In film and on stage, Americans have been buying salesmen stories for decades

November 26, 1992|By Orlando Sentinel

The real-estate salesmen of David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" spew venom the way a volcano spits out molten rock, and the foul discharge overruns everyone in sight.

Audiences have been stunned by the noxious language and the unsavory methods of Mr. Mamet's land-peddlers, who turned up first in his award-winning 1983 play and more recently in the film version, which opened nationwide in October.

Yet a stench has surrounded salesmen in America's popular culture almost as long as that culture has existed. What's new about "Glengarry Glen Ross" is simply the degree of the stench -- and the fact that Mr. Mamet has put his finger at the same time on our country's love affair with the salesman and everything for which he stands. And the underhanded quality linked to those who sell for a living is based in truth, real-life salespeople say.

Salesmen have been turning up in American literature since at least the middle of the 19th century: Henry David Thoreau talked about the foolishness of "buying and selling" in his 1854 classic "Walden," and Sinclair Lewis described his 1922 creation, George F. Babbitt, as being "nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay."

In John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1939), used-car salesmen are portrayed as merciless opportunists who sell junk heaps to the poor Oklahoma tenant farmers who have been stripped of their dust-ravaged land and forced to move west.

Still, there almost always has been something funny about salesmen. Witness all those traveling-salesmen jokes; witness the ad salesman Herb Tarlek in "WKRP in Cincinnati" and the shoe salesman Al Bundy in "Married . . . With Children." And remember the glib talker in Frank Capra's classic movie "It Happened One Night" (1934), who tries to pick up glamorous Claudette Colbert on an all-night bus trip:

"Hi, sister. All alone? My name's Shapely. Might as well get acquainted. It's going to be a long trip. Gets tiresome later on, especially for someone like you. You look like you've got class, yessir, class with a capital K, and I'm the guy that knows class when he sees it. Ask any of the boys, they'll tell you. Shapely sure knows how to pick 'em. Shapely's the name, and that's the way I like 'em . . ."

And before long comical salesmen -- con men, mostly -- were turning up right and left: in the junk peddler Ali Hakim in "Oklahoma!" (1943), in the traveling grifter Bill Starbuck in "The Rainmaker" (1954) and, most gloriously, in the title character, a putative band-instrument salesman named Professor Harold Hill, of the 1957 musical "The Music Man."

Popular culture loved its fast-talking swindlers, it seemed. And rarely have they been so sentimentalized as are the hero and heroine in Peter Bogdanovich's 1973 movie "Paper Moon," in which Ryan O'Neal played a small-time, soft-voiced con man named Moses Pray and a 9-year-old Tatum O'Neal played his equally larcenous daughter Addie.

"Paper Moon's" traveling salesmen were adorable, and so were the salesmen in two more recent films, writer-director Barry Levinson's rueful 1987 comedy "Tin Men" and the darkly comic 1990 Robin Williams movie "Cadillac Man." Both show salesmen using deplorable techniques to do their jobs, but both also show the characters' strength and vitality.

In "Cadillac Man," written by Ken Friedman and directed by Roger Donaldson, Mr. Williams plays a car salesman named Joey O'Brien, who tries to sell a car to a widow at a funeral.

The aluminum-siding salesmen in Levinson's "Tin Men" pull all kinds of scams to sell their product; one pair even pretends to be a team of photographers from Life magazine, working on a feature on the benefits of aluminum siding.

These characters get high on the art of selling, and they're willing to put up with the faults that go along with it.

"I'm not such a nice guy all the time," says the character played tTC by Richard Dreyfuss. "OK, I admit it. I have a lot of training in deceit, you know? It's an occupational hazard."

Both those movies show salesmen to be vulnerable creatures, to have to deal with rejection every time they open their mouths. It's a trait they share with a few other occupations -- politician, stand-up comic.

This character is an American fixation -- the big-talking man (for he usually is a man) with stars in his eyes.

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