The man who wrote "Death of a Salesman" died Thursday. As Linda Loman told the sons of Willy Loman, that sad and epic American dreamer:...

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The man who wrote “Death of a Salesman” died Thursday. As Linda Loman told the sons of Willy Loman, that sad and epic American dreamer: Attention must be paid.

Arthur Miller, 89, died at his Roxbury, Conn., home, 56 years to the day after the Broadway opening of “Death of a Salesman.” He had suffered recent bouts with cancer, pneumonia and a heart problem. The cause was heart failure.

For nearly nine decades, that heart served America’s pre-eminent playwright valiantly and well, in an active, doggedly prolific career as playwright, essayist and activist.

“[Mr. Miller’s death] is quite startling,” Miller scholar and biographer Christopher Bigsby said yesterday. “That’s a much longer career than Chekhov or Strindberg or Ibsen. And hearing of Miller’s death is like hearing of the death of Chekhov.

“He is that significant.”

Tony Kushner, author of “Angels in America,” called Mr. Miller’s death “a giant event. The big three (of the American stage) are, and always have been: Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.”

Across much of the 20th century and into the 21st, Mr. Miller served as the major social conscience of the world stage.

AP, 1956 FILE PHOTO

Newlyweds Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller greet well-wishers after their civil ceremony in White Plains, N.Y., on June 29, 1956. For a time, they were the nation’s most recognizable celebrity couple.

In dramas as formidable and stylistically diverse as “All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman” and “The Crucible,” Mr. Miller transformed post-World War II Broadway into a public arena for moral combat, engaging audiences with questions of personal responsibility and political life.

The last of his more than 20 plays, “Finishing the Picture,” premiered in Chicago last fall. He had been working recently on editing his diaries and writing short stories.

His final play was inspired by Mr. Miller’s experiences on the set of “The Misfits,” a film for which he wrote the screenplay and which starred his then-wife, actress Marilyn Monroe. For a time, they were the nation’s most recognizable couple — the owl and the pussycat, as one wag put it.

In his first Broadway success, “All My Sons” (1947), the son of a middle-American industrialist and war profiteer reminds his mother that “there’s a universe of people outside, and you’re responsible to it.” This became Mr. Miller’s refrain throughout his career.

In his final years, decrying the Bush administration and what he perceived as its blinkered, bullying foreign policy, Mr. Miller remained a citizen and a playwright of the world.

Accepting the Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for lifetime achievement in 2002, he delivered a lecture in which he took after President Bush’s global image.

“The truculent image,” he said of Bush, “is exactly the wrong one, if what you want to convey is that you are not only a strong leader but a mature man of reason.”

Arthur Asher Miller was born Oct. 17, 1915, one of three children of Polish-Jewish immigrants in New York. His father, Isadore, owned a prosperous women’s clothing concern. His mother, Gittel (“Gussie”) Miller, taught school.

The 1929 stock-market crash wiped out the company. A shaken, humbled Miller clan moved to Brooklyn. The psychic impact of the Depression informed all of Mr. Miller’s writing.

To earn money for college, Mr. Miller worked as a warehouse loader and shipping clerk.

In 1934, he enrolled in the University of Michigan, where he worked on the school paper and began writing plays. Two won the Hopwood drama-writing award.

In a 1953 essay, Mr. Miller recalled his Ann Arbor days as a time when he and his classmates, including his wife-to-be, Mary Slattery, “saw a new world coming every third morning.”

Mr. Miller added: “The place was full of speeches, meetings and leaflets. It was jumping with issues.”

As a fledgling novelist (“Focus,” about anti-Semitism in America, became a film starring William H. Macy) and struggling playwright, Mr. Miller’s meager income was supplanted by money provided by his brother, Kermit.

Tellingly, Mr. Miller’s plays are full of uneasy and often-guilt-ridden relationships between brothers, from “The Man Who Had All the Luck” (1944) to “All My Sons” (1947) to “Death of a Salesman” (1949) to “The Price” (1968).

Success didn’t come easily or quickly to Mr. Miller. His first Broadway venture, “The Man Who Had All the Luck,” was a six-performance flop.

“Death of a Salesman,” however, made Mr. Miller a rich man and a cultural figurehead — Abraham Lincoln with eyeglasses and a Brooklyn dialect.

When the curtain fell on opening night in Philadelphia in January 1949, the audience sat in stunned silence for what seemed — to the playwright — an eternity. Mr. Miller then noticed men weeping — some openly, some with faces covered. Others stood in small groups talking quietly to one another.

When the applause started, it was thunderous, “and then,” Mr. Miller observed, “there was no end to it.”

The play won the 1949 Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Miller created an impressionistic portrait of a man, and a society, a little too in love with the Horatio Alger myth. A wonder of form, function and vivid anguish, the character of Willy Loman (based on Mr. Miller’s salesman uncle, Manny) became the emblem of an economic system based on what Mr. Miller memorably called “a smile and a shoeshine.”

Mr. Miller involved himself in many liberal causes. He signed a petition urging the abolishment of the Un-American Activities Committee in the early days of the Communist hunting era.

This was at a time, as biographer Martin Gottfried wrote in “Arthur Miller: His Life and Work,” when the FBI made “few distinctions between (Communist) Party members, sympathizers, leftists and liberals.”

With “The Crucible” (1953), Mr. Miller drew an implicit parallel between the 17th-century Salem witch trials and the anti-Communist witch hunts of his time.

In 1956, he was asked to name names of Communist Party members or sympathizers. Mr. Miller’s reply: “My conscience will not permit me to use the name of another person.”

For a brief, bruising time in the 1950s and early ’60s, Mr. Miller played an uncomfortably visible role of husband to Monroe, paragon of glamorous Hollywood artifice.

His relationship with the actress became the inspiration for two plays: “After the Fall” (1964) and his final work, “Finishing the Picture.”

The marriage took its toll on his life and career. After the mid-1950s premiere of “A View From the Bridge,” Mr. Miller was considered old-hat by many.

Mr. Miller married two other times, most recently to photographer Inge Morath, who died in 2002. He had four children.

After Morath’s death, Mr. Miller fell in love again — with painter Agnes Barley, 55 years his junior. The age gap raised eyebrows, but Mr. Miller dismissed the criticism.

“I like the company of women,” he told The New York Times last year. “Life is very boring without them.”

Studs Terkel, an old friend of Mr. Miller and a fellow progressive, said yesterday, “He was a gifted man of the theater, but something else. He always spoke out. He spoke out for what he believed in, not only when it was unfashionable to speak out, but unsafe.

“Giftedness, and guts: Those are the words for this man.”

Details on the opening night of “Salesman” and Mr. Miller’s last relationship were provided by the Los Angeles Times.