Dustin Hoffman in Death of a Salesman (1985) and Robin Williams in Seize the Day (1986) (IMDB)

Why Arthur Miller and Saul Bellow’s Doomed American Heroes Are Timeless

Perpetual "losers" Willy Loman and Tommy Wilhelm bitterly struggle to survive amidst the same economic and social forces that continue to challenge their real-world counterparts today.

We know from the start of Arthur Miller’s 1949 Broadway masterpiece Death of a Salesman that something is flawed, an element is wrong, and “an air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality.” Whether that something is our hero Willy Loman’s stubborn hubris, the bitter resentment of his son’s Biff and Happy eventually exploding in the final act, or faithful wife Linda Loman’s insistence that attention must be paid, there’s something happening. Prior to an important job interview for a position he would not get, Willy’s advice to his son Biff was “Don’t whistle in the elevator.” Strains of Biff as an absolute loser lingered into the classic TV show Seinfeld, (1989-1998), when Jerry derisively referred to his usually unemployed loser friend George Costanza with that onomatopoeic name.

No matter who drifted into that hazy narcotic vapor of constant atmosphere of mid-20th century America and dreams deferred, the Loman family and their failure to make anything of themselves when we first met them is anchored by the looming behemoth of Willy Loman. He’s got a temper, and he’s filled with “…massive dreams and little cruelties.” He’s driven by useless aphorisms that tell him “Be liked and you will never want.” Everybody knows him, wherever he goes to sell his wares, but it’s gotten him nowhere. The play is filled with elements that might seem tired if only for the fact that they’re too real, too painful. Willy tells his sons about going into the jungle and coming out at 21 as a man. For his wife and children, Willy Loman draws from the playbook of an American dream where everything is guaranteed and anything is possible with a wing and a smile and charm that can draw sweet music from the deepest parts of the woods. “It’s not what you do, Ben,” Willy tells Uncle Ben in one of the play’s many dream-like fugues. “It’s who you know and the smile on your face! It’s contacts!”

There are single notes playing off in the distance everywhere in Death of a Salesman, explicitly in stage directions: “Music insinuates itself as the leaves appear… A single note jars the ear.”) Later: “Raw, sensuous music accompanies their speech.” Willy demands to his sons that he is not “a dime a dozen” kind of man. He tells a prospective employer (who will not take him on) that “there were promises made across this desk!” For Willy, the very idea that commitments might break are enough to crush him. These single notes make him erupt, and they only complicate his self-perception. He’s fat, foolish to look at, perhaps even slovenly. We come to an understanding that one of the major reasons Willy Loman fails in these final 24 hours of his life is because of this bear-like presence. His son Happy “…is tall, powerfully made. Sexuality is like a visible color on him…” His Uncle Ben has a more regal presence. Willy is just a rotund, lumpy beast.

The trouble with inhabiting such a character often includes how to calibrate the physical characteristics. More trouble comes when transferring the motivations from stage to screen. Fredric March appeared as Willy in a 1951 film version, and the performance does not seem to be expressing much physicality. Lee J. Cobb gets closer to a pent-up beast rage in the 1966 TV version. Brian Dennehy’s Willy Loman, in a 2000 TV movie, seemed to come closer to capturing the physicality of Willy Loman on the page. Philip Seymour Hoffman took the role on stage in a 2012 Mike Nichol’s version of the play, and video showed evidence of a beast-like man tramping across the confinements of the stage. The set design is dream-like, with the house as the only basis of reality and dreams and flashbacks occurring near the front of the stage. No matter who took it, the essence of Willy Loman’s tortured soul was always on display.

Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman in the 1985 Volker Schlöndorff made-for-television version of Death of a Salesman hasn’t aged as well we hoped, and the fault can be shared equally between star and his subject. Hoffman is the only notable Loman to go against physical type. He is short, small, self-contained — the opposite of all the other Willy Loman portrayals that have shuffled across stages and into recorded versions. A basis of the play depends on the reader accepting this drifting between stages of reality, levels of desperation, and cries for reconciliation that will never be heard. Our breath might be taken away when Willy cries “I am not a dime a dozen! I am Willy Loman, and you are Biff Loman!” On the other hand, it’s hard to separate the unforgettable and undeniably strong anger of this moment from the baggage Hoffman’s other characters bring to this tragic flaw of Willy Loman, his outbursts of uncontrollable anger. Such was the downside of Hoffman’s long and varied cinematic career, in 1985 and now. The 47-year-old Hoffman impressively and convincingly portrayed the 63-year-old Loman but he was, at times, overwhelmed by other characters.

That many people begin and end with Willy Loman as the prototypical 20th century American tragic American hero is understandable. He’s burdened by the restrictions of Miller’s stylized stage directions and the fact that we know from the beginning that he will die. It’s just a matter of how, why, when, and the ways his family will deal with the inevitability of his loss. In Saul Bellow’s 1956 masterpiece Seize the Day, Wilhelm Adler (AKA Tommy Wilhelm) is a tragic hero whose profoundly weak nature is probably still too much for readers today expecting logic to their flawed heroes. There has to be a reason for our salesmen to fall, but sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes, even the promise that comes with a hopeful title won’t excuse the weaknesses of a 40-something salesman trying to free himself from the lures of a quack psychologist, get the love from his father he’s never had, and find eventual relief at the sight of a passing funeral.

On its surface, both texts share some major characteristics. They both take place within the span of just one day. Both Tommy and Willy are salesmen on their last legs with no hope for anything else. Willy is probably more dignified, the head of a family unit still physically together. They live under the same roof, his adult children on the second floor and he and his wife downstairs. Full connections and mutual respect for shared history are evident, but they cannot cover strains of regret, deep empty patches of sadness, and eventual rage for scars that never healed. Tommy lives in a hotel filled with old men, including his father. He needs a loan from the old man, but otherwise (on the surface) wants nothing to do with him. Instead, Tommy finds a strange attraction towards Doctor Tamkin, a veritable snake oil salesman blatantly untrustworthy but seductive, like a snake in the Garden of Eden, espousing get rich quick schemes and self-help advice that sounds good on the surface but proves lethal at closer consideration. By the end of the story, after we follow Tommy on his trek through New York City, broke and hopeless, we can’t help share his joy at the possibility of redemption:

“The flowers and lights fused ecstatically in Wilhelm’s blind, wet eyes… poured into him where he had hidden himself in the center of a crowd by the great and happy oblivion of tears.”

Seize the Day benefits from a few ingredients that seem almost cosmically fortuitous. First and foremost, the sole film version, a 1986 TV production starring Robin Williams, was perfectly cast. He was child-like, oafish, compact, built like a stuffed-shirt, a brick. He had desperation in his eyes and a sense of child-like innocence that endeared him to the viewer:

“Wilhelm… had a speech stammer. It was not a true stammer, it was a thickness of speech… The vault of his chest was huge… Though he called himself a hippopotamus, he more nearly resembled a bear.”

Of Dr. Tamkin, Bellow makes it clear how we should feel: “With all the books he reads, how come the guy is so illiterate?” As portrayed in the film version, Jerry Stiller brought a sense of the carny salesman to the storyline. Tommy knows that Tamkin is toxic, poisonous, unable to be sincere, but he offers the only apparent option for survival. Their interactions resemble a small puppy (Tommy) hopelessly trailing after the alpha beats (Tamkin) for the miracle of actually getting something for his money.

What does it mean to embody the tragic American hero? Who remains today to tell the tale? Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman has been an inevitability since its first performance in February 1949. Its embrace of the Loman family, the flawed belligerence of its patriarch and the noble survival instinct of its matriarch, is enhanced by the potential that the sons might actually make something of their lives. Saul Bellow’s 1956 novel Seize the Day is less universal but it deserves equal respect. The same can be said for the 1986 TV film. (The title sentiment was put to more popular use by Williams three years later in Dead Poets Society, but its original form is more believable, more understandable.) These doomed heroes may not be likeable or relatable, but they’re achingly human, tragically sincere, hopelessly romantic in their dependency on the notion that something new awaits just around the corner.