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Playwright Arthur Miller Dies

Arthur Miller in 2002.
AP
Arthur Miller, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose most famous fictional creation, Willy Loman in "Death of a Salesman," came to symbolize the American Dream gone awry, has died. He was 89.

Miller, who had been hailed as America's greatest living playwright, died Thursday night at his home in Roxbury of heart failure, his assistant, Julia Bolus, said Friday. His family was at his bedside, she said.

"He was at his death the greatest living playwright, and he's one of the four great American playwrights of the 20th Century," New York Post theater critic Clive Barnes told CBS Radio News. "He brought a new sense of realism to the American theater, not the simple realism that has come before, which was almost cinematic but rather a deeper sense of what it was like to be an American."

His plays, with their strong emphasis on family, morality and personal responsibility, spoke to the growing fragmentation of American society.

"A lot of my work goes to the center of where we belong — if there is any root to life — because nowadays the family is broken up, and people don't live in the same place for very long," Miller said in a 1988 interview.

"Dislocation, maybe, is part of our uneasiness. It implants the feeling that nothing is really permanent."

Miller's career was marked by early success. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for "Death of a Salesman" in 1949, when he was just 33 years old.

His marriage to Marilyn Monroe in 1956 further catapulted the playwright to fame, though that was publicity he said he never pursued.

"The whole concept of that marriage, the Beauty and the Brain, it made him into a sort of icon in a way that he was never before," said Barnes.

"Death of a Salesman," which took Miller only six weeks to write, earned rave reviews when it opened on Broadway in February 1949, directed by Elia Kazan.

The story of Willy Loman, a man destroyed by his own stubborn belief in the glory of American capitalism and the redemptive power of success, was made into a movie and staged all over the world.

"I couldn't have predicted that a work like `Death of a Salesman' would take on the proportions it has," Miller said in 1988. "Originally, it was a literal play about a literal salesman, but it has become a bit of a myth, not only here but in many other parts of the world."

In 1999, 50 years after it won the Tony Award as best play, "Death of a Salesman" won the Tony for best revival of the Broadway season. The show also won the top acting prize for Brian Dennehy, who played Loman.

Miller, then 83, received a lifetime achievement award.

"Just being around to receive it is a pleasure," he joked to the audience during the awards ceremony.

Miller won the New York Drama Critics' Circle's best play award twice in the 1940s, for "All My Sons" in 1947 and for "Death of a Salesman." In 1953, he received a Tony Award for "The Crucible," a play about mass hysteria during the Salem witch trials that was inspired by the repressive political environment of McCarthyism.

That play, still read by thousands of American high-school students each year, is Miller's most frequently performed work.

Miller and Monroe divorced after five years and in 1962 he married his third wife, photographer Inge Morath. That same year, Monroe committed suicide. Miller wrote the screenplay for the Monroe film "The Misfits," which came out in 1960, and reflected on their relationship in his 1963 play "After the Fall."

Miller's success, so overwhelming in the 1940s and '50s, seemed to be on the wane during the next two decades. But the 1980s brought a renewal of interest, beginning with a Broadway revival of "Death of a Salesman" starring Dustin Hoffman in 1984.

In his later years, Miller became increasingly disillusioned with Broadway.

"There is an open terror of the critics (in New York) and of losing fortunes of money," Miller said in 1991.

He returned to Broadway in 1994 with "Broken Glass," a drama about a dysfunctional family that won respectful reviews and a Tony nomination, but no big audiences.

Even in his later years, Miller continued to write.

"It is what I do," he said in a 1996 interview with The Associated Press.

"It is my art. I am better at it than I ever was. And I will do it as long as I can. When you reach a certain age you can slough off what is unnecessary and concentrate on what is. And why not?"

"Resurrection Blues" had its world premiere at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in the summer of 2002 when Miller was 86. Set in an unnamed banana republic, the satire dealt with the possible televised execution of a revolutionary.

In recent years New York even rediscovered Miller's first Broadway play, "The Man Who Had All the Luck," which was a four-performance flop in 1944, but had a successful revival, starring Chris O'Donnell, nearly six decades later.

Last October, another new play, "Finishing the Picture," premiered at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. It was based on an episode of his marriage to Monroe.

He was born Oct. 17, 1915, Miller was one of three children in a middle-class Jewish family. His father, a manufacturer of women's coats, was hard hit by the Depression in the 1930s, and could not afford to send Miller to college when the time came.

He wrote his first plays in college, where they were awarded numerous prizes. He also published several novels and collections of short stories.

He wrote several screenplays, including "The Misfits" (1961), which became Monroe's last movie, and "Playing for Time," (1981) a controversial television movie about the women's orchestra at Auschwitz.

Miller had two children, Jane Ellen and Robert, by his first wife, Mary Slattery, and he and Morath had one daughter, Rebecca.