Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in 'Death of a Salesman'

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in Arthur

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s " Death of a Salesman" directed by Mike Nichols in 2012.

You're Philip Seymour Hoffman -- actor, director, dad. You've starred in stage classics ("Long Day's Journey Into Night," "Othello") and films ("Doubt," "Moneyball," "The Ides of March," to name a few). Don't forget that best actor Oscar for "Capote." Still, you're only 44, and Willy Loman, the tragic hero in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," is 63. And yet here's acclaimed director Mike Nichols telling you yes, yes. It's time.

"I said he's gonna have to face it," Nichols recalls. "He said, 'I know, but now? You sure?' He knew instantly it would be . . . what is the word . . . expensive. Emotionally, it would cost him. It's very hard to do that every night, twice on Saturday. But he finally figured he's gotta do it. It's like a mountain that's gotta be climbed."

The revival of "Salesman," opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre Thursday, boasts a pedigree cast, including veteran stage actress Linda Emond as Willy's wife, Linda, and -- as prodigal son, Biff -- Andrew Garfield, an award-winning English-trained actor known in the United States for his work in "The Social Network," and starring this summer as Peter Parker in "The Amazing Spider-Man."

"Salesman" usually draws big names. What's new this time is the audience.

"It's about right now," says Nichols. "About everybody on Facebook. The Kardashians. Everybody who wants to be known."

Never in the play's history have so many Americans displayed the kind of desperate urge for attention Willy seeks.

"Attention must be paid," Linda pleads in the play.

If only she and Willy knew the joys of tweeting.

 

Hammer, nails, typewriter

In the spring of 1948 Miller built a small wooden shack near his country house in which to write "Salesman." The first act took a day. Act two? Six weeks.

The tale follows Loman, an aging salesman, and his wife and two sons, who fear he's losing it. There are nasty family secrets. Miller's revolutionary idea was to tell the story out of order, with Loman drifting in and out of memories.

"Salesman" was a sensation, earning six Tony Awards. Miller nabbed a Pulitzer Prize. And the play became required reading in high school and college.

"Yet like any great play, you can't fully appreciate it till you see it onstage," says Erik Brogger, a playwright and associate professor in the creative writing concentration at Hofstra University.

Brogger wasn't a "Salesman" fan, at first.

"I think younger people are uncomfortable around broad displays of emotion," he says. "There's something that felt a little uncool about these larger-than-life characters."

Bad local productions didn't help. Just YouTube "Death of a Salesman" and you find all sorts of stagings. (The worst must be Kevin Kline's droll spoof of "Salesman" dinner theater, in the 1991 film "Soapdish," with Kline wiping up spilled drinks mid-performance.)

Brogger eventually grew into the play, and has taught it in class.

"At first I identified with Biff," he says. "Later, with Willy's sense of betrayal by a world he no longer understands." Today's American workers increasingly feel "insulted, disregarded. So while nobody knows what's inside Willie's briefcase -- we don't know what he sells -- we can all identify with his struggle."

 

Fathers and sons

You're Philip Seymour Hoffman in a scene where you toss a football onstage with co-star Garfield.

"I thought, yeah, they ARE athletes -- they've never missed," says Nichols. The authenticity excites him.

Hoffman turns up the volume, but often rumbles deep underground.

"Sometimes Phil's most powerful stuff is the simplest out of his mouth," says Emond.

She enjoys a lavish dressing room suite -- "bigger than my apartment" -- because Hoffman passed it up.

"He's like, 'I got one suit -- you have dresses and wigs and things,' " she recalls. It's become a cast hangout. They wind down. Laugh. A lot. By end of show, there's relief, she says, but also joy at getting to work on "a great play . . . one of the greatest."

 

It's Loman, not 'low man'

Despite its greatness, misconceptions prevail.

Miller found it discouraging that various commentators "smirked at the heavy-handed symbolism of 'Low-man.' " He explained in his 1987 autobiography, "Timebends," the name Loman actually sprang from a character -- who calls out the name "Lohmann" -- in the 1933 Fritz Lang film, "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse." Lohmann, a police chief, never hears the cry. "What the name really meant to me," wrote Miller, "was a terror-stricken man calling into the void for help that will never come."

Nichols says he believes in knowing the true origins of a play, but hopes this production feels fresh.

"It'll always be different when another bunch of people has a whack at it," he says. "That's one of the joys of a great play."

Except, perhaps, if you're Philip Seymour Hoffman, in previews, fine-tuning what may be the most challenging male role in American theater.

So you hold off giving interviews till the play opens, when you'll have energy to focus on things besides . . . being Willy Loman. Of course, as your friend, Mike, puts it, we're all a little bit Willy.

"We're all salesman," Nichols says. "Listen, I'm selling right now. Who are we kidding?"

 

Sampling Willy Loman

 

BY ANN SILVERBERG, ann.silverberg@newsday.com

 

When attention must be paid to Willy Loman, viewers can turn to CDs, videos and DVDs available for sale online and for free at some public libraries. Extensive (and in some cases complete) selections also are readily available on YouTube.

Here are some to check out:

 

The 1951 film of "Death of a Salesman," directed by László Benedek, starring Fredric March as Willy, Mildred Dunnock (the Broadway original) as Linda, Kevin McCarthy as Biff and Cameron Mitchell as Happy.

A 1966 CBS television production, with Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock reprising their original Broadway roles as Willy and Linda, George Segal as Biff and James Farentino as Happy.

A 1985 CBS TV adaptation starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy, Kate Reid as Linda, John Malkovich as Biff and Stephen Lang as Happy.

A 2000 Showtime production starring Brian Dennehy as Willy, Elizabeth Franz as Linda, Ron Eldard as Biff and Ted Koch as Happy.

A two-disc audio recording of a 2011 L.A. Theatre Works production starring Stacy Keach as Willy and Jane Kaczmarek as Linda.

Fans of the truly offbeat can turn the tragedy to comedy with the "SCTV" parody of Oct. 3, 1980. Catch this: Eugene Levy plays Ricardo Montalban playing Willy Loman. Andrea Martin plays Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton playing Linda. Rick Moranis plays George Carlin playing Biff and Dave Thomas plays DeForest Kelley playing Happy. And as Willy's phantom brother Ben? Tony Rosato as John Belushi.

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