In the Spotlight

News & Features
Your Voice
DocumentJoin the conversation with other MPR listeners in the News Forum.

DocumentE-mail this pageDocumentPrint this page
An actor's struggles provide inspiration for a play's performance
Larger view
Like Willy Loman, actor Peter Michael Goetz is also going through a personal struggle. (MPR Photo/Greta Cunningham)
It's a story of an exhausted 63-year-old man struggling to make ends meet. He's trying to make sense of his life and to regain the respect of his sons and his wife. "Death of a Salesman" is one of the most prominent plays in 20th century American theater. The actor who plays the star, Willy Loman, in the Guthrie Theater's new production has never seen the play performed on stage and is going through some of his own personal struggles.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Peter Michael Goetz says it is unbelievable that he, a 63-year-old actor, had never seen or read Arthur Miller's "Death of A Salesman" until director Joe Dowling cast him in the role.

"The only reason I can say that maybe it's good is that I've been doing so many plays all my life, I haven't seen many plays," he says. "So at least I don't come in with any preconceived notions. I was totally ignorant." Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1949. The action takes place in and around the Brooklyn house of Willy Loman, a salesman who has traveled for more than 30 years up and down the New England coast.

As the play opens Willy is under a tremendous amount of stress. He's about to lose his job. He can't pay his bills and he's consumed by his broken dreams for himself and his two sons.

Because he was initially unfamiliar with the play, Peter Michael Goetz says he is blissfully unaware of the classic performances of Willy Loman by Lee J. Cobb, Dustin Hoffman and George C. Scott. But Goetz says he immediately got the essence of the character and could easily identify with him.

"Willy is 63-years old, and Peter Michael Goetz - me - is 63-years old. Willy has two sons, ages 32 and 28-ish. I have two sons; my only children are that same age. Willy rides the New York, New Haven and Hartford train into Boston and back and forth from upper New England to sell his goods. And he drives his car hundreds of miles to sell his goods. Peter Michael Goetz used to take that train, when I lived outside of New York, into New York for my auditions. And I drive in Los Angeles now to my auditions and I don't get a lot of them and I struggle. I'm getting to the point where I'm not known anymore, and the story of Willy Loman is the story of Peter Michael Goetz right now. I don't have a single makeup kit in my dressing room. I just come in and it's me. And I can identify so much, and I think any actor can because we are salesmen trying to sell ourselves all the time and lots of times it doesn't work out well. As you get older the casting directors get younger and you know it's the same thing that Willy went through pretty much."

Peter Michael Goetz has been performing at the Guthrie Theater on and off for the past 40 years. Two seasons ago he starred in the Guthrie's production of another Arthur Miller play, "All My Sons." Goetz says the Guthrie's artistic director, Joe Dowling, has a real affinity for Miller's plays. He says Dowling has a meticulous way of shaping the playwrights words.

"We pluck out every single line of the play," he says. "Sometimes we work on one page an hour just to figure out what's going on before we even get on our feet. But we really delve into this very deeply. With two computers at the table going strongly to check on any illusions to anything else. It's very very precise kind of work we do."

In one of the most famous passages in "Death of a Salesman" Willy's wife, Linda, says "Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He was not the finest character that ever lived. But he's still a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid."

Like Willy Loman, actor Peter Michael Goetz is also going through a personal struggle. Just before coming to Minnesota to begin rehearsals, Goetz was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Goetz says he's prided himself that in the 40 years that he's been an actor he's never once missed a performance.

He decided to come and do the play at the Guthrie and to join the company in taking the play to Dublin, Ireland even though it will delay his treatment and operation.

"I'm having the operation on October 18; two days after I come home from Ireland. It's a bit of a gamble but not a big gamble because I'm in the early stages and I'm not too concerned about that. But one never knows. But I must really want to play this role," he laughs.

"I'm hopeful in all those respects but I think that has put a new little sidebar to my playing Willy and to my feeling about the profession. Because I can see that I've started as a young boy here at the Guthrie in the early '60s and now not only am I starting to see the twilight but the theater that I'm working in, I see the cracks in the walls and it will be torn down soon and I've lived a lifetime in this theater on and off through these years and I'm going through all these interesting things as I play this."

"Death of a Salesman" runs through September 19.

Respond to this story
News Headlines
Related Subjects