Dustin Hoffman has not made a motion picture since the instantly classic "Tootsie" in 1982. He gave the next three years of his life to the stage instead, starring in a revival of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman," playing to virtually sold-out houses each night, earning the kind of acclaim performers dream of and extending his reputation as an actor of range, depth and intensity.
The production of "Death of a Salesman" has now been filmed for CBS, which funded the revival on stage (for $750,000) with eventual television in mind. The film, directed by Volker Schlondorff ("The Tin Drum"), is scheduled to be shown on the network Sept. 15.
Hoffman performed the role of Willy Loman on stage some 250 times, in Chicago, Washington and two runs in New York. "That was just about the right number of rehearsals before doing the film," he said with a rather mischievous grin a few days ago. His reputation as a zealous perfectionist is an item of legend in the film world, as he obviously knows, and tales of open warfare between star and director during the making of "Tootsie" were widespread in the press. "No fights this time," Hoffman says. "Everybody got along."
Hoffman, born and raised in Los Angeles, was recently back in town vacationing with his wife Lisa and their three young children, Jake, 4, Rebecca, 2, and Max, 9 months. (He has daughters Karina, 19, and Jenna, 15, from his first marriage.) Home is now rural Connecticut, where the co-exurbanites include William Styron and Arthur Miller, who lives just around the hill from Hoffman.
"I jog past the house where Arthur wrote 'Death of a Salesman,' " Hoffman says.
Two years ago, Hoffman and Miller met just as Hoffman was finishing a personal appearance tour in behalf of "Tootsie" and Miller had returned from overseeing a production of "Salesman" in China.
"What are you going to do now?" Miller asked.
"I want to do a play, now that I've got a big hit," Hoffman said.
"I don't suppose you want to do 'Salesman'?" Miller said.
"What part?" Hoffman wanted to know.
Like most serious actors, Hoffman knew Miller's work, and "Death of a Salesman" in particular, as well he knew his family history. He had done scenes in classes, read annotated copies in the New York Public Library when he wasn't waiting on tables and had played Bernard on a recording when he was 24, as Miller knew, and he did wonder briefly if that was the part Miller had in mind.
But it was Willy whom Miller wanted him to play. Hoffman's first reaction was that, at 45, he was too young to play Willy Loman. Miller pointed out that although Lee J. Cobb looked older, he was in fact only 37 when he created the role. And the Loman of Miller's initial concept was a small man, nearer to Hoffman's build than Cobb's.
"The original line in the play was, 'I'm short. . . . People call me Shrimp.' Cobb changed it to 'I'm fat. . . . People call me Walrus.' "
"Let's talk," Hoffman told Miller.
Hoffman had never seen Cobb play Loman, but he knew him and had heard him rehearse for a radio version. "It remains one of the great theatrical experiences of my life. He was like a rock by Rodin."
"Death of a Salesman" is a play for which Hoffman feels a particular empathy. His father was a furniture salesman who worked the Southland, selling to Barker Bros. and other stores.
"Arthur said he'd never identified what Willy was selling. It didn't make any difference; what you're doing always is selling yourself, your writing, your acting. I don't care what anybody says, we all want to be loved. That's what Willy wanted. And we believe that if we work hard, we'll be rewarded. That's what we say as Americans; that's the American belief. I asked Arthur once, 'Who's Willy's hero?,' and he said, instantly, Harry Truman. He \o7 knew\f7 Willy, knew everything about him when he wrote him. It was like a visitation. He would say, 'Tell me what to write, Willy.' He wrote the play in only six weeks at the age of 32.
"What Arthur loves about Willy is that he's a great American--he loves this country, and he sees the great aspect of it. It's the dark side that finally hurt him. The critics complained you couldn't do a tragedy about a common man, but you could, and Arthur did."
Hoffman told Miller, "Let's cast it impeccably; we're not doing it for the money." They saw 500 actors in three months, Hoffman said, and were stymied longest trying to find the man to play Willy's son Biff.
"We agreed he was the linchpin. We said, Jeez, if only Monty Clift would walk in. You need a football player but who's a poet, too." Then they heard about a young Chicago actor who had played in "True West." His agent reported he was unavailable, making a film in Thailand (it was "The Killing Fields").
"Then, one day, I'm reading actors at the Booth Theatre and I go out in the alley and there's a wino type leaning against the wall--sandals, dirty feet, shy, diffident, teeth missing. Somebody says, 'That's the Chicago guy.' I can't believe it. That's how Establishment I've become. Terrible.