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September 15, 1985|Howard Rosenberg

"DEATH OF A SALESMAN," Sunday, 8-11 p.m. (2) (8) (Illustrated on the cover)--This is scintillating, sizzling TV theater that almost melts the small screen with its white-hot acting.

Arthur Miller's pathetic Willy Loman is brought to tortuous life--and death--by Dustin Hoffman in a triumphant CBS version of Miller's stage play about a man unable to reconcile his wrecked life with his grand dreams.

Willy has universal applications, for his dreams seem imposing only in proportion to his ability to achieve them. They are the dreams of most Americans, for affluence and good fortune for himself and his family.

He wants friends and sons who like and respect him, a boss who appreciates him, customers who buy from him. He wants a car that works, a life that works.

He's a salesman, and as his friend, Charley, says, "A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory."

Yet all's gone wrong for Willy, who's survived on the road "riding on a smile and a shoeshine." He is bogged down. His sons are a disappointment, one an irresponsible playboy, the other an emotionally scarred drifter. He's tired. He's broke. And no one is smiling back anymore.

This is, in effect, a TV application of a 1984 Broadway production, with Hoffman returning to the role he revived on the stage that year. It's a devastating, knock-you-on-your-can performance.

Hoffman (seen on the cover) is a raging, confused, hallucinating, uncontrollable, weak, sad Willy. He is a sympathetic Willy because we share the pain Willy inflicts upon himself. And he is an unsympathetic Willy because we resent the pain Willy inflicts on his family. This man is no sweetheart.

A standing ovation, also, for two other members of the Broadway cast: Kate Reid as Willy's worshiping wife, Linda, and John Malkovich as Willy's tormented eldest son, Biff, driven into a wasted, nomadic life by a terrible secret that he shares with his father. Stephen Lang does good work as Willy's youngest son, Happy, as does Charles Durning as Charley.

The triumph is also director Volker Schlondorff's. His close-ups and fast cuts enrich the play as TV without being pretentious or getting in the way.

Whether "Death of a Salesman" works as well here as on the stage or as a 1951 movie with Fredric March is probably worth a footnote, but is not all that relevant. There's no doubt that the play offers different dimension on TV than in other media. In the right hands, though, it just plain works. Everywhere. Period.

Times cover photo by Steve Fontanini

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