February 18, 2020

Rob Morrow Takes on Willy Loman in ‘Death of a Salesman’

Rob Morrow (left) and Robert Adamson in “Death of a Salesman” Photo by Ed Krieger.

Could Willy Loman have been Jewish?

We’re talking, of course, about the titular underdog of Arthur Miller’s masterpiece “Death of a Salesman.” As countless people who have dissected the play and the characters for the last decades have noted, Willy is – and can be – many things: father, husband, failed dreamer, exemplar of American promise gone sour. But is he also a Jew?

Having played several Jewish characters — most notably “Northern Exposure’s” fish-out-of-water physician Joel Fleischman in the CBS television series that ran from 1990 to 1995 — Rob Morrow has been asked that Loman question before.

“There’s a kind of cadence to some of the language that suggests that there might be an Eastern European thing with Willy,” Morrow, who currently plays the role in a production of “Death of a Salesman” at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica, told the Journal. “And there’s also an immigrant thing underneath — very underneath, not overt at all — but the Lomans don’t have to be Jewish and it doesn’t come up. So it’s not anything, unless I’m missing something.”

On the subject of Loman, Morrow doesn’t “miss much” these days. He has spent the past few months burrowing inside the character’s skin and has come to know Loman well. 

“It’s the lament of the working man, the shadow side of capitalism,” Morrow said. “It deals with the fantasy, the myth of not just America, but of capitalism in specific ways that are very American. I know it plays well around the world, but there’s something to me that feels very American about it, this idea of ‘you work hard and people like you.’ It kind of lays that bare in a poetic way.”

He added, “It’s a populist play, and it’s funny, because that word is so in the zeitgeist with Trump, who is supposed to be populist, which is absolute (expletive) because he is the absolute antithesis of anything populist, but he’s trading on the values.”

Over drinks at a Brentwood restaurant, the actor-director-producer and musician mused over subjects ranging from Trump to the lure of live stage to his view that so many of us are, in fact, salesmen. Still looking youthful at age 56, Morrow was surprised to have reached an age where he would be considered old enough to play Willy Loman. “And I am,” he said. “And here we are.”

About five years ago, Morrow began teaching master classes at the Ruskin Studio. He knew the theater and school’s founder, John Ruskin, in high school. The two reconnected when Morrow’s daughter Tu expressed an interest in learning the craft and started taking classes.

“There’s a kind of cadence to some of the language that suggests that there might be an Eastern European thing with Willy. … But the Lomans don’t 

have to be Jewish and it doesn’t 

come up.”

 — Rob Morrow

Directing his daughter in a workshop production of Kenneth Lonnergan’s “This Is Our Youth” reignited Morrow’s fire for the live stage. When Morrow’s wife, actress Debbon Ayer, noticed Ruskin’s 2019 season included “Death of a Salesman,” she encouraged Morrow to …er … sell himself for Willy. Morrow threw in his hat, and the producers jumped at the idea, somewhat to the actor’s dismay.

“I’m thinking, ‘I hope he doesn’t say yes because then I have to … do it.’ And it is a mountain. It is a bear,” Morrow said. “It’s heavy duty lifting, but I knew I had to do it, so I said yes.”

According to Ruskin, few working actors do “heavy lifting” better than Morrow.  

“He shows up on the first day of rehearsal and he’s memorized the entire play,” said Ruskin, who was a year ahead of Morrow at Edgemont High School in New York. “When Robert Redford cast him in ‘Quiz Show,’ [Morrow] was playing a Boston guy, and he came in and had the accent ready to go and it was perfect. We talk about it in class. You have to work that hard because otherwise, you’re not going to compete in the most competitive business in the world.”

Morrow has spoken anecdotally about preparing for weeks for his audition for “Northern Exposure” only to come in and see other actors picking up the script in the audition room and expecting to wing their way into the role. Hard work won the day, and Morrow earned two Emmy nominations for the show. Over the next two decades, he appeared in “Numbers,” “Billions,” “American Crime Story” and several movies. He also has been a director for a number of TV series and for the 2000 movie “Maze.” Talks of a “Northern Exposure” reboot are dormant, he reports.

Morrow is the son of an actual salesman. His father, Murray Morrow, peddled industrial lighting for a company based in New Jersey. Morrow’s parents divorced when he was 9, and young Rob would go on rounds with his dad, watching the salesman in action. Morrow remembers the “M Squared” logo he would put on Life-Savers and other knick-knacks he would give away.

“The girls liked him. He flirted around and made a pretty good living for himself,” Morrow said of his father, who died in 2010. “I’m a producer-director and I’m always pitching. For every 30 or 40 projects you pitch, maybe one of them gets made. So I’m constantly selling my wares and going ‘Why? Why am I doing this?’ ”  

Morrow describes himself as “super spiritual” but not religious. He grew up Jewish and still finds great beauty in the culture and mystical aspects of Judaism. As for Ruskin’s hard-work accusation, he professes himself guilty as charged.

“The only thing I think that distinguishes me from the actors I came up with who didn’t succeed is that I worked that much harder,” he said. “But I also have this illusion: I work hard, so why aren’t I getting everything I want? In my case, as an artist, I have to enjoy the work for its own sake, and I do. But there is a little part of me that buys into that thing of I work hard as if that means anything in terms of the payoff.” 

Which brings him back to Trump and Willy Loman. Morrow recently finished reading Kurt Andersen’s “Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire” and Morrow identified with the notion that Americans are being hustled by delusions of the American Dream.

“This whole idea of America just being this hustle and this fantasy that we’ve fed ourselves on, from the medicine shows to Wild Bill to all these ideas that were handed out,” he said. “I don’t know who was behind it, but we all signed on collectively to believe in it. And it’s not necessarily a bad thing because probably a lot of that spurred people on. It certainly spurred me on.”

“Death of a Salesman” runs through Aug. 4 at 3000 Airport Ave., Santa Monica. (310) 397-3244.