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Jason Miller

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Jason (born John) Miller was the only child of John Miller, an electrician, and Mary Claire Miller, a special education teacher. When Jason was still an infant, the family moved from New York to Scranton, Pennsylvania. His education was exclusively Catholic. Following parochial school, he attended St. Patrick’s High School, where he came under the strong influence of Sister Celine, a nun of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who taught Jason public speaking, debating, and rhetoric. Years later he told an interviewer, “She gave me encouragement at a time when I might have stolen cars.” Miller went to the Jesuit University of Scranton on an athletic scholarship and earned his B.A. in 1961. While in college, he garnered a first-place prize in a Jesuit Play Contest for his one-act piece titled The Winners, his first playwriting effort. He then went to graduate school at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1962 to 1963 and, in spite of his absenteeism and breaking of rules, earned his master’s degree.

In 1963, Miller married Linda Gleason, a fellow Catholic University drama student and daughter of comedian Jackie Gleason. The Millers moved to Flushing and Neponsit, Queens, in New York City. They had three children before their divorce in 1973. Afterward, Miller moved to Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. At one point, he married model Ruth Josem. He also fathered a fourth child with girlfriend Susan Bernard.

In New York, Miller had found occasional work in television commercials and soap operas. However, beginning with Off-Off Broadway and Off-Broadway appearances, he eventually became a significant actor and director in stage, film, and television productions. Between acting assignments, Miller worked as a messenger, a truck loader and driver, and a welfare investigator. When desperate enough, he sold his blood on New York’s Bowery and collected unemployment compensation. He constantly talked of his love for New York, which he described as “the capital of my imagination, the El Dorado of my mind.”

Miller’s first exposure to the theater had been at High Mass, with all its pomp and circumstance. He felt that all good theater includes something religious about it. When still at St. Patrick’s High, he played the British queen Victoria’s private secretary in Laurence Housman’s Victoria Regina (pb. 1934) for a production at Marywood College in Scranton. Eventually, his stage appearances took him around much of the United States, but one role in the premiere of Robert Montgomery’s Subject to Fits at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater in 1971 had special significance for his career: There he met the famous producer Joseph Papp and the equally illustrious director A. J. Antoon. Papp, after some hesitation and editorial changes, agreed to stage what came to be Miller’s best-known work, That Championship Season, in 1972.

Miller’s first full-length play, Nobody Hears a Broken Drum, had enjoyed a very short Off-Broadway run in 1970. The play is about a vigilante group, the Molly Maguires, active in the Pennsylvania coal mines in the nineteenth century. That Championship Season saw 144 performances at the Public Theater before moving to the Booth Theater on Broadway for an additional 844 shows. Within a year, Miller had won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony (Antoinette Perry) and New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, as well as the Outer Critics Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright of 1972. The prizewinning play was made into a film, written and directed by Miller in 1982, and a television version was adapted by Miller in 1999.

That Championship Season, based on Miller’s experience at St. Patrick’s High School in the 1950’s, depicts the twentieth anniversary reunion of four members of the Pennsylvania State High School basketball team celebrating their 1952 victory. At this reunion, held at the coach’s home, the liquor keeps flowing, and the nostalgic, lighthearted evening soon becomes bitterly argumentative and divisive as their private lives and careers are revealed to be less than picture-perfect. Two of the players (and the fifth team member, who has never attended the yearly ritual) have known all along that their victory had been a sham, achieved at the price of a coach-directed foul. Indeed, the coach is a man whose only guiding principle, then as now, is that winning is everything. Essentially, the play is a wrenching commentary on personal failures and American values at the time of the Vietnam War, during the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Miller’s play Nobody Hears a Broken Drum was selected as the “millennium play” for the state of Pennsylvania and was awarded its Gold Medal. In acting, Miller’s highest honor came in the form of an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Father Damien Karras in the 1973 motion picture The Exorcist. In it, the Catholic priest battles the demon in a possessed twelve-year-old girl. Miller had numerous other film credits.

At the time of his death from a heart attack in May, 2001, Miller was artistic director of the Scranton Public Theater and its summer theater festival. He was also scheduled to perform in a revival of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple (pr. 1965). In discussing his epitaph the year before he died, Miller had said: “ . . . I’d prefer that when I take the bus to another zone, I go further. I’m not interested in coming back.”

Hershey, Jonathan. “Jason Miller.” In Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, edited by John MacNicholas. Vol. 7 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Group, 1981. An overview of Miller’s career. Miller, Jason. “On the Set.” The New Yorker 48 (May 20, 1972): 32-33. An interview in which Miller talks about his life, philosophy, family, career, and how his only draft of That Championship Season was blown off the trunk of a car in which he was riding to the Dallas airport but was later retrieved in a Texas field.

Nykoruk, Barbara, ed. Authors in the News. Vol 1. Detroit: Gale, 1976. Includes a profile of Miller based on interviews with him originally appearing in the Miami Herald, January 27, 1974, and the Cleveland Press, March 15, 1974.

Oliver, Edith. “Off Broadway.” The New Yorker 46 (March 28, 1970): 84-86. Review of Nobody Hears a Broken Drum.

Simon, John. Review of That Championship Season, by Jason Miller. Hudson Review 25 (Winter, 1972/1973): 515-625. A thorough analysis of Miller’s prizewinning play.

Weinless, Lori. Preface to That Championship Season, by Jason Miller. In Best American Plays, edited by Clive Barnes. 8th ed. New York: Crown, 1983. The text of Miller’s play is preceded by a short but good biography by Wein less.…...

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