Director Robert Ellis Miller ("The Changing of the Guard") 1932-2017
Robert Ellis Miller, the veteran director of films including 1968’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and 1983’s Reuben, Reuben, died Friday. He was 89.
He had been living at the Motion Picture & Television Country House since the death of his wife, documentarian Pola Miller (nee Chasman), two years ago.
Miller’s film version of Heart, the 1940 Carson McCullers novel about a deaf man’s relationship with a teenage girl in 1930s Georgia, starred Alan Arkin and introduced an unknown Sondra Locke to the screen. Both received Oscar nominations for their work, and the movie was nominated for a Golden Globe in the best drama category.
“Arkin, as Singer, is extraordinary, deep and sound,” wrote Renata Adler in a New York Times review. “Walking, with his hat jammed flat on his head, among the obese, the mad, the infirm, characters with one leg, broken hip, scarred mouth, failing life, he somehow manages to convey every dimension of his character, especially intelligence.”
Dan Bronson, the writer of HBO’s The Last Innocent Man, used Heart to teach students about the grammar of motion pictures during an earlier career as an academic. “Heart is one of the films that gave me the resolve to turn my back on tenure and ride the rollercoaster of Hollywood,” he noted in an essay about the movie. “But it did more than inspire me. It moved me.”
Miller’s most warmly received film was the comedic drama Reuben, Reuben, starring Tom Conti as a debauched poet battling writer’s block. The picture was included in competition at Cannes — which Miller regarded as one of the highlights of his career — and earned Conti and writer Julius J. Epstein Oscar nominations. It too was nominated for a Golden Globe (best drama).
“Very much in the British tradition of quality,” noted critic Emanuel Levy, “Robert Ellis Miller’s Reuben, Reuben is a modest, intimate and intelligent film, featuring an Oscar-nominated turn from Tom Conti, better known for his stage work.”
A warm, good-humored man with a love of puns and an infectious enthusiasm, he was fond of describing how MCA Universal’s powerful executive Lew Wasserman would confuse him with the similar-looking director Arthur Hiller. “Miller-Hiller!” he’d bark. “Hiller-Miller!”
He spoke warmly of Bette Davis, whom he had once directed, and whose neighbor he was in Los Angeles’ famed Colonial building, doing a spot-on imitation of the intimidating star as she would listen, hawk-like, then flick her cigarette ash across the floor, either in approval or disapproval.
An astute but generous observer of the industry, Miller recalled meeting the young Steven Spielberg, who came to visit one of his sets, and remembered how gracious the twenty-something was.
Once asked to name the greatest myth about the movie business, he replied: “That the camera never lies.”
At Harvard, he was president of its Dramatic Club and a member of the Hasty Pudding Society. He entered television upon graduation, assisting other major directors including Sidney Lumet before going on to direct such shows as Naked City, Route 66, The Twilight Zone and The Rogues.
His first feature was 1967’s Any Wednesday, starring Jane Fonda and Jason Robards Jr. Other credits included Sweet November, The Buttercup Chain, The Big Truck and The Girl From Petrovka. His last film was the 1996 ABC TV movie The Angel of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Miller and his wife spent several years living in London, where Miller directed the Timothy Dalton starrer Hawks. Among the other A-list stars he directed were Goldie Hawn, Anthony Hopkins, Peter Ustinov, Cicely Tyson, Omar Sharif and James Coburn.
He received an Emmy Award nomination for 1991’s ABC drama series Alcoa Premiere and a DGA nomination for an episode of 1963’s TV series Breaking Point.
An active member of the Directors Guild of America, Miller was a lifetime trustee of its pension plan. He was also a charter founder of the Artists Rights Foundation and a member of the Motion Picture Academy.
Survivors include his sister, Judith Merwin, nieces Sara Merwin and Deborah Chasman, nephews Peter Merwin, Daniel Merwin, Clifford James and Daniel Chasman, brothers-in-law Chellis Chasman and Donald Merwin.
His funeral will take place at 12.30 p.m. on Wednesday at Sinai Chapels in Fresh Meadows, N.Y. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations go to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.
Edited 2 times by Major Jan 30 17 8:22 PM.