Death of a Salesman (1985 film)

Death of a Salesman is a 1985 American made-for-television film adaptation of the 1949 play of the same name by Arthur Miller, directed by Volker Schlöndorff, starring Dustin Hoffman, Kate Reid, John Malkovich, Stephen Lang and Charles Durning. The film follows the script of the 1949 play almost exactly and originally premiered on CBS on August 16, 1985.

Death of a Salesman
DVD cover
Based onDeath of a Salesman
by Arthur Miller
Written byArthur Miller
Directed byVolker Schlöndorff
StarringDustin Hoffman
Kate Reid
John Malkovich
Stephen Lang
Music byAlex North
Country of originUnited States
Original language(s)English
Producer(s)Robert F. Colesberry
Michael Nozik (associate producer)
Nellie Nugiel (associate producer)
Production location(s)Kaufman Astoria Studios - 3412 36th Street, Astoria, Queens, New York City, New York
CinematographyMichael Ballhaus
Editor(s)David Ray
Running time136 minutes
Production company(s)Roxbury Productions
Punch Productions
DistributorShout! Factory
Original networkCBS
Picture formatColor
Audio formatMono
Original releaseAugust 16, 1985 (1985-08-16)

The film earned 10 Emmy nominations at the 38th Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony and four Golden Globe nominations at the 43rd Golden Globe Awards ceremony, winning three and one, respectively.[1][2][3][4][5]


Willy Loman returns home exhausted after a canceled business trip. Worried over Willy's state of mind and recent car crash, his wife Linda suggests that he asks his boss Howard Wagner to allow him to work in his home city so he will not have to travel. Willy complains to Linda that their son Biff, who is visiting, has yet to make good on his life. Despite Biff's promise as an athlete in high school, he flunked senior year math and never went to college.

Willy is prone to frequent flashbacks in which he sees events and figures from his past, such as his long-deceased older brother Ben, Willy's idol. Unable to distinguish between his memories and present-day reality, he speaks to the people in his flashbacks as if they were real, startling those around him. Biff and his brother Happy, who is also visiting, discuss their father's mental degradation while reminiscing about their childhood together. When Willy walks in, angry that the two boys have never amounted to anything, Biff and Happy tell Willy that Biff plans to make a business proposition the next day in an effort to pacify their father.

The next day, Willy goes to ask Howard for a job in town while Biff goes to make a business proposition, but neither are successful. Willy gets angry and ends up getting fired when Howard tells him that he needs a rest and can no longer represent the company. Biff waits hours to see a former employer who does not remember him and turns him down. Biff impulsively steals a fountain pen. Willy then goes to the office of his neighbor, Charley, where he runs into Charley's son Bernard (now a successful lawyer). Bernard tells him that Biff originally wanted to do well in summer school to salvage his academic and athletic career after flunking math, but when Biff made an emergency trip to Boston to seek help from Willy, who was then on a sales trip, something occurred there that changed Biff's mind.

Happy, Biff, and Willy meet for dinner at a restaurant, but Willy refuses to hear bad news from Biff. Happy tries to get Biff to lie to their father. Biff tries to tell him what happened as Willy gets angry and slips into a flashback of what happened in Boston the day Biff came to see him. Willy had been in a hotel on a sales trip with a young woman named Miss Francis when Biff unexpectedly arrived and realized that Willy was cheating on Linda. From that moment, Biff's view of his father and all of his father's cherished hopes and dreams for him changed irrevocably, setting Biff adrift.

Biff leaves the restaurant in frustration, followed by Happy and two girls, Miss Forsythe and Letta, that Happy has picked up. They leave a confused and upset Willy behind in the restaurant. When they later return home, their mother angrily confronts them for abandoning their father while Willy remains talking to himself outside. Biff goes outside to try to reconcile with Willy. The discussion quickly escalates into another argument, at which point Biff forcefully tries to convey to his father that he is not meant for anything great, that he is simply ordinary, insisting that they both are. The feud culminates with Biff hugging Willy and crying as he tries to get him to let go of the unrealistic dreams that he still carries for Biff and wants instead for Willy to accept him for who he really is. He tells his father he loves him.

Rather than listen to what Biff actually says, Willy realizes that his son has forgiven him and thinks that Biff will now pursue a career as a businessman. Willy -- with encouragement from Ben, whom he "sees" and speaks to in one of his flashbacks -- kills himself by intentionally crashing his car so that Biff can use the life insurance money to start his business. However, at the funeral, Biff retains his belief that he does not want to become a businessman. Happy, on the other hand, chooses to follow in his father's footsteps.


  • William "Willy" Loman (Dustin Hoffman): A self-deluded traveling salesman. He is 63 years old and very unstable and insecure, tending to imagine events from the past as if they are real. He vacillates between different perceptions of his life. Willy seems childlike and relies on others for support. His first name, Willy, reflects this childlike aspect as well as sounding like the question "Will he?" His last name gives the feel of Willy being a "low man," someone low on the social ladder and unlikely to succeed.
  • Linda Loman (Kate Reid): Willy's loyal and loving wife. Linda mostly just smiles and nods when Willy talks unrealistically about hopes for the future, although she seems to have a good knowledge of what is really going on. She berates her sons, particularly Happy, for not helping Willy more, and supports Willy lovingly, despite the fact that Willy sometimes ignores her opinion over that of others. She is the first to realize Willy is contemplating suicide at the beginning of the play and urges Biff to make something of himself, while expecting Happy to help Biff do so.
  • Biff Loman (John Malkovich): Willy's older son. Biff was a football star with lots of potential in high school, but failed math his senior year and dropped out of summer school due to seeing Willy with another woman while visiting him in Boston - a shock which completely disillusioned him about the father he formerly loved and idolized. He goes between going home to try to fulfill Willy's dream for him to be a businessman and ignoring his father and going out West to be a farmhand where he is happiest. He likes being outdoors and working with his hands yet wants to do something worthwhile, so Willy will be proud. Biff steals because he wants evidence of success, even if it is false evidence, but overall Biff remains a realist, and informs Willy that he is just a normal guy and will not be a great man.
  • Harold "Happy" Loman (Stephen Lang): Willy's younger son. He has lived in the shadow of his older brother Biff most of his life and seems to be almost ignored, but he still tries to be supportive towards his family. He has a very restless lifestyle as a womanizer and dreams of moving beyond his current job as an assistant to the assistant buyer at the local store but is unfortunately willing to cheat a little in order to do so, by taking bribes. He is a smooth, fast-talking liar, as shown by the tall tales he tells the two girls in the restaurant in order to impress them. He is always looking for approval from his parents but rarely gets any, and he even goes as far as to make things up just for attention, such as telling his parents he is going to get married. He tries often to keep his family's perceptions of each other positive or "happy" by defending each of them during their many arguments but still has the most turbulent relationship with Linda, who looks down on him for his lifestyle and apparent cheapness, despite him giving them small sums of money.
  • Charley (Charles Durning): Willy's wisecracking yet understanding neighbor. He pities Willy and frequently lends him money and comes over to play cards with Willy, although Willy often treats him poorly. Willy is jealous of him because his son is more successful than Willy's. Charley offers Willy a job many times when visiting him, yet Willy declines every time, even after he loses his job as a salesman.
  • Bernard (David S. Chandler): Charley's son. In Willy's flashbacks, he is a nerd, and Willy forces him to give Biff test answers. He worships Biff and does anything for him. Later, he is a very successful lawyer, married, and expecting a second son.
  • Ben Loman (Louis Zorich): Willy's older brother who became a diamond tycoon after a detour to Africa. He is dead but Willy frequently speaks to him in his hallucinations of the past. He went into the jungle when he was 17 and returned at 21 very rich. He is Willy's role model, although he is much older and has no real relationship with Willy. He represents Willy's idea of the American Dream success story, and is shown coming by the Lomans' house while on a business trip to share his stories. Willy tries to impress him with his own largely-imagined success as a salesman, but Ben is skeptical of any kind of intangible "wealth" that can't be held in one's hand, such as a diamond. Ben later appears to Willy in another flashback and (Willy thinks) encourages his wild scheme to kill himself to get the insurance money that Biff can inherit.
  • Woman from Boston (Kathryn Rossetter, as Kathy Rossetter): A woman with whom Willy cheated on Linda.
  • Howard Wagner (Jon Polito): Willy's considerably younger boss, who inherited leadership of his company from his now-deceased father, Frank, Willy's friend and original boss. Willy, who was already working for Frank when Howard was born, claims he was responsible for choosing the name Howard. Yet he only sees the aging Willy as a liability for the company and lets him go, ignoring the 35 years that Willy has given to the company. Howard is extremely proud of his wealth, which is manifested in his recording machine, and his family.
  • Jenny (Anne McIntosh): Charley's secretary.
  • Stanley (Tom Signorelli): A waiter at the restaurant who seems to be friends or acquainted with Happy.
  • Miss Forsythe (Linda Kozlowski): A girl whom Happy picks up at the restaurant. She is very pretty and claims that she was on several magazine covers. Happy lies to her, making himself and Biff look like they are important and successful (Happy claims that he attended West Point and that Biff is a star football player).
  • Letta (Karen Needle): Miss Forsythe's friend.
  • Waiter (Michael Quinlan)


The film received critical acclaim. On review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an overall 100% approval rating based on 8 reviews, with a rating average of 8.4 out of 10.[6]


The film is mostly told from the point of view of the protagonist, Willy, and the previous parts of Willy's life are revealed in the analepsis, sometimes during a present-day scene. It does this by having a scene begin in the present time, and adding characters onto the screen whom only Willy can see and hear, representing characters and conversations from other times and places.

Many dramatic techniques are also used to represent these time shifts. For example, leaves often appear around the current setting (representing the leaves of the two elm trees which were situated next to the house, prior to the development of the apartment blocks). Biff and Happy are dressed in high school football sweaters and are accompanied with the "gay music of the boys". The characters will also be allowed to pass through the walls that are impassable in the present, as told in Miller's original stage directions in the opening of ACT 1, "Whenever the action is in the present the actors observe the imaginary wall-lines, entering the house only through its door at the left. But in the scenes of the past these boundaries are broken and characters enter or leave a room by stepping 'through' a wall onto the fore-stage."

However some of these time shifts/imaginings occur when there are present characters on-screen. For example, during a conversation between Willy and his neighbor Charley, Willy's brother Ben comes on screen and begins talking to Willy while Charley speaks to Willy. When Willy begins talking to his brother, the other characters do not understand to whom he is talking, and some of them even begin to suspect that he has "lost it." However, at times it breaks away from Willy's point of view and focuses on the other characters: Linda, Biff, and Happy. During these parts of the film, the time and place stay constant without any abrupt flashbacks that usually happen while the play takes Willy's point of view.

The film's structure resembles a stream of consciousness account. Willy drifts between his living room, downstage, to the apron and flashbacks of an idyllic past, and also to fantasized conversations with Ben. When we are in the present the characters abide by the rules of the set, entering only through the stage door to the left. However, when we visit Willy's "past" these rules are removed, with characters openly moving through walls. Whereas the term "flashback" as a form of cinematography for these scenes is often heard, Miller himself rather speaks of "mobile concurrences." In fact, flashbacks would show an objective image of the past. Miller's mobile concurrences, however, rather show highly subjective memories. Furthermore, as Willy's mental state deteriorates, the boundaries between past and present are destroyed, and the two start to exist in parallel.

Home media

The film was released on DVD on January 28, 2003 by Image Entertainment. A Blu-ray Disc edition by Shout! Factory was released on November 15, 2016.

Awards and nominations


  1. Macdonald, Scott. "Death Of A Salesman". Retrieved 25 February 2014.
  2. Chessman, Michael Rizzo. "Death of a salesman (1985) - starring Mr. Dustin Hoffman". Retrieved 25 February 2014.
  3. Travers, James. "Death of a Salesman (1985)". Archived from the original on 25 February 2014. Retrieved 25 February 2014.
  4. Hampton, Wilborn (14 May 2012). "'Death Of A Salesman': Beyond A Smile And A Shoeshine". Retrieved 25 February 2014.
  5. Haflidason, Almar. "Death of a Salesman DVD (1985)". Retrieved 25 February 2014.
  6. "Death of a Salesman".
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