Death of a Salesman Sydney: Anthony LaPaglia sees his dad in Willy Loman

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Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
4 Min Read
Death of a Salesman, starring Anthony LaPaglia, is opening at the Theatre Royal in Sydney.
Death of a Salesman, starring Anthony LaPaglia, is opening at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Lisa Maree Williams/GWB Entertai

Anthony LaPaglia was in his 30s when he starred as the tempestuous Eddie in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge on Broadway. He won a prestigious Tony Award for his performance but he believes he was too young.

“I was 15 or 20 years too young. It was written for a 50-year-old man but I convinced Arthur that there was a different spin on it that I could bring,” LaPaglia tells The Nightly. Miller, then in his 80s and still alive, was in every rehearsal and LaPaglia got “an amazing education from the man himself”.

“He writes very close to the bone, it’s not all stage direction,” he recalls. “He never tells you how to act. He has laughs there, little bits and pieces. But, basically, it’s very lean and if you trust the dialogue, all the emotion is in there and comes out.”

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Now, more than a quarter century down the track and LaPaglia is in another Miller play, Death of a Salesman, as Willy Loman. The production is opening in Sydney this month after a successful run in Melbourne last year. “I’ve had a long period of time without doing theatre, probably 10 years, so when this came up, I thought, ‘If you don’t do this, you probably won’t do theatre again’,” he says.

Willy Loman is one of the great characters of the western theatre canon, an embodiment of unfulfilled potential and dreams, burdened with disappointments, and cast aside as he ages into irrelevance. His last grasp is to try to control his kids’ futures, to pressure his sons into realising the life he didn’t get to have.

It’s not a role for a thirty-something.

Death of a Salesman, starring Anthony LaPaglia, is opening at the Theatre Royal in Sydney.
Anthony LaPaglia returned to the theatre for the first time in a decade. Credit: Jeff Busby/GWB Entertainment

“My life has prepared me to play Willy Loman at this point,” LaPaglia, now 65, says. “With this particular role, you need to have actual life experience. The fact it mirrors some of my own life certainly doesn’t hurt.”

LaPaglia has had — and continues to have — a successful career at home in Australia (Lantana, Looking for Alibrandi) where he was born, but also in the US (Without a Trace, Empire Records) where he has been based since the mid-1980s, but what he sees in Willy Loman is his dad.

“My father had expectations for myself and my brothers that some of us lived up to and some of us didn’t,” LaPaglia, who is one of three boys and older brother to TV presenter Jonathan LaPaglia, says. “My father was an immigrant mechanic and what he wanted for his sons was vastly different to what one of his sons wanted for himself.

“So, I certainly understand that kind of overbearing nature, of someone who thinks they know what’s best for you.”

Growing up at the receiving end of that type of parenting led him to approach his relationship with his now 21-year-old daughter very differently. “She accuses me of not being interested enough!” he chortles.

“I’ve always been on the side of, I give her as much space as she needs even if I can see her potentially making a mistake. She’s got to make it, she’s got to make the mistake,” he explains.

“We have a great relationship, but when she was younger I used to say to her, ‘If you’re ever in a tricky spot, you call me and I’ll come get you. I will never ask you what happened, what went wrong, what you were doing, not that night, not the next day, never, I just want to get you home safe’. And she took me up on that a couple of times.”

As much as Death of a Salesman has these grander themes of the empty promises of the American Dream (“The American Dream died long ago,” LaPaglia contends), for the actor, it’s the universality of the personal relationships in Miller’s writing that resonates the strongest.

Death of a Salesman, starring Anthony LaPaglia, is opening at the Theatre Royal in Sydney.
Death of a Salesman, starring Anthony LaPaglia, during its Melbourne production in 2023. Credit: Jeff Busby/GWB Entertainment

“Anything that’s about a family dynamic,” he says. “It almost doesn’t matter what the setting is. When you strip it down or you’re talking about the normal emotions that people go through every day or the experiences that are specific to them or in general, those feelings don’t change.

“Love is the same, hate is the same, disappointment is the same. Only the setting is different.”

The audience reactions he’s had to the Melbourne run are similar to what he saw when he did A View From the Bridge in the US. “I’ve had grown men in tears after the performance,” he shares of his experiences exiting the stage door and finding audience members, especially men in their 50s, who tell him they cried through the play, reminded of their relationship with their fathers.

“It’s universal, it really is. You can make it American or Australian or whatever, but the thing with Arthur’s plays is that there’s a universal truth. That’s why they’ve lasted so long. This was published 75 years ago and it’s still going.

“That’s incredible. How many plays can you say that about outside of Shakespeare?”

Death of a Salesman opens at the Theatre Royal in Sydney on May 22 with previews starting on May 17


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