Hollywood Flashback: In 1985, Arthur Miller Took TV Movie 'Death of a Salesman' to TIFF

John Mahler/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Dustin Hoffman, Arthur Miller

Thirty years later, his daughter Rebecca Miller will be at TIFF with her romantic comedy 'Maggie’s Plan,' which screens Sept. 12.

When Death of a Salesman, the film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, starring Dustin Hoffmann as Willy Loman, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival 30 years ago, it was an event. "Toronto wasn’t as star-ridden as it is today; there weren’t so many red-carpet events," recalls German director Volker Schlondorff, who made his English-language debut with Salesman. "So to have Arthur Miller, Dustin Hoffman, John Malkovich [who played Loman’s son Biff], plus a few others, and myself, it was a powerful thing."

Miller, 70 when the film premiered in Toronto, was closely involved in the adaptation. "He only had one condition: Don’t change a single comma in the play," says Schlondorff. "But he was always our cheerleader, always a positive presence on set, telling funny stories about where the play came from, of his childhood growing up in Brooklyn."

There was some controversy over the inclusion of Salesman in the festival lineup because the film was not getting a theatrical release in the U.S. but would go out as a TV movie on CBS. "Dustin showed it to Warren Beatty, who said, ‘It will do well on the arthouse market, but how much will you make: $15 million, $20 million? Your last film was Tootsie, which made $150 million. People will say, "Dustin got a beating," ' " Schlondorff remembers. "So we sold it to CBS. Beatty was Dustin’s guru when it came to commercial success of a movie."

Adds Schlondorff with a laugh: "Of course, they were prepping Ishtar at the time."

The commercial breaks on CBS annoyed some critics, but Salesman went on to win three Emmys, as well as a Golden Globe for Hoffman, then 48, as the 60-year-old protagonist, a working-class father who is beaten down by the American Dream. Playing Willy Loman was, Hoffman told the Los Angeles Times, "the greatest experience of my life as an actor."

Outside the U.S., Orion Pictures released Salesman theatrically, where it did strong business. It has since become a classic, with a 100 percent critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Miller died in 2005 at 89, but his legacy lives on in the form of his daughter Rebecca Miller, who will be at TIFF this year with her romantic comedy Maggie’s Plan, which screens Sept. 12. 

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