Willy Loman is one of the greatest roles in American drama, so it’s only natural that Dustin Hoffman would want to play it.
Legendary for his desire for acting challenges, the two-time Oscar winner seized such an opportunity by taking the lead in Arthur Miller’s stage classic “Death of a Salesman” in the mid-1980s … playing someone who was well beyond Hoffman’s own age at the time. Noted director Volker Schlondorff captured the Broadway performance on film, originally for a 1985 CBS telecast, and that version currently is streaming on Sundance Now.
Fans of Hoffman’s “Tootsie” — and there are legions of them — could get a brief taste from that movie’s opening montages what his Loman might be like, since one of the quick scenes showed him as a senior citizen during a rehearsal (and, in a humorous nod to Hoffman’s reputation as a unshakable perfectionist, arguing with the director about how the scene should be done). That was a relative snapshot, but “Death of a Salesman” gives the full picture, and one that earned Hoffman both an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award.
Now that it’s more than three decades later, the difference in appearance isn’t as striking for the veteran actor. Back then, though, it took some initial adjustment for a viewer to get used to his embodying such an older presence. It’s all to Hoffman’s credit that the novelty fades away after only a few minutes, and his sheer skill soon makes him easily accepted as the aging Loman, for whom fantasy (banded largely on memories of his past) and reality are merging to an ever greater degree.
Wife Linda (played by Kate Reid) and sons Biff and Happy (John Malkovich, who also won an Emmy here, and Stephen Lang) are greatly troubled by Willy’s steadily deteriorating condition, which isn’t helped by his being a traveling salesman who has to spend many hours and miles on the road. Family conversations of all sorts result over the course of the story, some of the most memorable ones filled with emotional fury that the expert cast delivers powerfully and brilliantly.
“Death of a Salesman” also was put on film and television both before and after the Hoffman version, including a 1966 rendering that starred Lee J. Cobb — who originated the part on Broadway and is deemed by many to be the definitive Loman — and also was broadcast by CBS. Hoffman’s take stands up very well against any others, and it always should remain fascinating to watch how he handled a legendary role he was determined to tackle before his logical time for it.