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The Mighty Miller : PLAYWRIGHT AND PBS BRING ANOTHER CLASSIC TO THE 'AMERICAN PLAYHOUSE' SCREEN

June 10, 1990|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Excuse me," the young actor nervously asked. "Could you please autograph this?"

The balding, bespectacled man looked up from his lunch and smiled. "Sure," he told the actor, a boy not more than 12. "Put it here."

The boy put a script on the man's lap and gave him a felt pen. The man quickly scribbled Arthur Miller on a page and handed it back to him. The young fan beamed. "Thank you," he said and walked away.

The 74-year-old playwright began to chuckle ever so slightly: "That kid told me, 'I read your book, 'The Crucible.' "

Miller had flown in from his Connecticut home to observe a reading of "American Playhouse's" production of "An Enemy of the People," starring John Glover and George Grizzard, which airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on KCET.

Forty years ago, Miller adapted 19th-century Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen's all-too-relevant tale of a doctor who discovers industrial pollution in his community and is condemned by its citizens when he demands the truth be told. For the "American Playhouse" production, the locale has been switched from Norway to Maine.

Miller sat silently at the head of a large table in a rehearsal hall at Fox Studios and listened intently to the actors recite their lines. When the play was finished, Miller shut the script and sat back in his chair. He smiled at the cast. He told them he was happy with what he heard. Director Jack O'Brien interrupted the proceedings to call lunch, and the man who wrote such classics as "All My Sons," "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible" retreated to the porch outside the rehearsal hall. He made himself comfortable in a straight-back chair and took a bite of his roast beef sandwich.

"They were very good," Miller said of the cast. "They had never done that last part before. The rest of the play they have been working on, but this is their first go at it."

"Enemy of the People" marks the second time Miller and O'Brien have collaborated for "American Playhouse." Three years ago, O'Brien directed "All My Sons" to great acclaim.

"He's very good," Miller said over the din of cars roaring by on the Hollywood Freeway. "He's real interpretive and knows how to read. His 'All My Sons' was a beautiful production-better than the film version."

"Beautiful" is not the word Miller would use to describe the film versions of his work-especially "All My Sons" (1948) and "Salesman" (1951).

"In those days when there were big studios, they wanted the playwright as far away as possible," Miller said. "Clifford Odets wrote screenplays but he worked out here. I never did that. If you weren't going to do that, they didn't want the original writer around. Finally, they would send me a shooting script a couple of weeks before they were going to start and I would object."

But the studios never listened to his objections. "I think a certain amount of adaptation is required, but (what) happens in general is that the gigantic effect of scenes gets undermined because they pull the scenes apart like a sweater."

He gives high marks to the 1985 Dustin Hoffman TV version of "Salesman." "That was the play purely and simply," he said. Lee J. Cobb, who originated the Willy Loman role on Broadway when he was just in his 30s, also did a TV version of "Salesman" in 1966 which Miller admired. "Lee was a great actor," he said with a twinkle in his eyes. "Lee was old when he was 2."

Miller is working on a new play but won't divulge details. "Broadway is not a very happy place," he said. "At Lincoln Center, though, people are trying to do some interesting work. They are doing a play of mine next October, 'The Archbishop's Ceiling.' That was done at the Royal Shakespeare Company. They do a lot of my plays in England. They have theater instilled in them. It's been cultivated by those great theater companies.

"Actually," he said, "I can't complain. My work is done more now in and out of this country than ever."

But don't expect Miller to write another screenplay. His first, "The Misfits," starred his second wife, Marilyn Monroe, and Clark Gable. The moody drama failed at the box office in 1961, but has gained in reputation over the years. His second, "Everybody Wins," opened this year and was a critical and commercial disaster.

"I never liked to write screenplays," Miller said. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. You can't control them unless you are going to direct it. It could have been something, but there were too many variations which I don't like. Why waste my time?"

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