Hollywood Flashback: John Malkovich Nabbed His First Emmy for 'Death of a Salesman' in 1985

Death of a Salesman - Photofest still - H 2020

The actor, who appears to be a strong contender for a nomination this year with HBO's 'The New Pope,' was named best supporting actor for his performance opposite Dustin Hoffman in the 1985 TV movie.

John Malkovich, who would appear to be a strong contender for a nomination with HBO's The New Pope, received his first Emmy for the 1985 TV movie Death of a Salesman, as best supporting actor.

The CBS production had a stellar past. Its deepest roots were in Arthur Miller's 1949 Broadway play, which ran for 742 performances and won a Tony. The 1984 Broadway revival starred Dustin Hoffman, then 47, as aging salesman-in-crisis Willy Loman, with Malkovich, then 31, as his son Biff. The New York Times had special praise for Malkovich's Broadway debut, noting that he "gives a performance of such spellbinding effect that he becomes the evening's anchor." (Both actors and the play won Tonys.)

"I think my biggest takeaway from the TV production was working with [director] Volker Schlondorff and [cinematographer] Michael Ballhaus, who brought talents and culture from an entirely different world," says Malkovich. "They became lifelong friends."

Malkovich and Hoffman did Salesman at or on the verge of peak periods in their careers. Malkovich had been nominated for a supporting actor Oscar for 1984's Places in the Heart; Hoffman had a best actor Oscar nom for 1983 megahit Tootsie, after winning in 1980 for Kramer vs. Kramer. The CBS airing financed the Broadway production: The network put up $600,000 of the play's $850,000 cost in return for broadcast rights. Miller, who died in 2005 at 89, was supportive of the telecast.

Before it aired, it screened at New York's Museum of Broadcasting (now the Paley Center), where the playwright said that with Salesman he wanted "both an artwork and a popular thing." The TV movie certainly popularized his play. According to one estimate, 300,000 thea­tergoers saw the 1984 Broadway production and 25 million watched it on CBS. THR called the telecast "a stunning ensemble triumph." It earned 10 Emmy nominations, with acting wins for Hoffman and Malkovich. 

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.