Memories of Arthur Miller: Take-Out, TV and Olivier

Perhaps we all felt we knew Arthur Miller, for to know a man’s plays is to be on friendly terms with the man. I wouldn’t pretend to have known Miller personally, but we met a number of times and talked by phone, and each time I was left with a pleasurable insight into him.

For an American icon, he was particularly unpretentious and human. A while ago, I was asked along to a dinner given by an old friend of his who lived in two chaotic rooms of the Chelsea Hotel. “Beautiful take-out,” he said, teasing the host, who couldn’t cook to save his life. The take-out wasn’t so hot either. Miller was easy to talk to, like an elderly uncle. He looked pleased when I mentioned I’d just seen a fine revival of All My Sons.

“Yeah, I enjoyed it, too,” he said unself-consciously.

Then I told him what happened during the intermission. A middle-aged man sitting next to me told me how much he liked the show and began to study his Playbill intently. At length, he looked up and said, “I didn’t know Arthur Miller wrote Death of a Salesman.”

I thought Miller would bust a gut, he was laughing so much. At the same time, he was thrilled. Here was a man-an ordinary man-who was going to the theater to see a play, and he was just giving his honest response. The man was glad to be there, too.

There was nothing elitist about Arthur Miller or his plays. He was influenced by Ibsen and the Greeks, but he wrote from the gut, unafraid of the pull of honest emotion expressed by so-called ordinary folk. It’s why we could connect with his great dramas, for all family wars and disappointments and yearnings are universal. Willy Loman is a “low man”-not a god or king, but Everyman.

Miller kept a carpentry shop at his home in Litchfield County where he made simple and workmanlike tables and chairs for the house, craftsmanlike and undecorative like his plays. He was a tall and famously handsome man, and his huge hands looked as if they could smash a typewriter in two. His modest writing studio was isolated in the surrounding grounds of the house. The room was virtually barren, with cheap linoleum on the floors, no pictures on the walls, no telephone. At the time, he worked at a desk he’d made and wrote on a 30-year-old typewriter.

His Roxbury, Conn., home, however, was more of an estate, with at least 350 acres: Miller was almost certainly the wealthiest playwright of our time (next to Neil Simon). Interviewing him a few years ago for a Vanity Fair piece, I assumed that the published play version of Death of a Salesman must have been his biggest seller, but he corrected me: It was The Crucible, his moral parable of the McCarthy witchhunts that became a universal tragedy of fanaticism and intolerance.

There had been different publishers of The Crucible since 1953, however, and he didn’t know exactly how many copies of it had been sold. Would I try to find out for him? So the researchers at the magazine got to work on the play’s tangled publishing history, and they came up with the staggering number of four and half million. “You live and learn,” said Miller, impressed.

I couldn’t resist adding that if he earned a dollar a copy, by my reckoning that made it well over two million dollars for just one published version of his plays.

“Well, someone’s got to make it,” he replied.

His plays remained popular in England, even though he long ago became unfashionable in America. He put it down to the commercial independence of nonprofit theaters in England like the National and bitterly regretted that there’s no real equivalent system here. “But who gives a goddamn about fashion?” he protested when I mentioned the subject. “The only test of a play does not belong to fashion. The only test should be, ‘Do I listen to this playwright or not? Does his play move me?'”

But he did give a goddamn, of course. In the punishing world of theater, great dramatists often have a cluster of early, successful work that isn’t equaled in later years. Yet Miller never stopped writing! Theater was his public forum. Until the end, until well into his 80’s, he still had things to say, and would not be silenced.

Laurence Olivier had a lot to thank him for. It was Miller who led the unlikely way to Olivier, the greatest classical actor of the 20th century, playing his most memorable modern stage role, the seedy, failed comedian Archie Rice in John Osborne’s The Entertainer.

In July 1957, Miller accompanied his wife, Marilyn Monroe, to London, where she was filming the period comedy about a breathy innocent abroad, The Prince and the Showgir l, directed by her co-star, Olivier. Welcoming Miller-nicknamed “Mr. Monroe” and “Marilyn’s Boy” by the British press-Olivier asked which plays he was interested in seeing. Miller named Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which had just opened at the Royal Court, because the title intrigued him.

To his surprise, however, Olivier advised him to pick something else-dismissing the breakthrough social drama he’d already seen with “It’s just a travesty on England.” It made Miller even keener to see it. Tickets were quickly arranged for the following night, and Olivier turned up unexpectedly to see the play a second time with him. He was stunned when Miller found Look Back in Anger a revelation-the first modern English play of the period, he said subsequently, to speak to him.

Anxious to grasp its significance, Olivier asked him twice-during the intermission, and again at the end-why he thought the play was so wonderful. Then they went backstage to meet the snarling 25-year-old Osborne. “Do you suppose you could write something for me?” a smiling Olivier asked him cravenly. According to Miller, Olivier was laying on the charm so much he could have convinced anyone to buy a car without wheels from him for $20,000.

Osborne’s next play was The Entertainer, and the rest, thanks to Arthur Miller’s role as the go-between, really is history.

Ten years ago, he was back at the Royal Court to see a new play with a friend of his, the London producer Robert Fox. (It’s best, I guess, if we don’t name the writer of the play.) Within a few minutes, however, Fox could hear Miller groaning to himself and shifting restlessly in his seat.

“Are you all right, Arthur?” he asked him as they were both taking a leak during intermission.

“No, I’m not,” Miller replied feistily. “This is crap! Let’s go.”

Aware that members of the audience had recognized him, Fox suggested that perhaps he ought to stay for the second act

“It’s crap and we’re going!” Miller insisted, heading for the exit. “If we’re not enjoying ourselves, why stay? Life’s too short. I’m seventy-nine!”

For the disappointed theatergoer, life is always too short.

Lastly, this story Miller told me when I first met him that summer day in Connecticut all those years ago. There was a lake on his property, and as he took a gentle swim in it, he mentioned a TV soap opera that his sister, the actress Joan Copeland, had once starred in. Therein lies a tale and a Miller moral.

The character his sister played was killed off. Miller told me that his sister played the role of Ethel, who unexpectedly starts to die from an incurable disease. But when it dawned on the viewers what was happening, the TV station received thousands of letters in protest. Ethel must stay! But the die was cast, and they killed off Ethel just the same.

Then they thought up a bright idea. After a decent pause, Miller’s sister returned to the soap opera as Ethel’s long-lost twin from South Africa. But whereas Ethel had been a lovable character, her twin sister wasn’t. So the protest letters poured in again. Ethel would never have a twin sister like this! The twin must go! So they killed her off.

“I hope this teaches us all a lesson,” said Arthur Miller. “Never mess around with a good thing.”

Then he swam off in the lake, at a determined, even pace.