Playwright Jason Miller, who won the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for That Championship Season, died May 13 in Scranton, PA, following a massive heart attack, according to Bob Shlesinger, the executive director of Scranton Public Theater, where Mr. Miller was artistic director.
Mr. Miller, 62, was born John Anthony Miller in Queens, NY, but became a Northeast Pennsylvania literary hero by setting his 1972 play, about former high school champion basketball players, in Lackawanna Valley, PA. His parents moved to Scranton before he began school, and Mr. Miller fell in love with the region and its people, and returned to them in later life. In 1986, with Shlesinger, he began the Pennsylvania Summer Theatre Festival, an arm of Shlesinger's Scranton Public Theater. He became artistic director of both.
Mr. Miller was also an actor who earned an Academy Award nomination for playing Father Damien in "The Exorcist." He also directed for the stage, and wrote one-acts and a handful of full-length works (and the screenplay for the 1982 film of his prize-winning masterwork). As with many Pulitzer winners, his later work did not catch fire like his award-winner.
On the afternoon of May 13, Mr. Miller suffered a heart attack and was rushed to Mercy Hospital in Scranton, and was pronounced dead shortly after.
"He's been our spiritual leader for a long time," Shlesinger told Playbill On-Line. "For those who knew him, he was a romantic, a poet, a compassionate man, he had a zest for life. He loved the theatre more than anything. We're all stunned and shocked here. If you knew him, he would say, 'Don't cry for me.'" That Championship Season, which later became a film, was revived by Second Stage, Off-Broadway, in spring 1999. The play was inspired by his experiences on the St. Patrick's High School basketball team in Scranton in the late 1950s.
This summer, he was to play Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple and direct Driving Miss Daisy in the spacious theatre tent that is part of the annual Pennsylvania Summer Theatre Festival. Shlesinger said May 14 the troupe may instead stage That Championship Season in tribute to Mr. Miller.
Mr. Miller was a graduate of University of Scranton (studying English and philosophy) and earned a master's degree at Catholic University. He acted and wrote. He was married to Linda Mae Gleason, the daughter of Jackie Gleason, and eventually settled in New York to act.
In 1972, That Championship Season moved to Broadway's Booth Theatre after starting at The Public Theater, where Joseph Papp gave it a reading and then a staging. A.J. Antoon directed a cast that featured Paul Sorvino, Richard Dysart, Charles Durning, Walter McGinn, Michael McGuire. The play concerns the shattered memories and lingering adolescent delusions of four former high school basketball players, who reunite with their coach in middle-age. It ran 700 performances and won the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A tour and a London production followed. The 1982 film starred Bruce Dern, Martin Sheen, Stacy Keach, Sorvino and Robert Mitchum.
Among Mr. Miller's other plays was the one-man work, Barrymore's Ghost, which used the wasted actor's life as a metaphor for artists who squander their gifts. The play is set in purgatory, Shlesinger said. The play, with Mr. Miller in the role, was staged at the University of Scranton, then at the Scranton summer fest and later in Seattle.
Mr. Miller began the summer festival with Shlesinger in 1986 and acted and directed for both Scranton Public Theater and the festival. With Mr. Miller's awards and connections to New York and Hollywood, "he legitimized us," Shlesinger observed. The Public works with non-union regional actors and Equity guest artists.
His Nobody Hears a Broken Drum was a tribute to the coal boom and coal workers in Pennsylvania. It was staged in Wilkes Barre in 1997.
His one-act plays include It's a Sin to Tell a Lie, Lou Gehrig Did Not Die of Cancer and The Circus Lady.
Shlesinger said Mr. Miller was recently working on a play with his son, Joshua.
"He was gifted, he was truly gifted," Shlesinger said. "I think That Championship Season still holds up, passes the test of time."
As an actor, in 1992, Mr. Miller starred as Henry Drummond in a revival of the courtroom drama, Inherit the Wind, staged in actual court houses in Scranton and Wilkes Barre, and then later in Philadelphia City Hall, where the play ran six months and won awards. Malachy McCourt was his co-star.
Survivors include Mr. Miller's girlfriend, Dana Oxley, a lawyer in Scranton; sons actor Jason Patric, actor-writer Joshua Miller (both of Los Angeles) and Jordan Miller (of New York) and daughter Jennifer Miller (of Los Angeles ). Former wives Linda Gleason and Ruth Josem also survive.