Cast & Crew
Arthur Miller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, in a film version of the 1984 Broadway revival, about Willy Loman, a salesman who has spent his life in the pursuit of the American dream -- a dream that has failed but ironically remains his one tenuous hold on a reality that is slipping away.
David S Chandler
Terry Fred Cassidy
Robert F Colesberry
Ann B Egbert
Robert J Franco
Thomas A Kelly
Stephen J Lineweaver
Richard A Ventre
Gilbert S Williams
Art Direction for Miniseries
Lead Actor Miniseries or Special
Special Drama or Comedy
Death of a Salesman (1985)
No one with Cobb's image in mind would have thought of casting wiry, diminutive Dustin Hoffman in the role, but the Academy Award-winning actor, only 47 when he took the role of 60-something Willy in a 1984 stage revival, soon dispelled any doubts about his ability to capture the essence of Miller's creation. What's more, he brought something to it that audiences had never quite seen: a Willy Loman as first conceived by the playwright.
"In undertaking one of our theater's classic roles, this daring actor has pursued his own brilliant conception of the character," Frank Rich wrote in his New York Times review. "Mr. Hoffman is not playing a larger-than-life protagonist but the small man described in the script - the 'little boat looking for a harbor,' the eternally adolescent American male who goes to the grave without ever learning who he is. And by staking no claim to the stature of a tragic hero, Mr. Hoffman's Willy becomes a harrowing American everyman. "
The award-winning stage production transferred quite seamlessly to screen under the direction of Volker Schlöndorff with its principal cast intact: Hoffman, Kate Reid as his wife, John Malkovich as son Biff, and Stephen Lang as their other son, Happy. Miller was closely involved in the production, a constant and positive presence on the set. He had only one condition, according to Schlöndorff: "Don't change a single comma in the play." Miller did make one change himself, however, an alteration he was no doubt happy to perform. In an early draft of the script for the original stage production, Willy is insulted when someone calls him a "shrimp." The word was changed to "walrus" when Cobb was cast but restored for the revival. Miller always envisioned Loman as a small, weak man with a loud voice; at only 5'6" but with a commanding vocal presence, Hoffman finally gave him the character he pictured.
As a tour de force for Hoffman, who had to undergo three and a half hours of make-up to age into the part, he got most of the attention, but the entire cast rose to the challenge, particularly Malkovich, who lost none of what Rich, in his stage review, called "a performance of such spellbinding effect that he becomes the evening's anchor." Both actors won Emmy Awards for their work, as did the art direction. Hoffman won a Golden Globe as Best Actor in a Motion Picture Made for Television, and the film received numerous other nominations.
The production was shot entirely at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, by German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, then known as a frequent collaborator of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and later as the director of photography for seven Martin Scorsese films. The producers spared no expense on the rest of the creative team, bringing in Oscar-winning production designer Tony Walton (All That Jazz, 1979), costume designer Ruth Morley (Taxi Driver, 1976; Annie Hall, 1977), and veteran composer Alex North, who had written the score for the 1951 film version, as well as the music for A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Spartacus (1960), and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Schlöndorff was an unexpected choice to direct such an American drama. The German filmmaker, best known to that point for his screen adaptation of the Günter Grass novel The Tin Drum (1979), winner of the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, had never made a film in English but did well with translating Miller's distinctive style to the screen.
The story is told primarily from Willy's point of view and often follows a stream of consciousness structure, with past and present mingling, a device that expands as Willy loses his grip on a world he cannot accept and doesn't understand. This time shifting is usually referred to in film as flashbacks, but Miller makes a particular distinction between the more or less objective view of the past in a standard flashback and the highly subjective memories that take place in what the playwright calls "mobile occurrences," allowing Willy's visions of the past to increasingly intrude on his present life as his mental state deteriorates. The filmmakers' success at pulling off this tricky technique earned high praise from critics and got the picture a prestigious premier at the Toronto Film Festival.
Opening Death of a Salesman in Toronto was not without controversy, however. By the time it was included in the festival line-up, it was already known it would not have a theatrical release but be shown on television, not because Hoffman was not a big enough name but because he was too successful and respected. According to Schlöndorff, the decision to go with the small screen was made by Hoffman after speaking to a fellow actor.
"Dustin showed it to Warren Beatty, who said, 'It will do well on the arthouse market, but how much will you make: $15 million, $20 million?'" Schlöndorff recalled. "'Your last film was Tootsie , which made $150 million. People will say, "Dustin got a beating."' So we sold it to CBS. Beatty was Dustin's guru when it came to commercial success of a movie."
The director couldn't help chuckling as he pointed out the irony that the two stars were already preparing what would become known as one of the great box office disasters of all time, Ishtar (1987).
Director: Volker Schlöndorff
Producer: Robert F. Colesberry
Screenplay: Arthur Miller, based on his play
Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus
Editing: Mark Burns, David Ray
Art Direction: John Kasarda
Production Design: Tony Walton
Music: Alex North
Cast: Dustin Hoffman (Willy Loman), Kate Reid (Linda), John Malkovich (Biff), Stephen Lang (Happy), Charles Durning (Charley)
By Rob Nixon
Death of a Salesman (1985)
Aired in United States September 15, 1985
Alex North wrote the incidental music for the original 1949 Broadway production, the 1951 film version, as well as the 1984 Broadway revival.