Lee J. Cobb: “Like a giant moving the Rocky Mountains into position…”

Occasionally, if I need inspiration, if I need help sticking with my dreams, my plans … I take out Arthur Miller’s autobiography: Timebends.

I read it voraciously during my thesis acting project in graduate school – My project was a couple of different scenes from Miller’s play about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe: After the Fall. His passages about Marilyn, who she was, what he remembered of her, are heartbreaking. And they were very helpful to me, in terms of creating that kind of character. You could go with the cliche – the sex-bomb, the woman constantly used by men – or you could get deeper into her world, her inconsistencies, her strengths. Marilyn Monroe, after all, was a real woman, a 3-dimensional real woman. That’s what I wanted to try to portray.

One of the things Miller remembered about her was – that the famous jiggly walk of hers was completely natural. That was just how her body moved – naturally. Men (and women) happened to find it unbelievably attractive, and Monroe knew this, but it was not a “put-on”. Miller remembers taking a walk with her on the beach, and at one point turning around to look back at their footprints in the sand. Miller’s prints are slightly spread apart – Most of us walk that way, we do not place our feet exactly in front of each other when we move forward. But Monroe did. And the tracks she left in the sand made it look like she had actually been hopping along beside him … a singular row of prints. He said that she walked “like a cat”. If you walk, placing one foot directly in front of the other, wait till you see what it does to how your hips move. You cannot help it. I completely STOLE that, when creating this character, and it helped enormously. I put one foot directly in front of the other, as I walked and suddenly, just by doing that, I became this teetery woman, with a sensuous walk, it was all about the hips, the movement of the hips.

Other things I love about this book are his memories about people I revere: Harold Clurman, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams. These were Miller’s inspirations, the ones he looked to, the ones who galvanized him. He saw Kazan’s famous production of Streetcar with Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, and it was that that made him sit down and write Death of a Salesman. Seeing such greatness, such perfection, was inspirational to him. He knew that he had to take his work to a new level, he knew that Tennessee Williams was doing something no American playwright had ever done before … He knew that what he was seeing was going to change everything forever.

His chapter on the creation of Willy Loman, on the writing of that famous play, is my favorite in the book.

First of all – it goes into the writing process. The struggle with those demons in your head that tell you you can’t do anything, you won’t ever amount to anything … We all have those demons. It also talks about the demon of the blank page …. how terrifying that can be for writers, how daunting. Miller had to go and basically build a cabin in the woods to write that play. He needed to be separate from his wife, from his entire life. He built a tiny one-room shack with his own hands, and sat there, sweating it out, until the play was done.

And second of all – I LOVE the chapter because it talks with such love, such respect, for the work of the actors. It’s all well and good that you write a masterpiece, but without a Lee J. Cobb to make it come to life, who cares? The same was true for Streetcar. Without Marlon Brando, without the EVENT of Marlon Brando, Williams’ play may have been recognized as a nice poetical piece of writing … but it wouldn’t have had the impact. The impact which still, to this day, influences any actor who moves us. They are all Brando’s children, as far as I’m concerned.

So here, for my own reading pleasure, and hopefully yours, are some excerpts from the “Death of a Salesman” chapter.

Excerpts from Arthur Miller’s Timebends:

On the impact “Streetcar Named Desire” had on Arthur Miller:

When Kazan invited me up to New Haven to see the new Williams play, A Streetcar Named Desire – it seemed to me a rather too garishly attention-getting title – I was already feeling a certain amount of envious curiosity since I was still unable to commit myself to the salesman play, around which I kept suspiciously circling and sniffing. But at the same time I hoped that Streetcar would be good; it was not that I was high-minded but simply that I shared the common assumption of the time that the greater the number of exciting plays there were on Broadway the better for each of us., At least in our minds there was still something approximating a theatre culture to which we more or less pridefully belonged, and the higher its achievement the greater the glory we all shared. The playwright was then king of the hill, not the star actor or director, and certainly not the producer or theatre owner, as would later by the case …

Streetcar – especially when it was still so fresh and the actors almost as amazed as the audience at the vitality of this theatrical experience – opened one specific door for me. Not the story or the characters or the direction, but the words and their liberation, the joy of the writer in writing them, the radiant eloquence of its composition, moved me more than all its pathos. It formed a bridge to Europe for me, to Jouvet’s performance in Ondine, to the whole tradition of unashamed word-joy that, with the exception of Odets, we had either turned our backs on or, as with Maxwell Anderson, only used archaically, as though eloquence could only be justified by cloaking it in sentimental romanticism.

Returning to New York, I felt speeded up, in motion now. With Streetcar, Tennessee had printed a license to speak at full throat, and it helped strengthen me as I turned to Willy Loman, a salesman always full of words, and better yet, a man who could never cease trying, like Adam, to name himself and the world’s wonders. I had known all along that this play could not be encompassed by conventional realism, and for one integral reason: in Willy the past was as alive as what was happening at the moment, sometimes even crashing in to completely overwhelm his mind. I wanted precisely the same fluidity in the form, and now it was clear to me that this must be primarily verbal. The language would of course have to be recognizably his to begin with, but it seemed possible now to infiltrate it with a kind of superconsciousness. The play, after all, involved the attempts of his son and his wife and Willy himself to understand what was killing him. And to understand meant to lift the experience into emergency speech of an unashamedly open kind rather than to proceed by the crabbed dramatic hints and pretexts of the “natural”. If the structure had to mirror the psychology as directly as could be done, it was still a psychology hammered into its strange shape by society, the business life Willy had lived and believed in. The play could reflect what I had always sensed as the unbroken tissue that was man and society, a single unit rather than two.

Miller finishes the play and sends it to Kazan.

I did not move far from the phone for two days after sending the script to Kazan. By the end of the second silent day I would have accepted his calling to tell me that it was a scrambled egg, an impenetrable, unstageable piece of wreckage. And his tone when he finally did call was alarmingly sober.

“I’ve read your play.” He sounded at a loss as to how to give me the bad news. “My God, it’s so sad.”

“It’s supposed to be.”

“I just put it down. I don’t know what to say. My father…” He broke off, the first of a great many men – and women – who would tell me that Willy was their father. I still thought he was letting me down easy. “It’s a great play, Artie. I want to do it in the fall or winter. I’ll start thinking about casting.” He was talking as though someone we both knew had just died, and it filled me with happiness. Such is art.

Then came the business of casting the actor for Willy Loman, which was quite difficult.

Willy had to be small, I thought, but we soon realized that Roman Bohnen and Ernest Truex and a few other very good actors seemed to lack the size of the character even if they fit the body. The script had been sent to Lee Cobb, an actor I remembered mainly as a mountainous hulk covered with a towel in a Turkish bath in an Irwin Shaw play, with the hilarious oy vey delivery of a forever persecuted businessman. Having flown himself across the country in his own two-engine airplane, he sat facing me in Bloomgarden’s office and announced, “This is my part. Nobody else can play this part. I know this man.”

And he did indeed seem to be the man when a bit later in a coffee shop downstairs he looked up at the young waitress and smiled winsomely as though he had to win her loving embrace before she could be seduced into bringing him his turkey sandwich and coffee – ahead of all the other men’s orders, and only after bestowing on his unique slice of pickle her longing kiss.

But while I trusted his and Kazan’s experience, I lacked any conviction of my own about him until one evening in our Grace Court living room Lee looked down at my son, Bob, on the floor and I heard him laugh at something funny the child had said. The sorrow in his laughter flew out at me, touched me; it was deeply depressed and at the same time joyous, all flowing through a baritone voice that was gorgeously reedy. So large and handsome a man pretending to be thoroughly at ease in a world where he obviously did not fit could be moving.

“You know – or do you? -,” Lee said to me one day in Bloomgarden’s office a week or so before rehearsals were about to begin, “that this play is a watershed. The American theatre will never be the same.” I could only gulp and nod in silence at his portentousness – which I feared might augur a stately performance – and hope that he would make Willy come alive anyway.

So Death of a Salesman goes into rehearsal. Kazan directing. And – at first – it does not go well. Lee J. Cobb is not doing well. People start getting nervous. The following excerpt sends chills up my spine every single time I read it. Oh, how I wish I had been there!

But as rehearsals proceeded in the small, periodically abandoned theatre on the ratty roof of the New Amsterdam on Forty-second street, where Ziegfeld in the twenties had staged some intimate revues, Lee seemed to move about in a buffalo’s stupefied trance, muttering his lines, plodding with deathly slowness from position to position, and behaving like a man who had been punched in the head.

“He’s just learning it,” Kazan shakily reassured me after three or four days.

I waited as a week went by, and then ten days, and all that was emerging from Lee Cobb’s throat was a bumpy hum. The other actors were nearing performance levels, but when they had to get a response from Lee all their rhythms slowed to near collapse.

Kazan was no longer so sure and kept huddling with Lee, trying to pump him up. Nor did Lee offer any explanation, and I wondered whether he thought to actually play the part like a man with a foot in the grave. Between us, Kazan and I began referring to him as “the Walrus”.

On about the twelfth day, in the afternoon, with Eddie Kook, our lighting supplier, and Jimmy Proctor, our pressman, and Kazan and myself in the seats, Lee stood up as usual from the bedroom chair and turned to Mildred Dunnock and bawled, “No, there’s more people now … There’s more people!” and, gesturing toward the empty upstage where the window was supposed to be, caused a block of apartment houses to spring up in my brain, and the air became sour with the smell of kitchens where once there had been only the odors of earth, and he began to move frighteningly, with such ominous reality that my chest felt pressed down by an immense weight. After the scene had gone on for a few minutes, I glanced around to see if the others had my reaction. Jim Proctor had his head bent into his hands and was weeping, Eddie Kook was looking shocked, almost appalled, and tears were pouring over his cheeks, and Kazan behind me was grinning like a fiend, gripping his temples with both hands, and we knew we had it – there was an unmistakable wave of life moving across the air of the empty theatre, a wave of Willy’s pain and protest.

I began to weep myself at some point that was not particularly sad, but it was as much, I think, out of pride in our art, in Lee’s magical capacity to imagine, to collect within himself every mote of life since Genesis and to let it pour forth. He stood up there like a giant moving the Rocky Mountains into position.

At the end of the act, Del Hughes, our sweet but hardheaded, absolutely devoted, competent stage manager, came out from a wing and looked out at us. His stunned eyes started us all laughing. I ran up and kissed Lee, who pretended to be surprised. “But what did you expect, Arthur?” he said, his eyes full of his playful vanity. My God, I thought – he really is Willy!

On the subway going home to Brooklyn I felt once again the aching pain in my muscles that the performance had tensed up so tightly, just as in the writing time. And when I thought of it later, it seemed as though Lee’s sniffing around the role for so long recapitulated what I had done in the months before daring to begin to write.

GOD. That’s all I need to say. GOD.

The play opens in Philadelphia. This is the first time anyone on the planet has ever seen this play.

Salesman had its first public performance at the Locust Street Theatre in Philadelphia. Across the street the Philadelphia Orchestra was playing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony that afternoon, and Kazan thought Cobb ought to hear some of it, wanting, I suppose, to prime the great hulk on whom all our hopes depended. The three of us were in a conspiracy to make absolutely every moment of every scene cohere to what preceded and followed it; we were now aware that Willy’s part was among the longest in dramatic literature, and Lee was showing signs of wearying. We sat at either side of him in a box, inviting him, as it were, to drink of the heroism of that music, to fling himself into his role tonight without holding back. We thought of ourselves, still, as a kind of continuation of a long and undying past.

As sometimes happened later on during the run, there was no applause at the final curtain of the first performance. Strange things began to go on in the audience. With the curtain down, some people stood to put their coats on and then sat again, some, especially men, were bent forward covering their faces, and others were openly weeping. People crossed the theatre to stand quietly talking with one another. It seemed forever before someone remembered to applaud, and then there was no end of it.

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5 Responses to Lee J. Cobb: “Like a giant moving the Rocky Mountains into position…”

  1. MikeR says:

    Awesome post.
    It’s easy to forget that iconic pieces of art were once embryonic and new and facing the same uncertain future that all new art must confront.

    And of course, I’m rueful of having missed your portrayal of Marilyn…

  2. red says:

    Mike R –

    I know, right? It’s thrilling. It really helps me keep my head up high, and plugging along.

    And God I loved that character – the Marilyn character. Her name was Maggie. I had a very hard time letting her go. Marilyn Monroe is a real idol. People forget how funny she is, how talented. She just happened to look like a sex-bomb. But she was hilarious.

  3. MikeR says:

    Marilyn was a unique talent.
    Her downfall was just that extreme fame thing – tough for anyone to maintain sanity under those conditions, as we’ve seen illustrated too many times…

  4. bill says:

    ms. red,

    what a great post. I bought the kazan book on your recommendation. Now I gotta get this one.
    thanks a million!

  5. red says:

    Bill –

    The book is filled with anecdotes like that. I read stuff like that and it makes me happy to be alive, happy to be a part of this complex human race, that is capable of such beauty.

    Glad you bought the Kazan book. Now THAT is a ride!!