Widely beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and human rights activist Arthur Miller died of heart failure at his Roxbury, Connecticut home, on February 10, 2005—the 56th anniversary of the stage premiere of his career-making Broadway play,
DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Pulitzer-Prize winning novelist William Styron called Miller “the Abraham Lincoln of American literature,” and countless others regard
DEATH OF A SALESMAN as the most powerful work of fiction ever written in North America.
Arthur Miller was a towering figure on the American literary scene from 1947 to 1968—and is probably the most famous playwright since Shakespeare, because of his marriage to gorgeous movie megastar Marilyn Monroe. After 1968, Miller’s popularity diminished, and his later works never had the success of his earlier triumphs, but he continued to write until his death at 89. (At age 86, for instance, he saw his latest play,
RESURRECTION BLUES, produced at Minneapolis’s famed Guthrie Theater.)
Like millions around the world, I considered Arthur Miller to be a genius, and I adored both the stage versions and film or TV treatments of his greatest works:
ALL MY SONS, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, THE CRUCIBLE, A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, AFTER THE FALL and THE PRICE. Miller’s keen intelligence, great insight into character, remarkable dialogue and powerful social conscience set his work far above that of most other American writers (although I feel his massive talent is closely approached by that of sly novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr.).
My lovely/talented wife Sharon and I have also always been impressed by Arthur Miller’s lifelong commitment to human rights and freedom of expression—overcoming the vicious opposition of witch-hunters like Sen. Joe McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (H.U.A.C.) and helping improve the lot of Soviet writers. As a man and as a writer, he has always had the courage to stand up and be counted—regardless of the risks or costs.
Miller wrote movingly about a range of “important” issues, including personal responsibility, self-delusion, family and marital conflicts, municipal corruption and community persecution of people who are different. Although the families he depicted could be Jewish, Italian, Irish or something else, the truth and universality of their characters and struggles made them deeply affecting to a global audience.
Miller wrote a few screenplays, but earned an Oscar nomination for his 1996’s script of
(starring his future son-in-law Daniel Day-Lewis) and penned intelligent film and TV adaptations of Ibsen’s AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE (the former starring Steve McQueen, Bibi Andersson, and Charles Durning). Nonetheless, his reputation largely rests on the best half-dozen of his 17 plays.
In 2001, a well-made film version of Miller’s 1945 novel about anti-Semitism,
FOCUS did well with critics and won or was nominated for awards in Poland, Belgium, the U.S. and the Czech Republic. Miller also made un-credited contributions to the screenplay of Monroe’s popular 1960 romantic musical comedy
LET’S MAKE LOVE (which garnered BAFTA noms for director George Cukor and star Yves Montand), and he also wrote the screenplay for the kooky 1990 Debra Winger-Nick Nolte mystery
Miller won numerous awards over his 68-year professional writing career, including five Tonys, the Gold Medal for Drama from (and induction into) the National Institute of Arts and Letters, two Emmys and Kennedy Center Lifetime Achievement honors.
Arthur Asher Miller was born on Manhattan’s Upper West Side on October 17, 1915, to Polish-Jewish immigrants Augusta and Isidore Miller. Isidore was a shopkeeper and later a manufacturer of ladies’ coats, but his business was ruined in the Great Depression, forcing the family to move into a small frame house in Brooklyn (which became the model for the Loman home in
DEATH OF A SALESMAN).
Young Arthur played football and baseball, read adventure stories and was generally regarded as a non-intellectual. He graduated from Abraham Lincoln High in 1932, but Isidore couldn’t afford to send him to college, so he spent two years earning his University of Michigan tuition and expenses by driving trucks, singing on a local radio station, and toiling as a loader and shipping clerk at an auto parts warehouse, where, as the only Jew on the job, he first experienced anti-Semitism.
After reading Dostoyevsky's novel THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, Miller decided to become a writer. He studied journalism in Ann Arbor, worked as reporter and night editor on the U. of M. student newspaper and met Catholic coed Mary Grace Slattery, who would become his wife in 1940.
Miller wrote the play NO VILLAIN in six days during 1936, and it won the Hopwood prize. He received numerous prizes for (and local productions of) several of his student plays, while also obtaining publication of some novels and collections of short stories.
He planned to go to Spain in 1936 to fight against the usurping dictator Franco, but changed his mind at the last minute. Two years later he graduated from Michigan with a B.A. in English, and, turning down a lucrative Twentieth Century Fox screenwriting offer, returned to New York to join the Federal Theater Project.
In Gotham, Miller wrote plays, a TV series and many major radio programs. In 1941, after being exempted from military service by a football injury, he took an extra job as a ship fitter’s helper at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Three years later, Miller toured army camps to research his draft screenplay for the film THE STORY OF G.I. JOE, but withdrew from the project over creative differences with the producers. That same year, he enjoyed his first Broadway opening for THE MAN WHO HAD ALL THE LUCK, but experienced his first Broadway closing four days later. Nonetheless, that play earned the Theater Guild National Award.
In 1947, Miller’s powerful tragedy ALL MY SONS—about a war profiteer who intentionally ships defective airplane parts, and then lies to avoid blame for it—was a great success on Broadway. The fine movie of
ALL MY SONS, starring Edward G. Robinson and Burt Lancaster came out in 1948 and won two WGA awards for screenwriter Chester
Then, in 1949, Miller's DEATH OF A SALESMAN, staged by Elia Kazan, became the first play to take the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize (as well as the Donaldson, the Theater Club and many other awards). It ran for 742 performances and was the sensation of the season, garnering six Tonys—including Best Play and Best Author for Miller. The 33-year old Miller became king of the literary world for this magnificent work—which he had written in only six weeks. (A decade later, I was deeply moved by a local production of this heart-rending, deeply insightful play—in my hometown of Houston—and I was moved yet again when I caught the movie version.)
The 1951 film of DEATH OF A SALESMAN earned four Golden Globe awards and five Oscar nominations (for actors Fredric March, Mildred Dunnock and Kevin McCarthy, plus composer Alex North and cinematographer Franz Planer). The 1986 CBS TV production of
SALESMAN was nominated for 10 Emmys (including a Best Special nod for executive producer Arthur Miller), and won acting awards for Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich. Hoffman called this his “favorite acting experience.” The 2000 Showtime TV version won Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe honors for star Brian Dennehy, and Emmy and SAG noms for co-star Elizabeth Franz.
In 1950, after researching the world of longshoremen in Brooklyn’s Red Hook area, Miller wrote the screenplay for the film
THE HOOK, which dealt with corruption on the docks, but which was never produced, due to pressure on Columbia Pictures from H.U.A.C. Columbia chief Harry Cohen told Miller to change the villains from corrupt union officials to communists, so it would have a “pro-American” feel, but Miller refused.
Four years later, Cohen offered Miller the scriptwriting job on the similarly themed movie
ON THE WATERFRONT, but Miller demurred because its director, Elia Kazan, had ratted on his friends before H.U.A.C. So Kazan’s fellow informer Budd Schulberg wrote the WATERFRONT script (which earned him one of its eight Oscars). HUAC also arranged for the U.S. government to refuse Miller a passport and pressured New York City officials to withdraw permission for Miller to make a film he'd been planning about local juvenile delinquency.
Miller’s 1953 play THE CRUCIBLE
(in which hysterical harassment of Salem “witches” in 1692 stood for the McCarthy committee’s and H.U.A.C.’s persecution of suspected former communists) was another Broadway success, earning the Tony and Donaldson awards. Ever since then,
has been the most-produced play in America, becoming a standard at high schools across the land. It was twice produced on U.S. telly (starring Sean Connery/Susannah York in 1959 and George C. Scott/Tuesday Weld in 1967). The 1996 movie version, won a BAFTA for star Paul Scofield, earned a Broadcast Film Critics Association award for supporting actress Joan Allen, and garnered Oscar and BAFTA nominations for screenwriter Arthur Miller.
Miller never again reached the critical heights or stunning stage success of SALESMAN, although for two decades he continued to write fine plays that were appreciated by critics and audiences. His powerful incestuous-longshoreman tragedy
A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE (which I greatly enjoyed in Boston a decade later) ran for 149 performances in the 1955-56 Broadway season.
In 1956, Miller spent six weeks in Nevada researching cowboys for the film
THE MISFITS—and divorcing Mary Slattery. He then married superstar Marilyn Monroe, making himself a global celebrity until their unhappy 1961 divorce.
Later that year, testifying before H.U.A.C., Miller admitted attending writers meetings sponsored by the Communist Party, but he refused to name other attendees. He was cited for contempt of Congress, but the courts reversed that ruling in 1958.
Miller later explained that H.U.A.C. only sought him out because he was engaged to Monroe. “They'd been through the writers long before and they'd never touched me. But this was a great possibility for publicity. My lawyer received a message from the chairman saying that if he could have a photo taken with Marilyn, he would cancel the whole hearing. The cynicism of this thing was so total, it was asphyxiating.”
Monroe committed suicide in 1962. Miller later said of her, “she was a poet on a street corner, trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.” He captured the difficulty of their marriage in his stark drama AFTER THE FALL, which won Tonys for co-stars Jason Robards and Barbara Loden.
Arthur Miller covered the 1964 Nazi war trials in Frankfurt for the NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE and visited German death camps before writing INCIDENT AT VICHY. In 1968 he was a Eugene McCarthy delegate at the Democratic National Convention.
THE PRICE (1968) was his last big Broadway hit, running 429 performances and winning him another Tony. I saw it on the Great White Way and thought it was brilliant. A 1971 TV version was nominated for six Emmys, winning two for co-stars George C. Scott and David Burns and another for Director Fiedler Cook.
Arthur Miller was a terrific role model for any writer—or person. He added greatly to our understanding of the complexities that underlie human behavior. He once said: “Look, we're all the same. A man is a 14-room house. In the bedroom he's asleep with his intelligent wife, in the living-room he's rolling around with some bare-ass girl, in the library he's paying his taxes, in the yard he's raising tomatoes, and in the cellar he's making a bomb to blow it all up.”