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Segal Not Much of a 'Salesman'

As part of its continuing bid to raise its programming profile, arts-and-entertainment channel Trio will air an enhanced version of the "definitive" television version of Arthur Miller's classic, Death of a Salesman.

The 1966 presentation — which initially aired on CBS and hasn't been seen in 20 years — was adapted for television by Miller himself and stars Lee J. Cobb, who originated the role on Broadway. For 21st century viewing, Trio has repackaged the teleplay with a short interview with George Segal, arguably the presentation's breakout star (Gene Wilder, James Farentino and Bernie Koppell also appear in small roles).

Segal plays Biff Loman, the high school football star-cum-ne'er-do-well son of beaten-down salesman Willy Loman. It was the first prominent role in Segal's career, and in the interview that precedes the show, he tells of going into New York to watch the original 1949 play, and recalls Cobb's performance from the perspective of both an audience member and a collaborator.

"There are no words to describe the way he inhabited the role," said Segal. "He was Willy."

And Cobb's performance is a tour de force. In a classic American story that ties together themes of unfulfilled expectations of success and the need to live vicariously through one's children, Cobb gives a vivid depiction of a man at the end of his tether. It's almost painful to watch his take on Willy's degeneration; it's like watching a loved one battle with senility. You can't help but feel for the man as the world around him crumbles, flawed as he might have been.

It's a different take than Brian Dennehy offered in the 50th-anniversary version of the stage play, telecast a year ago on Showtime. Dennehy's Willy was less harried, more bombastic and far more outwardly in control of his manic state — at least at first. The CBS made-for-television staging also makes a difference in the way the play comes across to the home viewer — Willy's delusions, intended by Miller to seem otherworldly, are more so in the older rendition.

The future stars also show us why we still know their names, particularly Segal and Wilder as brother-in-law Charlie's nerdy son turned important lawyer Bernard. Mildred Dunnock's shrill performance as Linda Loman is the weak point — it might be the passage of almost 40 years, but her melodramatic performance as Willy's loyal wife seems as if it belongs in a 1930s radio play.

The opening interview with Segal doesn't shed much light, either: It seems as if it was done between takes on the Just Shoot Me
set. Sure, George, we know you liked Cobb in the role — but what about you?

Death of a Salesman
bows Sunday, Oct. 28, at 8 p.m. on Trio.