvio is missing.” Apparently, after watching the Golden Globes together as a family, Silvio started spiraling (he always spiraled when he saw other people getting all these accolades, a painful reminder of his own derailment). He gave his mom a really long hug, told her he was going to an AA meeting, and left.

By the time they called me the next morning, they’d already been to the police who told them there was nothing they could do. They were hysterical. They were no dummies. They knew as well as me what this likely meant. But I think we were all holding out hope that he was just off on a binge somewhere. I told them to go into his room and search for any signs of where he might have gone, while I attempted to break into his iCloud to do the same (he had been using the same three passwords for 10 years).

I was on Facetime with Hilda and Mama H when they found them: a stack of letters, each addressed to his family and his closest friends. And one to me. Suicide notes. In that instant, Mama H started wailing a deep, violent, agonized scream. I never want to hear anything like that again for as long as I live.

In his emails, I could see that he’d been making arrangements for the better part of a month. Wills in order. Next of kin. Beneficiaries. All signed off a few days prior.

Our friend learned from Silvio’s business manager that his last credit card charge was at a Holiday Inn Express just down the street from their house. A detective came over and went with Hilda to the hotel. The detective went with the manager into the room but made Hilda wait outside. I was on the phone with her. “What’s going on? They won’t let you in? Is he in there?” “They say he’s in there.” “Well, is an ambulance on the way?” “There’s no ambulance.” And no ambulance was coming. Silvio was gone.

We learned later that day that he’d purchased the gun on December 12, almost a full month before. It’s almost impossible for me to picture Silvio even holding a gun, let alone going out and buying one. He was such an incredibly gentle and peaceful person. I talked to him about his last suicide attempt, and I knew two things: He was terribly afraid of the pain. And he was even more afraid that he might botch things up and cripple himself or put himself in an even worse position than he was already in. I can understand why the gun seemed like the best option to avoid those outcomes.

I keep going back to the image of my sweet and very scared friend, all alone, in a dingy hotel room. The opposite of the luxury that he was accustomed to. Taking out the gun. Loading it. What did he think about in those last moments? He must have been so terrified. I wish I could have been there for him, not even to stop him, but just to help him not be so afraid. He put the gun into his mouth and pulled the trigger. My poor sweet Silvio will never walk this earth again. I hate when people say that dead people are in a better place, but in this case I think it is actually true. Because now he is nowhere, and nowhere is a step up from where he had been and where he was heading.

I tried — we all tried so hard to help him. Of course I go back in my head and ask myself if there was anything else I could have done. Would I just have been prolonging the inevitable? Could I have saved him? Should I have gone and taken him and lived with him in a cabin and lived off the land and made him see the beauty in the world again, forced him, held his head down close to the flowers and the rivers to smell the earth and forget about Hollywood and forget about WeHo and forget about hard ripped bodies and just think about the things in front of him, of the two of us, of the beautiful time when we once shared one mind.

You were only 45. You could have lived another 45 years. But now you are gone, and in just this short time there have already been so many things I wanted to tell you because I thought you would laugh, and I’ll never be able to do that again. Goodbye, my friend. I will love you forever.

Andy Maher is a writer, producer, and executive living in Los Angeles.

If you or a loved one or facing mental and/or substance abuse disorders, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s national helpline at (800) 662-HELP for confidential information and resources. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 can be reached 24 hours a day by people of all ages and identities.

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