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.”