The first time veteran actor Charlie Robinson saw Lee J. Cobb play Willy Loman in the 1966 television version of Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic, Death of a Salesman, he was so moved by the performance he said to himself, “One day, maybe I’ll do that role.”
Fast forward some 47 years, and Robinson will finally get to portray Loman when South Coast Repertory (SCR) kicks off its 50th season Saturday with Death Of A Salesman, directed by SCR artistic director Marc Masterson.
Willy Loman, the formerly successful Brooklyn salesman, is a coveted role for many actors. His story is tragic and complicated. He’s a crotchety, idealistic everyman who has spent his life chasing the American dream. Now in his 60s, with 34 years of sales experience under his belt, he is fired, leaving him without the identity that made him the man he had become.
The original Broadway production of Death of a Salesman opened at the Morosco Theatre on February 10, 1949, ran for 742 performances and won the 1949 Tony Award for best play. Cobb recreated his stage role in the television production. Salesman also won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Numerous versions of it have been seen on stage, in film and on television.
After Cobb, actors who took on the role of Willy Loman on Broadway include Dustin Hoffman, George C. Scott, Brian Dennehy (who also performed it at the Ahmanson Theatre in LA) and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Besides Dennehy, recent LA Lomans include Stacy Keach, Eddie Jones and Richard Fancy.
This is the third time that SCR has produced Death of a Salesman. Earlier productions were during the 1968-69 and 1997-98 seasons, starring Jack Davis and Allan Miller, respectively, as Willy.
Let’s Do Lunch
Robinson and Masterson have been friends “more than 45 years,” says Robinson, 67, who grew up in Houston. “I was 22. We became friends from working together at Houston’s Studio 7, a youth theater group.”
“We met when I was 11 years old,” remembers Masterson, 57. “We have stayed in touch over the years, but it wasn’t until I moved to Southern California [to take the SCR job in 2011] that I was able to work with him again in the theater.”
Over lunch one day, they brainstormed about possible projects that they could tackle together. “He suggested a couple of things, and I suggested some things,” remembers Robinson. “I came up with a couple of ideas including King Lear. Finally, I said, Death of A Salesman. He said ‘fine’ and we went to work.”
Since taking on the iconic role of Willy Loman, Robinson admits he has occasionally had second thoughts about his decision.
“It’s a beast to do it,” says Robinson, who credits Masterson with helping him to find and develop the role. “I’ve been fortunate to have him as a director. He has helped me see the character. It has really been an experience. The study and rhythm of the character is different from other things I’ve done. I’m trying to get a Brooklyn accent and keep the southern mix. It’s been quite successful. I’m still working on it, though. After the first week, I was thinking maybe I shouldn’t have gotten myself into this one. But, after a lot of work and long hours and sleepless nights, I think it will be very special.”
If Robinson has doubts, Masterson, who calls his friend “warm, generous, a fantastic listener and a compelling performer,” counters with enough confidence for them both.
“Every performer who has ever approached Willy Loman has a mountain to climb,” offers Masterson. “I just reassure him that he is on the right path and capable of making it completely his own. Sometimes in rehearsal I look up at him and realize that I have known him as long as I have known my youngest brother. It has been a blast.”
While preparing to bring Loman to life on stage, Robinson says he did a little “cheating”.
“I really enjoyed Cobb’s performance,” says Robinson. “But, I must tell you, I cheated. I rented it and watched him do it again. I don’t think by any stretch that what I’m doing is anything like what he did. This is my take on it. It will be different. I bring my own Houston, Texas thing to it. I bring my family to it. The depths of what I’m going through in my life are not the same as what Dustin Hoffman or Lee [J. Cobb] will bring to it. I have a different life and come from a different place. I see things differently. Willy is struggling. He’s in pain. What he wants is to pass on something so his son can be successful. That’s what life is about. You don’t have a lot of time to be here. It’s about being able to give something back.”
Asked what he’s given back, Robinson, a married father of three, says, “I’m still working on that.”
Talking to Robinson, it’s clear that he loves what he does and that he’s not in showbiz just to phone in his work. He enjoys taking on stimulating roles.
“I’m not afraid to play challenging characters,” he says. “I don’t know why I feel I’m just being led by something much stronger than me to be able to go and take the risk. What’s so beautiful is, once it’s done, I have truly learned something about life and myself. I learn so much about people and myself…When I get into the role I’m a bit nervous, but you have to just keep pushing. Don’t be afraid to fail. Failing something is the most beautiful thing in the world because you learn so much. It’s painful, but you learn.”
Cast-ing His Cares
Doing Death of a Salesman is like old home week for Robinson. His previous SCR credits include The Piano Lesson in 1999, The Wandering Boy in 2007, the leading role of Troy Maxson in Fences in 2010 and Becker in last season’s SCR production of Jitney, which transferred to the Pasadena Playhouse. Now, he’s not only being directed by his old friend, Masterson, but there are several actors in the cast with whom he’s performed in previous productions.
The cast includes Kim Staunton, Gregg Daniel, Chris Butler, James Watson, Larry Bates, Celeste Den, Tracey A. Leigh, Becca Lustgarten, Georgina E. Okon, Tyler Pierce, Christopher Rivas and Tobie Windham.
“I worked with Kim Staunton in Piano Lesson about 16-17 years ago,” says Robinson. “She played my niece. This time she’s playing my wife. She’s a giving lady.”
Robinson worked on Jitney with Watson, Daniel and Bates. He performed with Daniel and Bates in Fences.
“The man just really leads by example,” says Bates about Robinson. “When you see the amount that he puts into what he’s doing, it’s infectious. It makes me want to be better because you just see how much he works and how talented he is. Most of the time he’s not even off the stage. He’s got a lot of power and honesty. He approaches things from a personal and honest place. It’s about a connection and a relationship. From his talent, to his work ethic, to his demeanor, he has it all. He’s a gentleman. I don’t want to let him down.”
“Everybody in it is great,” says Robinson. “All the roles have been cast perfectly. I am pleased and feel fortunate.”
With Robinson in the lead and a predominantly African American cast, this version of Salesman will look somewhat non-traditional. “It will be different for sure,” says Robinson. “We [Masterson and Robinson] were both happy that we decided to do it with an [almost] all-black cast. There is one white actor who plays my superior [at the office]. There are two ladies, one is Asian and one is Caucasian. Being a black company, it’s a different kind of look about it that makes it special. This is a universal story. It doesn’t matter what ethnic group is doing it.”
Robinson has worked on theatrical productions across the country, but he notes that “Doing TV and film, I don’t have as much time as I want [to perform on stage]. I have to make a living. Theater doesn’t pay as well.”
Robinson is probably best known for his role as Mac on the long-running sitcom Night Court (1984-1992). Prior to that he worked on the show, Buffalo Bill (1983-1984). At the time he got that first series, he was working at Mattel.
“I was working at Mattel as a security guard,” says Robinson. “I was there for a year when I was up for a role on Buffalo Bill. I got the job, so I had to go tell my superiors I got the job and that I needed 13 weeks off. They said, ‘OK, go ahead and do the 13 weeks. You can come back.’ I did the first 13 episodes and went back to Mattel. I got back to work and the show became a huge hit. It was a summer show. It was like a cult following. I was amazed. My agent called and said it’s going to be picked up for another 13 weeks. I had to go back to my superiors. I said, ‘I just found out they picked it up again and they want me back.’ I asked, ‘When I finish, can I come back?’ They talked to each other. They said they liked me and that they would bring me back in. I did the show and then they decided not to pick it up. Then, I got Night Court. I was working at Mattel when I got Night Court. I went back to them again. I said, ‘They are going to do 24 episodes.’ They said, ‘Look, you can come back when you’re finished.’ Lo and behold, Night Court ran for nine years. Because they were so kind and understanding, I would go back to Mattel during Christmas and hand out toys to kids.”
Robinson’s other credits are vast and diverse. They include: St. Elsewhere, The White Shadow, Flamingo Road, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Touched By An Angel, Home Improvement, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Antwone Fisher, House, My Wife and Kids, Soul Food, My Name Is Earl, How I Met Your Mother and more.
Robinson decided that after Death Of A Salesman, he would wait “a while” before going back on stage. He can currently be seen in a recurring role on the CW’s Hart of Dixie. He is also working on a film called Maybe Someday and will soon be seen in the film, Hoovey.
Getting to Know Robinson
Married for 17 years, Robinson has three sons ages 35, 33 and 13. The youngest is from his current marriage.
Before he was an actor, he was a singer. “I was one of the original members of Archie Bell and the Drells,” says Robinson. “By the time I was 16 or 17, I left the group” — before the group became known for the 1968 hit song, Tighten Up.
Robinson did a stint in the Army and eventually joined a gospel group, Southern Clouds of Joy.
“Eventually I figured out I didn’t want to sing anymore,” says Robinson. He wanted to act. “I saw in the paper that there was a workshop at Houston’s Studio 7. I started learning the craft.”
He started acting at the age of 22. Later, he studied drama for two years at the University of Houston. In 1972, he moved to Los Angeles. To his surprise, he got an agent right away. He worked at the Mark Taper in Hamlet and other productions and also worked at the famed Inner City Cultural Center. His friends, Randy and Dennis Quaid, who are also from Houston, told him about an audition for a pilot called The Last Detail. He got the pilot, but it didn’t go anywhere. But it wasn’t long before his acting career would take off.
Getting Into The Act
“What really makes me want to act is when I’m able to do roles that are challenging and roles well-written,” he says. “Whenever I walk on stage, I will always do the best I can do. It makes you think and makes you wonder if you are capable of really making it happen. You have to push yourself. I’m always trying to be the best I can be.” He’s a longtime member of the Actors Studio.
Theater does something for Robinson that television and film don’t, he says.
“Film is the medium for the director — they control it,” says Robinson. “You have no control. Television is the writer’s medium. Theater is the actor’s medium. Once I walk on stage, I’m in control of what happens.”
Over the years, Robinson has racked up a reputation for good works. But if he had to review his career, he’s not sure what grade he’d give himself.
“I have to tell you, I wouldn’t grade it,” he says. “One day it’s an A, the next day it’s an F. That’s what’s so beautiful about an art form. One day you really feel you understand it, the next day you don’t understand it at all. I walked out of the theater the other day and I was in tears. I was so lost in trying to find out what I was about in this. That wasn’t an A, it was an F. In fact, it was three Fs. I don’t want to grade myself. You can actually be on stage and go from an A to an F. You just don’t know. That’s what makes theater so amazing.”
Death of a Salesman, South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa 92626. Opens tonight. Tues-Wed 7:30 pm, Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 pm and 8 pm; Sun 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm. (No performances Sat Sept 21 or the evening of Sept. 29). Through Sept. 29. Tickets: $22. www.scr.org. 714-708-5555.
**All Death of a Salesman production photos by Ben Horak/SCR.