Wendell Pierce fulfills his American Dream: Playing Willy Loman

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Wendell Pierce fulfills his American Dream: Playing Willy Loman
Sharon D Clarke as Linda Loman and Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman in the Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman,” at the Hudson Theater in New York on Sept. 28, 2022. Wendell Pierce at the Civilian Hotel in New York on Sept.15, 2022. A Broadway revival of “Death of a Salesman” has a Black lead for the first time, giving Pierce a chance to step into a role he was “born to play.” Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Alexis Soloski

NEW YORK, NY.- “Are my best days behind me?” Wendell Pierce said as he put down his steak knife. “Was I ever any good? A man can’t go out the way he came in. A man has got to add up to something.” It was here that he began to cry.

This was on a recent weekday evening at the Palm, an upscale steakhouse in the theater district, and Pierce was quoting, at least in part, from Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” which is in previews now and will open on Broadway on Oct. 9, following a successful London run a few years ago. Pierce, 58, stars as Willy Loman, the decompensating salesman of the title. It is his first Broadway appearance in more than 30 years. And even though Pierce has enjoyed a robust career, which includes long stints on prestige television shows and an Obie award for sustained excellence of performance, the questions that obsess Willy — questions of attainment, opportunity, legacy — are questions that obsess him as well. So much that when asked to consider them, he found himself weeping into his surf and turf.

“I want to make my mark, too,” he said. “I’m like Willy Loman.”

Pierce grew up in Pontchartrain Park, a midcentury New Orleans suburb that attracted middle-class Black families. He graduated from an arts high school, then matriculated at Juilliard, graduating in 1985. For years he was a journeyman, filming an episode of television here, a movie there, then perhaps appearing in a play, like Caryl Churchill’s finance industry farce, “Serious Money,” which came to Broadway, briefly, in 1988. (He has helped to produce two other Broadway shows, but “Salesman” marks his return as an actor.)

In 2001, he was cast as William Moreland, a detective nicknamed Bunk, on the HBO series “The Wire.” While Bunk’s partner, Dominic West’s Jimmy McNulty, commanded the larger story lines, Bunk emerged as a character as richly drawn and portrayed as any. When writer David Simon began to dream up his next series, “Treme,” created with Eric Overmyer, he built a role, that of trombonist Antoine Batiste, with Pierce explicitly in mind.

“He can play anything,” Simon explained in a recent phone conversation. “He can play belligerent, he can play vulnerable, wounded. The angles are all really acute.” Simon went on, calling Pierce an actor’s actor, a student of the human condition, a “total pro.”

That evening, at the Palm, Pierce looked professional, dapper and gentlemanly in a well-cut suit and pinstriped shirt. He has a round face, like a moon that’s nearly full, streaks of silver in his beard and deep-set, observant eyes. His expression looks as if it ought to relax into a smile, but it doesn’t. If you have heard his voice, then you will know that it is rich and sonorous, barrel-aged, with cadences that border on the biblical. Had acting not worked out, he has the skill set to have made a great career as a preacher, which he seems to know.

“Here endeth the sermon,” he joked at the close of one of his speeches. And then, self-consciously: “Actors, man.”

Acting did, of course, work out. (Detours into entrepreneurship have met with perhaps less success.) But Pierce has rarely been a leading man and he’s aware of that, sometimes painfully. His resume reveals a long career as an ensemble player, a sidekick, lately a dad, nearly always an actor who subsumes himself to the character. When I mentioned to friends that I would soon speak with him, there was often a pause while they scrambled to look up his credits, followed by a “Yes. Of course. That guy.”

Simon has a theory about this. Two theories. One emphasizes the texture and realism of Pierce’s acting. “A lot of our culture is about everything is heightened. And nothing about Wendell Pierce’s performances are ever heightened,” he said. The other comes down to a question of prettiness. “Wendell has an everyman look,” Simon said. “He’s an attractive man. But he has an everyman look.”

And yet, all of this — the everyman quality, the realism, the vexed relationship to his own success — makes him ideal for Willy. As Marianne Elliott, who co-directed the London production of “Salesman” put it in a recent conversation: “He was kind of born to play it. He’s so perfect for the part.” Perfect, but with one significant departure. Pierce is Black. And Willy, in America, has nearly always been played by white men.

A few years ago, while directing “Angels in America,” Elliott had an idea for a “Death of a Salesman” with a Black family at its center. Together with her associate director, Miranda Cromwell, who is directing the Broadway production, and in conversation with Rebecca Miller, Arthur Miller’s daughter, Elliott put together a workshop as proof of concept. When they saw that this staging could work, with hardly any changes to the script, Elliott and Cromwell reached out to Pierce, seeking an actor of both stature and deep feeling.

“He’s an exceptionally classically trained, brilliant actor, but he has so much heart, so much warmth, so much charisma,” Cromwell explained in a recent interview. “There is a complication within him and a vulnerability.”

“He is not afraid to share his personal lived experience,” Cromwell continued, “and really be vulnerable on that stage.”

Pierce sprang at it. Because Willy Loman is a great role and a lead role, a role that he never anticipated having the opportunity to play and a role that yet felt uniquely personal, even though Pierce has the gift of making every role he plays feel personal.

“Wendell acts the way he lives: With the deepest appreciation for where he’s from and an insatiable curiosity of where he can go,” said John Krasinski, Pierce’s co-star in the Amazon series “Jack Ryan.”

REHEARSALS BEGAN in 2019 and the show, which co-starred Sharon D Clarke as Willy’s wife Linda, opened in June at the Young Vic in London before transferring to the West End that fall. In a glowing review for The New York Times, Ben Brantley noted that in Pierce’s hands, “what has often felt like a plodding walk to the grave in previous incarnations becomes a propulsive — and compulsively watchable — dance of death.”

That wasn’t necessarily what I saw when I visited the New York rehearsal room in early September to watch the cast — all new, except for Pierce and Clarke — work through the first scene of “Death of a Salesman.” After the cast sang a spiritual, Pierce entered, plodding, through a stage door. “I’m tired to the death,” his Willy said. His overcoat seemed made of lead and he looked hunched, beaten down, a decade older easily.

But this, he explained to me at dinner, is what he spends the rest of the play fighting against. Those sunken shoulders represent every obstacle that Willy encounters, the threats to his livelihood, his masculinity, his sense of himself as a self-made all-American man. In this production it also represents the racist behavior that Willy faces, the microaggressions and epithets.

“I have to know and feel that lead coat, the heaviness and the weight of the world that is placed upon Willy so that I can fight with all the fire and exuberance,” he said.

Clarke, the Tony-nominated actress who has worked with him for more than three years, noted the energy that Pierce had brought to the role and the sense of overpowering love that his Willy has for Linda and their children.

“His Willy is so lovable,” she said in a recent interview. “He will make you laugh, he will make you feel joyous, which makes the heartbreak at the end all the more deep and all the more resonant.”

Rendering the Loman family as Black aggravates that heartbreak. As Cromwell explained it, the play remains the same, but its themes hit even harder. “The play is still, I believe, about the American dream,” she said. “When we see that through the lens of a Black family, we really see how much further away that dream is.”

Playing Willy has eluded the great Black actors of previous generations, if they dared to dream it at all. In considering the opportunity, Pierce listed off at least a dozen actors — James Earl Jones, Ossie Davis, Roscoe Lee Browne among them — whom he thinks of as his forebears, all of whom, he believes, would have made a magnificent Willy.

“I am humbled to be here now for them, to honor them, to honor their desires,” he said. “I owe it to them to step up and do my part and make a contribution to the American theater and that’s a humbling and a beautiful honor to have.”

That contribution may hit differently here than it did in London, when this distinctly American play has returned to an American stage and to America’s particular racial climate. Cromwell told me that the play felt changed already.

“Because it is closer to home,” she said. “I really feel that it’s holding a mirror to itself. It’s a great classic play being seen through a lens that it hasn’t been seen through before. And it will be surprising and dangerous in that space.”

That this lens centers a Black family has and will continue to make headlines. But Pierce brings much more than his race to Willy, and the role has brought him things in return, some of which he anticipated, some he didn’t. Willy’s mortality has made him conscious of his own. He has dreamed about death throughout the rehearsal process — his own death, those of his loved ones — and had been preoccupied with how much time he has left and if he has used his time well.

Willy finds solace, however incomplete, in his family. Pierce has never married. He has no children. And yet, he relates to Willy in this way, too, as a man who has put his career above his personal life. “My disruption has been that personal aspect,” he said. “So now I’m trying to learn the lesson of not being blind to what’s there. That’s what the lesson of this play will be for me.”

Well, it’s one lesson. Others help him to appreciate the work and the choices that have brought him here. People have told him that he shouldn’t think of himself as a journeyman actor, but he does. And that, he said, is what makes him so much like Willy. He was crying through this, too. And he asked me to write about it, so that a reader would understand how much all of this means to him.

“I want people to know. I want people to know. I want them to know,” he said. “It’s close. It’s so close. I’m proud of that.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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