Mike Nichols On "Creating the Event" Called Death of a Salesman

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20 Apr 2012

Mike Nichols
Mike Nichols

Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman made an impression on a young Mike Nichols circa 1950. The director is paying homage to the classic with a new Broadway production.


An Evening With Mike Nichols and Elaine May, in which two brilliant laser wits fenced furiously for 306 performances in 1960-61, marked Mike Nichols' only sustained Broadway appearance. On Oct. 23, 1963, Barefoot in the Park took him to the other side of the footlights, where he has remained for almost a half-century, directing 20 and producing six of the Main Stem's finest. With the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" in 1966 he started varying the mix with movies and television, amassing seven Tonys, four Emmys and one Oscar, all the while making stars of Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Jonathan Pryce, Stockard Channing, Andrea McArdle, Whoopi Goldberg, Jeremy Irons and Gilda Radner. His latest are Andrew Garfield and Finn Wittrock, Broadway-bowing as the sons of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Linda Emond in his meticulous, much-cheered revival of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, now at the Barrymore Theatre. The play comes from the dark ages before "dysfunctional" was a word — 1949 — and Nichols counts it The Great American Play. When he saw it at the tender age of 18 — in close proximity to another Elia Kazan-directed, Pulitzer Prize-winning work (Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire) — the seed was planted. Now 80, Nichols takes a rare look back.

You've wanted to do Death of a Salesman for a long time. Why now, though?
Mike Nichols: It just seems to be, more and more, about right now.

You and Philip have done a film ("Charlie Wilson's War") and a play (The Seagull) together so you know he does rage and he does suicide — the perfect combo for Willy Loman. You must love working with him.
MN: Very much, as much as anyone ever. I thought he would be great in the part, as indeed he is. He does everything great. He doesn't fake it.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Death of a Salesman.
photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Some people felt Philip was too young to play Willy Loman, but actually he's six years older than Lee J. Cobb was when he originated the role.
MN: Not only that, they forget that for half the play he's exactly Philip's age. The question about that is: Which age do you want to get wrong? They're like some 15 or 20 years apart. It's so weird that people would say that. Also, show me a 60-year-old man who can do that play for two hours and 45 minutes — and survive? How old was Dennehy? [Turns out Brian Dennehy was 60-and-a-half when he opened in Salesman in 1999.]

Andrew Garfield was an unexpected choice for Biff. How did that come about?
MN: I knew — both from seeing him in "The Social Network" and from what [producer] Scott [Rudin] told me of having seen him over the years at the National Theatre and on the stage in London — that he has enormous emotional equipment. And, again, people don't understand what a quarterback is. He's exactly right for a quarterback, and if you're talking high school — again, pull yourself together.

I think you got a terrific performance from Finn Wittrock. Happy's a role that's often overlooked.
MN: Yes, he's remarkable. I saw him in the revival of The Illusion, the [Tony] Kushner play. He's two years out of Juilliard, a brilliant kid.

It was wonderful to hear Alex North's original music for Salesman again. I remember he also wrote such haunting music for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
MN: There were two reasons I wanted his music. One is that it really adds a great deal to the play itself — it's so wonderful and right for it — and the other reason was "Virginia Woolf." That was my first movie, and I liked him so much, working together. [North passed away in 1991.]

It was an unexpected theme for "Virginia Woolf." I always thought it was scored to that lazy, drunken walk George and Martha do on the way home at the beginning of the film.
MN: Well, secretly, it was about two people who fit each other and love each other. It's a love story, "Virginia Woolf" — that's the joke — and Alex knew that. Therefore, what he did added to it greatly. The score for Salesman is sort of a secret kinship with Aaron Copland and the great states of the West — things that Willy dreams of that his brother conquered — you know, "amber waves of grain." And that's all in the music — the loss of that, and Willy feeling his mistake that he didn't explore those things that Ben held out to him.

Read more about Mike Nichols' Broadway career in the Playbill Vault.  


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