Tremendous and thrilling and eloquently sorrowful, the new CBS production of Arthur Miller's play "Death of a Salesman," Sunday night at 8 on Channel 9, surmounts what would seem a rather formidable hurdle: the miscasting of Dustin Hoffman as rumpled American icon Willy Loman, the center and broken heart of the tragedy. Hoffman accomplishes another remarkable technical display that nevertheless fails to jell as an up-from-the-gut performance.
However, Hoffman was not only the star but apparently the moving force behind this production, and so he deserves great credit for bringing the project to fruition. Besides, not even the world's greatest teacher of acting could likely find an actual, identifiable flaw in his work. In some ways, Hoffman's struggle to fill a role for which he is ill-suited parallels poor, discarded Willy's stubborn salesman's dreams of a half-baked kind of glory, the dreams that make this play a classic of 20th-century theater.
Watching Hoffman remains fascinating, if finally unsatisfying. But there are other glories to this production so formidable they make it the closest thing to definitive. Specifically, John Malkovich as the self-tortured Loman son Biff, and Kate Reid as Willy's wife, have moments of spellbinding impact. On a more superficial level, but adding to the overall luster, are the art direction of John Kasarda and the production design of Tony Walton. It is impossible to ignore their contributions. The period (late '40s), stylized sets are among the most elegantly artful ever designed for a television play, and all is beautifully photographed by Michael Ballhaus.
In the first hour of the three-hour film, director Volker Schlondorff ("The Tin Drum") seems to be too aggressively cinematizing the play. Willy drifts in and out of flashback along too-sylvan streams of consciousness. But as the characters and the themes take hold, Schlondorff retreats to less trickery. And by the end of the play, it seems that everything has fallen logically into place . It is extremely unlikely that there will be a more profoundly moving dramatic production on television in the coming season than this immaculately crafted preseason bequest.
Malkovich was hailed for his work in the stage version of the revival as well. The consuming fire and agonized tension in his performance are galvanizing from his first seconds on the screen, even though, in his earliest scene, he can barely be seen. Curiously, but then effectively, too, the filmmakers have made Biff and brother Happy's (Stephen Lang, also achingly right) room look like a scene from some gloomy piece of German Expressionism.
Such choices may strike purists as distracting, and yet they help fuse the whole into a compelling mixture of theater, film and television. This "Death of a Salesman" works as all three, and on that even more important level of trenchant human experience. Willy lives again. Willy dies again. Willy shleps his salesman's sample cases and struts and frets his unforgettable hours upon the stage once more.
Attention must be paid to such a man, as Mrs. Loman says in the play's most famous speech, and here, as at some other points, Schlondorff undercuts the dialogue by editing in reaction shots from other characters when they are not needed. Yet for the most part his approach seems intuitively assured. Even interrupted, Reid makes the speech more than famous; there is not an instant of mere recitation anywhere in the play. It gets a passionate, rich reading, and in its final moments of confrontation, breaks through all the natural barriers to overwhelm as only the best literature can.
Malkovich and Reid and Hoffman are further supported by Charles Durning as Charley, whose merry affluence confounds and terrorizes Willy Loman, and Louis Zorich as the beckoning, white-suited apparition called "Ben," who will lure Willy to that one last appointment. Alex North, one of the great composers of Hollywood, wrote an unobtrusively sensitive score that poignantly interpolates such faded pop tunes as "Memories of You" and "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams." Willy Loman's troubles are too big to wrap except in the wildest of dreams, and this new production of "Salesman" seems destined to persist in the memory as both good dreams and bad dreams can.
Miller's play is obviously about coming to terms. It is also about the natural animosities between fathers and sons, and one admirable aspect of Hoffman's performance derives from the fact that a relatively young man cast as the 60-year-old Willy is bound to end up, at least in part, playing his own father. What can't quite be exorcised is the ghost of Lee J. Cobb, who played Willy on Broadway and in an abridged CBS version, televised in color on April 17, 1966.
Even so, this "Death of a Salesman" is going to stand as a monument in modern television, the kind of civilized prestige production that is a rarity now, even on once-grand CBS. Prestige productions have largely fallen victim to TV's love affair with the bottom line. Each time Willy Loman passes this way, it seems, he takes something else with him.