SCOTT SIMON, host:
I think I see Willy Loman several times a week, in lobbies, coffee bars and airports. He has a heavy case; he wears heavy-soled shoes, scuffed but shined; he tugs at his tie; he's always on the phone. Hey Julia, how are you? Ted Jinks(ph) for Rod Holloway. Rod, hi. Ted Jinks. Family? Good. Listen Rod, we've made some improvements in the A-9 series, so thought maybe if I could stop by and… Oh you don't. I understand. Well, catch you next time. My love to Liz. Go Giants. Take care. He sits back to stare at his shoes or into a light. Then, he sits up to tap out a new number and snap open a new smile. Dustin Hoffman played Willy Loman in the 1985 production of "Death of a Salesman."
Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN (actor, "Death of a Salesman"): (as Willy Loman) Walk in with a big laugh. Don't look worried. Start off with a couple of your good stories to lighten things up. It's not what you say, but how you say it. Because personality always wins the day.
SIMON: Willy Loman is our In Character profile today, a series exploring famous American fictional characters. He's the title character of Arthur Miller's 1949 play, "Death of a Salesman." We never really learn what Willy sells except himself. He's 63 and loves his sons. They find him foolish, a small-timer trapped in big dreams. Willy loves his wife Linda, but has sought companionship on the road. Willy's not selling things like he used to. He hears people laughing behind his back. He's ashamed that he can't pay an insurance bill because they have to fix their refrigerator.
He tries to hide his anxieties and hurt with jokes and bluster. His wife has noticed that he's had a lot of driving accidents. One day, she goes into the basement, and finds a rubber hose leading from a gas pipe. Linda, played by Mildred Dunnock in a 1965 production, tells their sons...
Ms. MILDRED DUNNOCK (actress, "Death of a Salesman"): (as Linda) Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the papers. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid!
SIMON: Critics who saw the first performance in 1949, with Lee J. Cobb as Willy, said that when the curtain closed, they only heard silence. Then, sobbing.
Mr. ROBERT FALLS (Director): It's the only play I know that sends men weeping into the men's room.
SIMON: Bob Falls directed the 1998 revival at Chicago's Goodman Theater that went on to win awards in New York and London. Brian Dennehy played Willy Loman for more than 600 performances.
Mr. BRIAN DENNEHY (Actor): I can tell you anecdote after anecdote after anecdote of men... Men, 50-year-old pinstripe-suited men coming up to me dissolved in tears and shaking. And telling me story after story about themselves, about their relationships with their sons, and so forth. These are sophisticated people.
SIMON: Willy Loman seems an odd little character to call out such searing emotions. He isn't struggling to survive war, bigotry, or poverty - just the ordinariness of middle-class life. He doesn't want to defeat evil or save the world, just pay off his house and provide for his family. He wants his sons to love him and to deserve the love of his wife, whom he feels he has failed.
Mr. FALL: There's so much pain and love. And I should always stress that it's ultimately a play about fathers and sons; and a woman who loves her husband; and a husband who loves her, and his boys, and his country, and his business, and his car and has sort of believed in a system that he's always felt is going to support him. You know, there's just something very primal about that for us as Americans.
SIMON: The first time Bob Falls saw his own father cry was when he was 12, and they watched a TV version of the play together. Mr. Falls then played Willy in high school.
Mr. FALLS: When I was a very young person, even when I was playing Willy Loman, my empathies with the play always were about the son. Biff battling against his father, looking at sort of the B.S.-meister that Willy was, all of the crap coming out of his mouth. And I think that by the time I directed it, I was a young father with a young son, but my empathy had very much changed, and I identified with Willy.
And while there's a certain amount of foolishness to it, I also see him as a courageous person. I see him having a certain amount of bravery, a certain amount of grit. A certain amount of American can-do that I find admirable.
SIMON: We asked a working salesperson to watch the Dustin Hoffman video versions of "Death of a Salesman." Gregory Hamilton is 40 and lives in Southern California. He's sold women's clothing, lingerie, beauty products, wireless and pager service, and he says he actually likes cold calls - walking into an office without an appointment and trying to make a sale
Mr. GREGORY HAMILTON: It's exciting to me. I never know who I'm going to meet, I never know what the situation is; it's spontaneous. And when you fall into an office, you need to scout - you need to look, you need to see what's going on, you need to feel the person that you're initially talking to, whether it's the receptionist or the office manager, and you really have to win them. My smile, my demeanor. My whole ambience - I have to come across to them and win them for me as opposed to what it is I'm selling.
SIMON: Did you like Willy Loman?
Mr. HAMILTON: You know, he was eccentric.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HAMILTON: So I can identify with that. I have my times of eccentricity, believe me. I mean down to even his selection of tie. I was looking at his tie, the swirls on his tie, and I was like, See, yeah, he's a salesman. Because you want something that's stand-out, that's gonna grab who it is you're trying to affect, to utilize or purchase what it is you're selling.
SIMON: At one point in the play, Willy comes in to see the head of his company. It is the son of the man who hired him more than 30 years before and promised that the company would take care of him. Willy says he knows his sales numbers are down. But…
Mr. HOFFMAN: (as Willy Loman) There were promises made across this desk. You mustn't tell me you've got people to see. I put 34 years into this firm, Howard, and now I can't pay my insurance.
Mr. HAMILTON: I mean that's the epitome of sales, you know, once again. Your numbers are up, and when they're down — man, you're out.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (as Willy Loman) You can't eat the orange, throw the peel away. A man is not a piece of fruit. Now pay attention.
Mr. HAMILTON: It's a tough run, but you strap it up and you go out there and get in the day, and the next day, and the next day, and you make it work to bring your numbers up so that you can continue to take care of your family and do what you have to do. So that whole segment, it just grabbed me.
SIMON: Another reason that Willy Loman keeps reappearing is that great American actors want to play him, the way Shakespearean stars work their way up to Hamlet. In "Soapdish," Kevin Kline played an actor whose career hit bottom when he had to play Willy Loman at a dinner theater in Florida.
Unidentified Woman: (as character) Five minutes, Mr. Loman.
Mr. KEVIN KLINE (actor): (as Jeffrey Anderson) Don't call me Mr. Loman.
SIMON: Brian Dennehy and Bob Falls say...
Mr. Dennehy: Yeah, I think a lot of actors, it's kind of easy to don his clothes, to don his character, because so much of it is luck. So much of it is a sales job, a con job.
Mr. FALL: I've always felt that. That actors have very little to do but sell themselves. You know, you hear these amazing stories about actors who are 65 years old and they've, you know, got to walk into an audition with a 22-year-old director who says tell me what you've done.
SIMON: "Death of a Salesman" is a tragedy, not a mystery. We know it will end with Willy's death. He cracks up in his car. All the sales he made, the jokes he told - and only his sons, his wife and a neighbor come to his funeral. But that neighbor delivers one of the great speeches of theater at his graveside. Here, it's performed by Edward Andrews and salesman Gregory Hamilton.
Mr. EDWARD ANDREWS (actor): (as Charley) Willy was a salesman. And for a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life. He don't put a nut to a bolt; he don't tell you the law or give you medicine.
Mr. HAMILTON: (speaking over character's dialogue) He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.
And when they start not smiling back - that's an earthquake. and then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you're finished. Nobody dares blame this man. A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.
SIMON: Arthur Miller spoke to NPR about his most famous character when he directed his play in Beijing.
Mr. ARTHUR MILLER (Playwright): Willy, as misled as he is, to the very end of the play is struggling. It's the opposite of a passive person. He's struggling for some meaning in his life. He seizes upon what we would mostly consider the wrong meaning. But the struggle is exemplary.
Mr. HAMILTON: And he's right. A salesman does have to dream. Because you have to see something that isn't there, and you have to make it happen. You have to manifest it. And that's just you, you're out there, you're like an island. You have to have the ability to believe in yourself enough to go out there and make it happen.
SIMON: So maybe the next time we think we see a Willy Loman, trudging through a lobby or terminal, we won't see only drudgery and dread, but his dreams and struggle. Attention must be paid.
(Soundbite of music)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.