Jeff Millar, the wordsmith behind the long-running comic strip "Tank McNamara," which evolved into a biting satire of the sports world, died Nov. 30. He was 70.
The Texas native, who also was a longtime film critic and columnist for the Houston Chronicle, died at his Houston-area home after an almost four-year battle with bile-duct cancer, said his wife, Peg.
The daily, syndicated comic strip — with a hefty-jawed protagonist who matured from a bumbling ex-NFL player into a reflective TV sportscaster — runs in about 150 newspapers nationwide. It made its Times debut Aug. 5, 1974, right below "Doonesbury."
Bill Hinds, who draws the strip and took over the writing a couple of months ago, said Millar asked him to collaborate on the project from the start. Millar wanted to do something "satirical and sardonic" like "Doonesbury," Hinds recalled, but with a focus on sports. The drama of sports — and how seriously Americans take them — always amused Millar, said his wife.
At 6 feet 3 inches tall, Millar had the physique of an athlete, but he wasn't necessarily a sports zealot.
"Jeff's perspective was outside of sports looking in," Hinds said. "When you're inside, you can't see how crazy it is."
Millar wasn't afraid to tackle the less-than-perfect realities of sports. Short-tempered coaches, players with DUI charges and sexual misconduct scandals were frequent topics of the strip.
"He wanted to go cutting-edge," his wife said. "He wasn't too worried about how he was perceived."
In 2009, the Washington Post deemed six strips, which satirized the NFL's handling of a star African American quarterback embroiled in an illegal dogfighting scandal, "inappropriate" and refused to run them. One showed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell asking former Vice President Dick Cheney for advice on how the league should respond to Michael Vick's actions. Cheney's suggestion, in the comic: "Kill him."
In the early '90s, Millar told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "There is no hands-off subject."
The strip, which no longer runs in The Times, also gained popularity by engaging with its followers. Each year, readers sent in submissions to help pick Tank McNamara's "Sports Jerk of the Year." Two big-name winners of the less-than-flattering award: NFL wide receiver Terrell Owens and Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig.
When Millar wasn't penning pithy one-liners about golf fans or crafting sharp criticism about recruiting violations for the strip, he was often writing a humor column for the Chronicle.
Born July 10, 1942, in Pasadena, Texas, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas and joined the Houston Chronicle right out of college. Over the years, he covered music and movies for the newspaper. He met his English teacher wife after she sent him a letter at the paper praising his writing.
His comic strip collaborator said his "favorite vision of Jeff is his bewildered look."
"He was bewildered a lot by life and sports," Hinds said, "and he translated that into humor."
In addition to his wife, Millar is survived by his sisters Lisa Berry, Serena Andrews and Shelly Millar and his brothers, Dan and Mark.