A famous Broadway composer recently had the legs of his piano raised by 18 inches so he could play it comfortably while standing up. “He can’t sit down,” his former valet says. “Because he puts the steroid needles in there.” The reporter mistakenly understands this to mean that the composer keeps drugs in his piano bench. “No,” the valet says. “He puts them in his butt.”
Steroid use was once so taboo among showfolk that normally polite audiences of The King and I famously taunted a suddenly bulked-up Yul Brynner with chants of: “Getting to know you / Putting it my way but nicely / You have unwisely / Chosen to take Testroprim-D.”
In recent years, however, steroid abuse has become epidemic among Western playwrights, casting doubt on the legitimacy of many box-office records. Although the American Theatre Wing has been silent on the issue, increasingly muscle-bound writers are illegally injecting themselves with artificial testosterone, and one icon of the modern stage, himself a former user, has chosen to speak publicly about the problem.
Arthur Miller, who claims he was clean when he debuted on Broadway in 1947, says the pressure to produce profitable shows that are also critically acclaimed has turned more and more writers to dietary supplements and strength-enhancing drugs. “These days, a playwright could rely on just the talent God gave him,” Miller says, injecting his voice with sarcasm the way August Wilson allegedly injects his thighs with Anabolex. “If all he wants is a Tony.”
Miller is quick to point out that it wasn’t always this way, and when the conversation turns to his early days, he becomes nostalgic. “You should have seen me when I was writing Death of a Salesman. I had pecs the size of Iroquois saddlebags and my glutes were so rock-hard I could have sat on Joe McCarthy’s head and popped it like a rotten beet.” He smiles. “Now that would have been an ‘un-American activity’—crushing a U.S. Senator’s melon with my ass.”
With the scandal in the open, there are some who suggest that an asterisk should accompany Miller’s Pulitzer Prize, but the accomplished playwright, screenwriter, and novelist insists his Salesman-era physique was natural: “Back then I was one hundred percent Art Miller from Harlem via Brooklyn.” It wasn’t until he tore a rotator cuff during the writing of The Crucible that he says he turned to steroids in order to accelerate the healing process. “Karl Malden drove me down to a little farmacia in Mexico and he showed me how to inject the stuff in a Tijuana hotel. Que Rico!”
Back in New York, Miller saw immediate results in his work. “Drugs won’t do the writing for you, but steroids can take a monologue that would have gone to the warning track and knock it out of the park.” Indeed, in retrospect, several passages from The Crucible seem so obviously the progeny of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone that it’s a wonder the New York drama critics weren’t handing Miller plastic specimen cups instead of bronze-and-marble statues. Take Proctor’s speech to Mary Warren at the end of Act II:
Now Hell and Heaven grapple on our backs, and all our old pretense is ripped away—make your peace! Peace. It is a providence, and no great change; we are only what we always were but naked now. Aye, naked! And the wind, God’s icy wind, will blow!
Miller remembers the inspiration for those words vividly: “I was pumped so full of Deca Durabolin I couldn’t get in or out of my room at the Chelsea without shaving my chest and slathering my hips with melted butter,” he says. “Eventually the owner, a Hungarian fellow named David Bard, got a saw and widened the door. He used to say he liked being around writers and musicians but their collective muscle mass was putting unacceptable stress on the building’s foundation.”
The Crucible was a popular and critical sensation and became a high-school syllabus standard, but the pressure on Miller to continue cycling the drug had as much to do with meeting the expectations of a particular future spouse as it did with maintaining his success on the stage.
“Did you ever see DiMaggio’s abs?” Miller asks. “Christ, he was built like Adonis! Marilyn never stopped raving about the Yankee Clipper’s six-pack. Kennedy, on the other hand, was a bit of a doughboy: a soft-bellied, liberal poseur with buns and thighs like homemade vanilla pudding. I never knew what she saw in him—Jack Kennedy’s obliques were defined, but they weren’t well-defined.”
It’s not surprising then that Miller makes no apologies for his years under the influence of illegal steroids. “Let’s imagine you’re a young playwright, trying to stay clean and lucky enough to have a show opening at the Winter Garden. But over at the Virginia you know there’s a writer shot up with more Lasix than a Kentucky thoroughbred and he’s going to take your ticket-buyers, your house, your money, your troubled and needy movie-starlet wife. That’s a powerful motivation. These days, I’d guess about half of all the playwrights on Broadway are on the stuff.”
As criticism of his drug use mounts, Miller has some choice words for observers who might use this admission to reconsider his legacy in the history of performing arts. “It would be one thing if I was the only guy doing it, but I was just trying to level the playing field,” he says. “You know, over the years, my critics have tried to tell me that tragedy cannot befall a common man. Apparently my ‘critics’ have never seen Neil Simon’s chronic acne and shriveling testes.
“And I’m not accusing him, but when a 75-year-old fart-joke like Mel ‘Spaceballs’ Brooks, who’s never written a goddam play in his life, suddenly breaks every single-season record on Broadway, it makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”
Still, given Miller’s startling confession, one doesn’t have to be a cynic or a critic to wonder about other pillars of the modern stage. Brian Dennehy, for instance, was better known as a television actor when he swept every New York drama award for his performance in the revival of Salesman.
“Dennehy?” Miller makes the kind of disappointed frown you’d expect him to reserve for sitcom writers and fascists. “Nah, just look at him. Frankly, I don’t know why everybody made such a fuss over his performance. Ever since that canary Elia Kazan cast Lee Cobb in ’49, everyone thinks Willy has to waddle around the stage like a goddam walrus. For Chrissakes, I called him Low-Man, not Fat Ass.