I first met Jason Miller when he was a senior playing varsity basketball at St. Patrick’s, West Scranton. I was a senior playing at St. Patrick’s, Olyphant, a small town about six miles north of Scranton. We used to make small talk during warm-ups prior to the games between the two schools.
At the end of basketball season, Miller was named The Catholic League’s leading scorer and was elected to the all-star team.
One afternoon in the winter of 1956, Miller, who I, like most people, called Jack (he was actually christened John Anthony), and the girls called Howie, telephoned and said he wanted to hang out in my neighborhood. We agreed that he would drive over to my parents’ house, and from there we’d go to Pihl’s Diner.
At 17, Miller had that magic that would bring him later success as an actor. Everyone paid attention when he walked into a room. The girls swooned when we sat down at a table in Pihl’s, and the next day in school I was very popular. Everyone wanted to know how it was that I happened to be hanging out with Miller and if we were good friends.
After our night out at Pihl’s, the next time I saw Miller, I was part of a contingent of students who attended a diocese oratorical contest, and Miller, competing against larger schools, won the contest for St. Patrick’s.
Miller, the grandson of a coal miner, always considered Scranton home, but he was actually born in Long Island City, New York, on April 22, 1939 to Irish-American parents, Marie Claire Collins, a teacher, and John Miller, an electrician. The family moved to Lackawanna Valley, Pennsylvania when Miller was very young and he always carried an emotional connection to the place.
Miller’s Irish heritage was important to him. He was a big fan of Notre Dame football, and everything Irish. He entered the Jesuit-run University of Scranton on an athletic scholarship, but the nuns at his old high school had introduced Miller to poetry and encouraged him to write, and he soon left athletics behind to study theater and playwriting. After the graduation from Scranton he continued his studies at Catholic University of America where he met, and soon married, Linda Gleason, a fellow student, and the daughter of comedian Jackie Gleason.
The couple moved to New York where Miller worked as a messenger boy, truck driver and waiter to stay afloat, while performing in off-Broadway productions. He had a couple of his plays produced during this time, including one about the plight of Irish miners set in Pennsylvania in 1862, called Nobody Hears a Broken Drum.
In 1972, Miller wrote That Championship Season, a play about a winning basketball team returning to the house of their coach for a reunion. After opening off-Broadway the play moved to the Booth Theatre where it ran for 988 performances. It won the Tony Award for best play, 1973, and brought Miller the Pulitzer Prize in Drama.
The year 1973 proved to be a milestone in Miller’s life. In addition to winning the Pulitzer and the Tony, he was nominated for an Academy Award for his first on-screen performance as Father Damien in the horror movie The Exorcist. Sadly, in the midst of all this professional acclaim, his marriage to Linda with whom he had three children (including actor Jason Patric) ended in divorce.
In total, Miller was in 29 movies. None could top The Exorcist, but an outstanding television movie in which he starred with Tuesday Weld was F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. Miller’s performance went deep into the soul and psyche of the troubled Fitzgerald.
There was no hiding from Miller the sweat and blood and bad times of those who lived tortured lives searching for the right words. He often drank heavily himself, and at times, after his return to Scranton, you would see him walking alone, hunched, staggering, wearing his favorite coat, a dark olive U.S. Army combat jacket.
I think one of his big disappointments in life was the film version of That Championship Season. As director, Miller had assembled a first-rate cast to film in Scranton. William Holden was set to play the lead role of the coach, and liked the screenplay so much that he believed it would resurrect his career.
But Holden died, and Robert Mitchum was given the part. Not everyone agreed that Mitchum was the best choice because of his laid-back manner. Miller told me about this one day after some critics had panned the movie.
In the mid-1980s, Miller decided to leave Hollywood and return home to Scranton. He took up permanent residence in an apartment on the corner of Spruce Street and Washington Avenue in the heart of downtown where he had a sweeping view of the city and the Lackawanna County Courthouse, across the street.
Miller wanted to revive the arts in Scranton, and with his friend Bob Shlesinger diligently co-founded the Scranton Public Theatre. It didn’t take him long to get things going. He was asked to appear at every event from A to Z, and he generously accepted. It became noticeable that many people in Scranton would say,
“Oh, I was out with Jason Miller last night.”
Downtown one day, I ran into William “Bill” McAndrew, Miller’s longtime friend and publicist, and he told me to be on the lookout for a letter from Miller inviting me to a party at his apartment. Sure enough, I received a note saying, “And please don’t bring the ghosts,” a reference to my book and movie, The Haunted.
It was a nice time at the gathering, and as I was leaving, Miller came over to me, hugged me, kissed me on the cheek and said, “I love ya, pal.”
We joked about what would happen to our legs if we tried to play basketball again.
Miller was quiet, polite and somewhat shy, but at times he’d open up to have some fun. One day, Richard Harris arrived in Scranton where he had agreed to teach university drama students, and put on a play. I was on the city courthouse steps with Miller when Harris arrived.
The Masonic Temple, with a huge theater inside, was a short walk up the street, and Harris wanted to see it and get the lay of the stage. Miller and I had been inside scores of times and decided to wait outside.
Suddenly, Miller walked up the steps to the temple, and out of nowhere, began reciting from a play, I believe it was something from Shakespeare.
He continued this tour de force while I clapped and chanted “bravo,” and people walking up and down the street may have thought we were two lunatics.
One of Miller’s goals was to write a book covering 50 years of Irish history, including the labor movement, the coal mines (he went into the mines to see the dangers for himself) and injustice to the Irish on all fronts, including the confiscation of their land by Britain.
During one of our conversations, he said: “It’s very suspicious that there’s a famine in Ireland in the mid-19th century that was blamed on a virus, while Ireland’s population decreased from 8 million to 3.5 million. It’s curious that a ‘famine’ lasted five years.”
Miller served as Artistic Director of the Scranton Public Theatre for many years and also continued to work outside. He starred as Henry Drummond opposite Malachy McCourt as Matt Brady in Inherit the Wind. The play opened in Scranton and then transferred to Philadephila where it had an extended run in the Courthouse, and broke the city’s record for long run plays.
Malachy remembers Miller: “It was a challenge to attempt to come near his performance, but he made sure it didn’t defeat. You would find yourself giving the performance of your life. He was very good company. He had an extraordinarily bright and incisive mind – always tinged with paranoia. ‘They were doing something,’ whoever they were. I was always worried about him. He was constantly on about how he was going to stop drinking and going to stop smoking, and I was trying to be helpful without being preachy . . . in that sense he was quite self destructive.”
Miller continued to work. He toured the country in his one-man play Barrymore’s Ghost, which ended with a four-month run Off-Broadway.
He began working on a screenplay with his son Joshua (by Susan Bernard). On May 13, 2001, he attended a wake for the mother of Judge James Walsh. He and his companion Dana Oxley continued on to have lunch with friends at Farley’s Pub and Eatery in Scranton. He was alive and well at one moment, but in the next moment he was gone. It was a fatal heart attack.
Funeral services were held at St. Patrick’s Church, West Scranton, and among the attendees was actor Martin Sheen and others who had roles in That Championship Season.
A Roman Catholic nun bristled when asked by the press if she thought Miller might have been drinking too much. “How can you say that?” she shot back. “Everyone likes a drink every once in a while. There’s nothing wrong with it. And look what he’s done for Scranton,” she said.
Miller loved Scranton and Lackawanna County to the end. One day in his apartment, he and I were talking when he jumped up from his chair, and said, “You have to listen to this. I just found it today.”
He pulled out Carl Sandburg’s Honey and Salt from a stack of books and he opened it to a page where “Lackawanna Twilight” was printed. He read the poem to me:
Twilight and little mountain
Towns along the Lehigh, sundown
And grey lavender flush
Miners with dinner buckets and
Headlamps, state constabulary on
Horses, guns in holsters, Scranton,
Wilkesbarre, the Lackawanna Trail.
Twilight and the blessed armistice
Of late afternoon and early evening.
Twilight and the sports sheets, movies,
Chain programs, magazines, comics,
Twilight and headlights on the new
Hard roads, boy friend and girl friend,
Dreams, romance, bread, wages, babies. Homes.
As they say on Broadway, he had a good run.