With Wendell as Willy, there’s no need for salesmanship
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FIRST PERSON

With Wendell as Willy, there’s no need for salesmanship

These actors have played Willy Loman; from left, today’s Willy, Wendell Pierce, as he was in 2007; Lee J. Cobb as Willy and Mildred Dunnock as Linda Loman in the 1966 television presentation. (Wikimedia Commons)
These actors have played Willy Loman; from left, today’s Willy, Wendell Pierce, as he was in 2007; Lee J. Cobb as Willy and Mildred Dunnock as Linda Loman in the 1966 television presentation. (Wikimedia Commons)

I recently asked my friend Marc to find tickets for my wife and me to the new mostly all-Black production of “Death of a Salesman” starring Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman.

Marc is an upstanding longtime resident of Montclair, but his heart really belongs to Broadway, and his hobby, if you can call it that, is scoring the best seats in the house for the least amount of money.

A noble artistic and financial pursuit.

Arthur Miller in 1966 (Wikimedia Commons)

Marc first came to my attention 60 years ago, when both of us were serving stints in the Army Reserve. While most of the weekend warriors were occupied with pseudo-military matters (I was company clerk) Marc would find himself an unobtrusive place (usually hiding in plain sight) and read whatever paperback he brought with him. I liked him immediately.

And, of course, Marc came through with the tickets.

We wanted a matinee, aisle seats, and main level. That’s because of my long legs, my wife’s recent knee replacement, and our tendency to be in bed by 9. To fail in such an endeavor would have been totally unthinkable to him. Even when a production is sold out or tickets seem unavailable, the theater maven finds them. He’s equally at home surfing the internet or applying good-old shoe leather in the Broadway district. He haunts box offices and knows how to charm the gatekeepers running them. Marc thinks nothing of seeing a show two or three times from different vantage points in the theater, or with different casts, or in revivals separated by a generation.

We chatted over breakfast recently and he told me why Lea Michele would succeed as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” where Beanie Feldstein disappointed (okay, she bombed) — and this before Ms. Michele stepped into the Streisand-enshrined role.

More Willys, Fredric March.

My family’s theater fervor doesn’t quite match Marc’s, but we’ve had our moments. Grandpa initiated the tradition soon after arriving from Ukraine in 1903. The Yiddish houses on the Lower East Side exerted a powerful grip on new immigrants, and I think he took as much advantage as he could. I can’t say for certain if he saw the Thomashefskys, the Adlers, Paul Muni, or Molly Picon perform, but I know that in later years he attended shows featuring the Rockettes in Radio City, with or without grandchildren in tow.

My parents also felt the tug of theater. Minnie and Stuart Lazarus became regulars in the 1920s, when good seats went for a few bucks, and they continued this pleasurable pursuit through the 1970s. Over decades, they amassed a trove of Playbill magazines, which I donated to the Newark Public Library after their passing with the help of my former Star-Ledger colleague, drama critic Bette Spero. Mom suffered from a heart condition but did achieve a Broadway-worthy exit of sorts, when, despite feeling ill, she insisted on attending a Saturday matinee, climbed to the balcony, and suffered a fatal coronary that night.

Mom and Dad witnessed dramaturgy in a continuum from Eugene O’Neill, Sidney Kingsley, and Elmer Rice on through Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Edward Albee. And the musicals they enjoyed matured from June/moon silliness to the extravagance of the Ziegfeld Follies, the polish and cleverness of Rdogers and Hart, the social messaging and soul-stirring of Kern and Hammerstein, the sophistication of Cole Porter, and the complete reordering of the genre by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and then Sondheim and Bernstein. Season this creative ferment with dollops of Lerner and Loewe, add generous portions of Kander and Ebb, stir the mixture with Graham and Robbins and, voila, the ingredients for Broadway’s Golden Age.

Rod Steiger (John Mathew Smith)

Oh, and did I forget to mention the performers they witnessed? Truly a marquee roster, and in no particular order to avoid billing squabbles: Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Rita Moreno, Jason Robards, Lorette Taylor, Helen Hayes, Julie Harris, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontaine, Rex Harrison, Geraldine Page, Richard Burton, Gertrude Lawrence, Marlon Brando, Rosemarie Harris, Eli Wallach, Patti LuPone, Judith Anderson, Tallulah Bankhead, Zero Mostel, Angela Lansbury, and Roz Russell.

Of course, I’ve provably left your favorite off the list. My apologies. And that oversight brings me to Lee J. Cobb. (I know. This is not a smooth segue.) I choose this top-tier though not wildly appreciated actor with the voice of low-grit sandpaper and the perpetual scowl of dyspepsia because he was my first Willy — Loman that is. Cobb, who suffered through the postwar communist witch hunts and Hollywood blacklists, originated the role on Broadway in 1949 and reprised it in a groundbreaking TV special in the mid-1950s, where I first saw it. Audiences may be more familiar with him as labor racketeer Jonny Friendly in “On the Waterfront” or as the holdout juror in “12 Angry Men.” Going further back, Cobb played William Holden’s father in “Golden Boy” — even though he was younger than the star of the Clifford Odets play.

Since then, I’ve tried to catch as many actors as possible portraying Willy, both on stage and on film or TV. Some people enjoy the round-robin of attending ball games at every Major League stadium; I prefer the less peripatetic, more armchair-oriented sport of watching Loman disintegrate from a fixed point. That’s because Willy represents my first encounter with the concept of failure, of values and beliefs undermined, of the aging process sapping the joy from living and loved ones. I was just post-bar mitzvah when I saw Cobb enter the set and put down those salesman’s display cases with the weight of the world on his stooped shoulders. Up to that point, I had never felt anything but optimism and buoyancy.

Dustin Hoffman (Garry Knight)

My reaction was visceral. The shattered specimen on stage upended my teen notions of upward mobility that I thought were baked into in the postwar American Dream.

Consider the roster of actors who have since tackled the role: On Broadway, Cobb, Albert Dekker, Gene Lockhart, George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and now Wendell Pierce. On film or TV, Fredric March, Cobb, Rod Steiger, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Mitchell, and Dennehy. Countless others have ventured a Willy in regional theater and amateur productions. Years ago, the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn mounted a “Salesman” starring Ralph Waite of TV’s “Waltons” fame. Waite, also a political activist, was running against Sonny Bono (Cher’s lesser half) for a House seat in California. Along with Willy’s bags, he had his own packed for the red-eye flight back to the Coast immediately after the curtain came down. He eventually lost the race but won over the audience that night with a polished, unhurried performance.

You can debate Willy’s level of dysfunction and delusion, as has been done countless times by academics, critics, and audiences. Rather than dwell on March’s more unhinged interpretation, as opposed to Cobb’s seething, snarling despair, I think it just as remarkable to comment on the physical disparities different actors brought to the role. The Mutt and Jeff of it is best expressed through Dustin Hoffman and Dennehy. I was skeptical when Hoffman was announced as Willy, but he played Loman like a bantamweight reeling on the ropes, and he succeeded in a scrappy, brash sort of way, exceeding my expectations. The bulky, hulking Dennehy managed to project physical contraction as his world collapsed about him, and he did it delicately, like a football lineman approaching the ballet barre. My one regret was not seeing George C. Scott as “a man out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.” It must have taken an inspired stretch and then some for this decidedly alpha male to dwell in the shallowness and hollowed-out shell of the character. I also count myself fortunate to have caught Philip Seymour Hoffman’s brooding, edgy performance as Willy, just months before his tragic death from drugs.

Now to Wendell Pierce.

TV viewers remember him as Detective Bunk Moreland from “The Wire” and trombonist Antoine Batiste in “Treme.” Even with extensive movie and TV credits, Pierce calls Willy his dream role. Critics in London, where the revival premiered, and New York bestowed glowing reviews on the production. The script remains true to playwright Arthur Miller’s original, except for a reference to the segregated University of Virginia being changed to U.C.L.A. Although Miller was Jewish, like Cobb and Dustin Hoffman, Willy is so much an Everyman that the casting of Pierce seems a natural evolution rather than a sop to diversity. For me, Willy represents the very antithesis of Jewish values, especially in his treatment of his wife, Linda, and their sons, Biff and Happy. His self-destructive strivings to be liked and popular at any cost costs him everything. Yet Linda, who co-inhabits his morbidity while silently suffering his infidelities and trying to keep the family intact, still calls her Willy “a lonely little boat looking for a harbor.”

My wife and I will see “Salesman” in December. Respect must be shown.

Jonathan E. Lazarus of West Orange is a former news editor of the Star-Ledger and a copy editor for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News.

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