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'Salesman' Willy Loman: A Towering Little Man

Master and man: Playwright Arthur Miller (left) with Dustin Hoffman on the <em>Salesman</em> set.
/ Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Master and man: Playwright Arthur Miller (left) with Dustin Hoffman on the Salesman set.

I think I see Willy Loman several times a week — in lobbies, coffee bars, airports.

He has a heavy case on his lap. He's wearing heavy-soled shoes, scuffed, creaking, but well-shined. He tugs at his tie, but won't loosen it. He looks down into a small book, or a screen, and taps out a number:

"Hey, Julia! How are you? Ted Jinks for Rod Holloway. Rod! Hi! Ted Jinks. The family? Good, good." And he laughs, for no apparent reason.

"Listen, Rod, I won't take much of your time. But we've made some improvements in the A-9 series. So if maybe 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 might sit back, and stare at his shoes, or into a light. Then he sits up to tap out a new number, and snap open a new smile.

"Walk in with a big laugh, don't look worried" — that's Willy's strategy. "Start with a couple of your good stories to lighten things up. It's not what you say, it's how you say it. Because personality always wins the day."

Willy Loman isn't a guy in an airport, of course. He's the title character of Arthur Miller's 1949 play Death of a Salesman, and he's our In Character profile today, the next in our series exploring famous American fictional characters.

We never really learn what Willy sells; mostly, he tries to sell himself. He is 63 and loves his sons, Biff and Happy. They find him foolish, a small-timer trapped in big dreams. Willy loves his wife, Linda, though he has sought companionship on the road.

Willy is ashamed: He's not selling things like he used to. He hears people laughing behind his back. He's disgraced that he can't pay an insurance bill because his wife had to repair their refrigerator.

He tries to hide his anxieties — and his hurts — with jokes and bluster, but his wife, Linda, has noticed that he's had a lot of driving accidents. One day, she goes into the basement, and finds a little rubber hose leading from a gas pipe.

"Willy Loman never made a lot of money," Linda tells her sons amid all this. "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!"

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.

"It's the only play I know that sends men weeping into the men's room," says director Robert Falls.

Falls staged a 1998 Death of a Salesman revival at Chicago's Goodman Theater. The production went on New York and London, and won awards in both cities. The actor Brian Dennehy played Willy Loman for more than 600 performances.

"I can tell you anecdote after anecdote after anecdote of men — men, 50-year-old pinstripe-suited men dissolved in tears and shaking," Dennehy says. "And telling me story after story about themselves, about their relationship with their sons, and so forth."

An Ordinary Man in an Extraordinary Tragedy

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 he wants to deserve the love of his wife, whom he feels he has failed.

"There's so much pain and love," says Robert Falls. "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 his valise — and [who] has sort of believed in a system that he's always felt is going to support him. And you know, there's just something very primal about that for us as Americans."

The first time Falls saw his own father cry was when he was 12, and they watched a TV version of the play together. Later, Falls played Willy in high school.

"When I was a very young person, even when I was playing Willy Loman, my empathies were always with the son," Falls says. "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 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," says Falls. "I see him as a courageous person. I see him as having a certain amount of bravery, a certain amount of grit. A certain amount of American can-do that I find admirable."

A Salesman on 'Salesman'

We asked a working salesperson to watch a DVD of the 1985 TV version of Death of a Salesman, starring Dustin Hoffman. Gregory Hamilton is 40; he 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:

"It's exciting to me," Hamilton says. "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."

And he finds Willy Loman ...?

"You know, he was eccentric," Hamilton says. "So I can identify with that. ... I was looking at his tie ... and I was like, See, yeah, he's a salesman. Because you want something ... that's gonna grab who it is you're trying to affect, to utilize and purchase what it is you're selling."

At one point in the play, Willy comes in to see the head of his company. It's the son of the man who hired him more than 30 years before, the man who promised that the company would take care of him. Willie says he knows his sales numbers are down. But "there were promises made across this desk," he says, and "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."

"That's the epitome of sales once again," Hamilton says. "Your numbers are up, and when they're down — man, you're out. ... 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 your work to bring your numbers up so you can continue to take care of your family. ... That whole segment, it just grabbed me."

Another reason Willy Loman keeps reappearing is that great American actors want to play him, the way Shakespearean stars work their way up to Hamlet.

"It's kind of easy to don his clothes, to don his character," says Brian Dennehy — because for actors, "so much is luck. So much of it is a sales job."

Director Robert Falls agrees.

"I've always felt that — that actors have very little to do but sell themselves," Falls says. "You hear these amazing stories about actors who are 65 years old ... and they've, you know, gotta walk into an audition with a 22-year-old director who says 'Tell me what you've done.' "

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 in all of theater at Willy's graveside:

Arthur Miller spoke to NPR about his most famous character in 1983, when he directed his play in Beijing.

"Willy, as misled as he is, to the very end of the play is struggling," Miller said. "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."

Gregory Hamilton says that in one important respect, Willy — and by extension Miller — got it right.

"A salesman does have to dream," Hamilton says. "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."

So maybe the next time we think we see Willy Loman, trudging through a lobby or terminal, we won't see only his frustration or failure, but his dreams and struggle.

Attention must be paid.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.