Philip Seymour Hoffman On His Portrayal Of Willy Loman

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Many famous actors have played the role of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. Philip Seymour Hoffman became the fifth actor to play the harried, 63-year-old Loman on Broadway. (Steve Inskeep's conversation with Philip Seymour Hoffman initially aired on April 12, 2012 on Morning Edition).

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When we heard the news, it brought to mind Hoffman's talk on this program in 2012. He was on Broadway then, in "Death of a Salesman." He played Willy Loman, the aging father who seems to be losing his mind. Hoffman was experiencing the powerful effect the lines that that classic play have on audiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: More than any other play I've ever done, they're so vocal. You know what I mean? Not vocal in saying things, but you hear them respond a lot.

INSKEEP: People laugh out loud, they draw their breath.

HOFFMAN: Well, they laugh, yeah, but they laugh - but that's normal in a play. You hear people laugh. But they do a lot of things. You actually hear them react. You hear their disappointment, and you hear their shock. You hear their sadness. You hear it.

INSKEEP: That kind of audible dismay; that, oooh.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. You hear it. You really do. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Arthur Miller wrote "Death of a Salesman," which premiered in 1949.The salesman's wife says, "attention must be paid" to her husband's disintegrating life, and Willy Loman has commanded attention in countless productions. We talked with Philip Seymour Hoffman about the first man to play the role, Lee J. Cobb.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "DEATH OF A SALESMAN")

GEORGE SEGAL: (Biff Loman) Shake hands, will you, Dad?

LEE J. COBB: (As Willy Loman) Not my hand. May you rot in hell if you leave this house.

SEGAL: (As Biff) Exactly what is it that you want from me?

COBB: (As Willy Loman) I want you to know that on the trains and the mountains, in the valleys, wherever you go, that you cut down your life for spite. Spite is the word of your...

INSKEEP: Arthur Miller also wrote a description of the first performance of "Death of a Salesman." And when they were rehearsing, Lee J. Cobb - the great actor who was the first person to play the role - Miller describes him, you know, reading the words off a page in the early rehearsals, just kind of slouching in his chair, mumbling almost incomprehensively for days and days on end; to the point where they began to worry if they had really chosen the wrong actor. And then a moment came where Lee J. Cobb stood up and suddenly was Willy Loman. He suddenly was in that role. I wonder if that process is the process of understanding, really, where this guy is coming from.

HOFFMAN: Yeah. It's probably a mixture of a lot of things. I mean, I'm sure that's what he was doing. I'm sure, also, the story's become a bit mythical. It probably wasn't literally like that. (Laughter)

INSKEEP: Oh, you doubt that story a little bit.

HOFFMAN: No. And it was - I'm sure he did more than just mumble where you couldn't hear him for weeks on end, you know what I mean? That would've been tough, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

HOFFMAN: Two days into that, I'm sure like, Kazan would've been like, Lee, we want to at least hear it. I'm sure it was about the fact that he probably was struggling with the part, like anybody does; and then eventually, he - something started to make sense, and so he started to be a bit bolder.

INSKEEP: You know, even though this is a classic play that is set in a very specific time, it comes out now in this period of economic dislocation and economic difficulty for a lot of people, that it's hard to mention the play without thinking about the context in which you're now acting it. Do you think at all about the news value, as it were; the present-day context of this part that you're playing?

HOFFMAN: I think I did when we were rehearsing and talking about it. Economics played a huge part in it, for sure. But it's about other things. Ultimately, to me, it's about, you know, a family, the tragedy of a family. So I think that that makes it kind of classic; you know, the idea that you have a vision of what you're supposed to be or what your life is going to be or where your kids are going to be, and that that doesn't work out. I think it's going to always be something that's going to affect people and move people.

INSKEEP: This is the tragedy, or part of it, in a way. This is a guy who thinks that it's all about who you know. It's all about backslapping. And it turns out, late in his life, at the end of his life, he just doesn't have anybody to slap his back. He doesn't actually have as many friends as he...

HOFFMAN: He doesn't have it. No, he doesn't have any. But it's also the - you know, it's a very complicated thing because it's not just the backslapping. It's about being impressive. You know what I mean? And he's not a very impressive guy. The play, his parents - he never knew his parents. He's basically an orphan that met a woman, got married and had kids. So he has no connection to a past. So he has to kind of like, make it up. The empathy for this guy is huge; you know, his situation, from birth, is bad. And so he has two sons that are really kind of impressive. They actually are. They're beautiful, and they're talented; they're physically gifted.

INSKEEP: Built like Adonises, is what Loman said.

HOFFMAN: They're physically gifted, but he's not. He's none of those things. I think Willy probably was like that when he was young. But he had no sense of himself. He's never had any sense of himself. He's been cobbling together his narrative from birth.

INSKEEP: You're touching on the part that is maybe even more poignant - that this is a guy, as his story unfolds, who early in life, had an opportunity for adventure, go off to Alaska, something, and seems to have turned that aside in order to get security. He thought that selling was something that you could do all your life, you could do as an old man and support yourself. And in the end, he doesn't even get the security.

HOFFMAN: No. But it's his son. It's his son. You know, he had sons. He really did give his life for his sons. He didn't do it in a way that obviously was effective, or got what he wanted or actually nurtured his sons in a way that was going to help them. But he did.

INSKEEP: Has your job of portraying this disappointed father affected your thoughts at all when you go home to your three kids?

HOFFMAN: Well, it's a - you know, it affects your life. It's a - I really do think it's one of those plays that just seeps into, as we talk about all these aspects - I mean, it's never that simple. I mean, this play really seeps into why we're here, you know. What are we doing? Family, work, friends; you know, hopes, dreams, careers; what's happiness? What's success? What does it mean? Is it important? How do you get it? It really does seep into all those areas.

INSKEEP: When I saw the play with you performing, I mean, one of the reactions that I have - and I'm sure I'm not the only person ever to have it - is to stand up and think, gosh, I hope I'm not going in a wrong direction like that, myself.

HOFFMAN: Well, yeah, it's easy to judge Willy. You know, that's the thing. It's really easy to judge Willy. But I think ultimately, at the end of the play - yeah, I mean, really, people are very moved by this play; more than, I think, any play I've done. And, you know - and also, just to be loved, I think, is like, the thing that gets you up in the morning. And ultimately, I mean, if we wanted to say what the play's about, you know, wanting to be loved.

INSKEEP: Well, Philip Seymour Hoffman, thanks very much.

HOFFMAN: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Philip Seymour Hoffman spoke with us in 2012 about his role in "Death of a Salesman." Hoffman was found dead yesterday in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It’s NPR News.

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