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Theater giant Miller dies

Pulitzer, Tony-winning scribe dies at 89

HOLLYWOOD — Playwright Arthur Miller, one of the giants of 20th-century American theater, died late Thursday at his home in Roxbury, Conn. He was 89.

The cause was complications from cancer and pneumonia.

Miller is often ranked with his contemporaries Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill as one of the three greatest playwrights of the 20th century. He was a major public figure in the 1940s and ’50s, a leading American intellectual and the center of controversy, actively opposing the House Un-American Activities Committee. He also made headlines by marrying Marilyn Monroe, a union that lasted five years.

He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1949 for his masterpiece, “Death of a Salesman,” and a Tony for “The Crucible.” Both have become staples of American drama. He also wrote the highly regarded dramas “All My Sons” (his first major success), “A View From the Bridge,” “After the Fall” and “The Price.” He won an Emmy for his 1980 telepic “Playing for Time.”

Though he had less success as a screenwriter, he penned “The Misfits” (1961), which provided Monroe her last — and one of her best — roles.

But Miller’s popularity waned after the mid-1960s, especially in the United States, and for many years his work found greater favor in London and other world capitals. Revivals on Broadway and TV productions, however, kept his name and reputation alive.

His writing was marked by a commitment to crucial issues in American life, particularly the family and the dissolution of the American dream by greed and corruption.

Hardscrabble start

Miller was born in Harlem to a Jewish immigrant father whose entrepreneurial ambition would later inspire “Death of a Salesman.” By Miller’s teens, the family had moved to Brooklyn, where he attended high school. At that time he was, he admitted, more interested in sports than scholarship.

Though he had seen only two plays, he decided to study drama under Kenneth T. Rowe at the U. of Michigan. While there, he won the prestigious Avery Hopwood Award for student drama writing in 1936.

He graduated in 1938 and was employed as a writer in the Federal Theater Project, which closed shop before any of Miller’s work could be mounted; he went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1940, he married Mary Grace Slattery.

Due to a football injury Miller was draft-exempt during World War II; he worked for CBS and NBC writing radio dramas for “Columbia Workshop” and “Cavalcade of America.” He was hired by the producers of the film “The Story of G.I. Joe” to tour military camps and gather material, little of which was used in the film. But he used the experience as the basis for a nonfiction book, “Situation Normal,” published in 1944.

In 1946, Miller’s first and only novel, “Focus,” dealing with anti-Semitism, was published.

His Broadway bow came in 1944 with “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” but the drama closed after four performances. (The Roundabout Theater Company revived the play, to much acclaim, on Broadway in 2002.) Discouraged, he decided to write one more play, and if it failed, to give up playwriting. The result was “All My Sons,” which bore what would become Miller’s trademarks: struggles between family members, betrayals and thwarted attempts at redemption.

Opening on Broadway in 1947, it ran 300 performances and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. It was his first taste of real success, and he made the most of it.

His next play, “Death of a Salesman,” took Miller only six weeks to write. Under the direction of Elia Kazan and starring Lee J. Cobb, the production opened to widespread acclaim Feb. 10, 1949.

Variety‘s Hobe Morrison called it “an unforgettable emotional experience” and added, “Everything about (it) seems perfect.”

Besides the Drama Critics award in New York, Miller took home a Pulitzer, and the play ran on Broadway for almost two years. In 1951, Fredric March starred in the film version.

“Salesman” has rarely been offstage around the world. It was revived on Broadway more than once. The most famous engagement, starring Dustin Hoffman in the 1980s, was taped for television. A 1999 staging with Brian Dennehy won four Tonys, including play revival.

Repelled by the red scares of the time, Miller next adapted Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” then turned to the Salem witch trials for “The Crucible.” The drama, which preemed on Broadway in 1953, was a not-so-thinly veiled indictment of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s hunt for communists.

Private matters

Miller made no secret of the play’s attack on HUAC and what he referred to as “the notion that conscience was no longer a private matter but one of state administration.”

He was brought before the committee in 1956 in what he regarded as a last-ditch effort for HUAC to salvage what was left of its reputation.

He had divorced his wife that year in order to marry Monroe, and the committee skedded his appearance just before the wedding ceremony, aiming to generate maximum publicity and humiliate Miller.

He was asked to testify about a communist conspiracy to misuse U.S. passports and willingly answered all questions about himself, but refused to divulge the names of allegedly communist writers he’d met at five or six Communist Party meetings he attended in 1947. He was charged with contempt of Congress and convicted in May 1957.

His case became a cause celebre and John Steinbeck wrote a passionate defense of him in the June 1957 edition of Esquire. Miller appealed and the conviction was overturned in August 1958.

Out of fashion

He turned his attention to the screen, writing “The Misfits,” which starred Monroe. But their tortured five-year union ended before the film’s 1961 preem, and Monroe died in August 1962. “The Misfits” turned out to be the last film for Monroe’s co-star, Clark Gable, as well.

Miller’s 1956 play “A View From the Bridge,” a story of immigrants that was modeled on classic Greek tragedy, was made into a successful film in 1962.

Miller returned to the stage with his 1964 play “After the Fall,” which mined his relationship with Monroe.

Miller insisted that the play, produced at Lincoln Center, directed by Kazan and starring Barbara Loden as a troubled actress, was not about his marriage to Monroe and his HUAC episode, but the parallels are undeniable. Play received mixed reviews in the U.S., though it fared much better overseas.

Kazan also directed Miller’s “Incident at Vichy” that same year, a play about Jews in occupied France in 1942. It brought Miller his best reviews in many years.

But the climate on Broadway was changing. What little serious drama was being produced was coming from new voices such as England’s Harold Pinter and the more daringly experimental Edward Albee. Miller’s realistic family dramas fell out of fashion in the U.S.

After the breakup of his marriage to Monroe, Miller married photographer Inge Morath. The two collaborated on the travel book “In Russia,” which was published in 1969.

Also in 1969, “The Price,” another family drama, debuted on Broadway. Reviews were positive, but the play was a victim of the times with interest in social upheaval and political problems overwhelming dramas of a more personal nature. It ran just a week.

“The Creation of the World and Other Business” in 1972 received hostile notices.

For the better part of a decade, Miller’s reputation grew anyway, as productions of his earlier works were mounted around the world. A 1983 Beijing production of “Death of a Salesman” was a monumental success and spawned another book by Miller: “Salesman in Beijing.”

He also had a great success in television with “Playing for Time” in 1980, which won four Emmys, including a writing kudo for Miller.

Late renaissance

But he was virtually absent from the Broadway stage. When his Depression-era “The American Clock” bowed on Broadway in 1982 it was quickly dismissed.

The 1984 revival of “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway, starring Hoffman and John Malkovich, resuscitated Miller’s reputation Stateside, as did its subsequent TV adaptation.

In 1986, Roy Dotrice starred Off Broadway in Miller’s adaptation of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” which was well received, as was its TV version in 1990 starring John Glover.

In 1987, Miller published his autobiography, “Timebends.” As he told an interviewer at the time, as a writer “you’re always trying to do something better, something really good. The frustration is sometimes interrupted by a few moments of great pleasure at a play you know is complete and will not collapse.”

He tried his hand at screenwriting again in 1990 with “Everybody Wins,” directed by Karel Reisz, but the film was barely released despite a cast that included Nick Nolte and Debra Winger.

In his later years, Miller underwent a renaissance with several lauded productions of his most important plays, a film version of “The Crucible” and revivals of even his lesser-known works. His last new play to be produced on Broadway was “The Ride Down Mt. Morgan,” which opened in 2000.

But Miller persevered with one-acts — “The Last Yankee,” “I Can’t Remember Anything” (both with Joseph Chaikin), “Elegy for a Lady” — and full-length play “Broken Glass,” which had a brief run on Broadway in 1994 and won the 1995 Olivier Award.

His most recent play, “Finishing the Picture,” about the making of “The Misfits,” had its world premiere last fall at Chicago’s Goodman Theater.

In addition to the Tony, Pulitzer and Emmy, Miller’s plaudits over his long life include the Kennedy Center Honors, the Gold Medal for Drama from the National Institute for Arts & Letters and an Oscar nom for the 1996 film version of “The Crucible.” In 2002, he became the first U.S. writer to receive Spain’s Principe de Asturias Prize for Literature.

Upon Miller’s death, Albee made the following statement: “About a year ago Arthur Miller paid me a great compliment. He said that my plays were ‘necessary.’ I will go one step further and say that Arthur’s plays are ‘essential.’ Arthur and I marched together several times to protest repressive governments. His work teaches us a lot about how to fight evil.”

Miller’s wife, Morath, died in 2002. He is survived by a daughter and son from his first marriage, and daughter Rebecca, an actress-writer-director, from his marriage to Morath.

Broadway’s marquee lights were dimmed at 8 p.m. Friday in observance of Miller’s death.

(Richard Natale and Robert Hofler contributed to this report.)

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