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Playwright Arthur Miller received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Death of a Salesman. A Variety news item noted that shortly after the play's opening in February 1949, the Music Corporation of America expressed interest in putting together a film package that would include Miller, the play's director, Elia Kazan, and its star, Lee J. Cobb. According to the item, Miller speculated that Twentieth Century-Fox might act as the distributing studio, but no further evidence of that studio's interest in filming the play has been found. An article in the September 1949 issue of New York Times reveals that Miller planned to write the screenplay and intended to make the film independently in the East with Kazan. Although a Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Warner Bros. studio head Jack L. Warner had bid $600,000 for the film rights for the play, Warner later denied the report. An August 1950 Hollywood Reporter item indicated that producers Jerry Wald and Norman Krasna were planning to film the play, subject to approval by RKO studio head Howard Hughes. A November 1950 Hollywood Reporter item announced that Kirk Douglas would star as "Willy Loman" with William Wyler producing and directing at Paramount.
Miller sold the rights to producer Stanley Kramer and had no further participation in the Columbia production. Hollywood Reporter news items indicated Kramer hired husband and wife associate producer team Edward and Edna Anhalt, but they were not listed in the credits for the film. In his autobiography, Miller complained that screenwriter Stanley Roberts' adaptation "chop(ped) off almost every climax of the play...leaving a flatness." He also expressed dismay that Fredric March was directed "to play Willy as a psycho." Miller stated that March had been the first choice for the stage role, but that he turned down the part. The following members of the Broadway cast reprised their roles for the film: Mildred Dunnock, Cameron Mitchell, Don Keefer, Royal Beal and Howard Smith. Kevin McCarthy portrayed "Biff" in the London production of the play.
According to information in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Geoffrey Shurlock expressed concern about Willy's suicide and requested a rewrite of the ending to "build a voice for morality against suicide." The PCA also requested that the impression that Willy and the woman in his Boston hotel room were having an "illicit sex affair" be toned down by adding a bottle of champagne to the scene "as an indication that the couple have been having a party." The word "damnit" was not approved, yet remained in the final print of the film.
After the film's release, Variety reported that the vice-president of the National Sales Executives and the supervisor of the City College of New York salesmanship unit of the School of Business expressed concern about the story's image of salesmen, claiming that it was a "libel of a segment of the population." In March 1952, a chapter of the American Legion in Columbus, OH threatened to picket movie houses showing Death of a Salesman because of Miller's alleged links with politically subversive groups. In April of that same year the American Legion picketed Washington, D.C.'s Ontario Theatre, contending that Miller had been linked with Communist front organizations as identified by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
The film received the following Academy Award nominations: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (Mildred Dunnock), Best Supporting Actor (Kevin McCarthy), Best Cinematography and Best Music Score. In 1965 a record album of the play was recorded with Cobb as Willy and Dustin Hoffman as "Bernard." On May 11, 1966 on the CBS Network, Cobb and Dunnock reprised their roles for a television adaptation, with George Segal as Biff and James Farentino as "Happy." In 1984 Miller staged a Broadway revival of the play starring Hoffman, with John Malkovich as Biff. On September 15, 1985, the two actors reprised their roles for another CBS broadcast, directed by Volker Schlndorff. Brian Dennehy starred as Willy in a television version of the play, directed by Kirk Browning, that aired on Showtime on January 9, 2000.