Arthur Miller, who for decades was regarded as America’s greatest living playwright, died Thursday night at his home in Roxbury, Conn. at age 89. He succumbed to heart failure, his assistant, Julia Bolus, told the Associated Press. The Death of a Salesman author had recently been battling cancer and pneumonia as well as heart disease, his sister, actress Joan Copeland, told the New York Post.
Salesman, of course, with its tragic figure of failed family man and beaten-down breadwinner Willy Loman, was Miller’s best-known creation. Only his second major Broadway play, the legendary production, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Lee J. Cobb, won him a Tony and a Pulitzer Prize in 1949, when he was just 33. It illustrated the themes of personal responsibility, family relationships, and social justice that marked his entire career. The play would be restaged countless times all over the world, returning to Broadway on its 50th anniversary, when it earned Tonys for Best Revival and Best Actor for Brian Dennehy.
Other classic plays from Miller’s early period included All My Sons and The Crucible, which used the Salem witch trials as an allegory for the contemporary anti-Communist paranoia of the McCarthy era. (Not long after he wrote the play, Miller himself was called to name names of alleged Communists before Congress, refused, and was convicted of contempt, a conviction later overturned.) Decades later, Miller would refashion The Crucible into a screenplay for a 1996 film starring Daniel Day-Lewis, who went on to marry Miller’s daughter, filmmaker Rebecca Miller (Personal Velocity).
Miller’s work made him an international celebrity in the 1950s, a status compounded by his five-year marriage to Marilyn Monroe (they divorced in 1961). The screen goddess inspired him to write the screenplay to The Misfits, which turned out to be the last film for both her and Clark Gable, and later the play After the Fall.
His later plays, including The American Clock and The Ride Down Mt. Morgan, were not as well received, and while he remained celebrated in Europe, he often had trouble in recent years getting Broadway producers to stage them, even as they were mounting successful revivals of Salesman, A View From the Bridge, The Price, and The Crucible. Just last year, the still-robust and active Miller wrote another Monroe-inspired play, Finishing the Picture, an account of the difficulties of the Misfits shoot. It was staged in Chicago to mixed reviews. Still, he remained a vital presence in the theater, not just an elder statesman but a working writer, albeit one who had lived to see some of his works regarded as indisputable classics. Nicholas Hytner, who directed the film version of The Crucible, recounted for EW in 1996 something Miller had told him while the two of them were revising Miller’s script. ”McCarthy is dust, and this play is still alive!” Miller told Hytner. ”It’s the revenge of art!”