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Jason Miller; Actor, Playwright Received a Tony and a Pulitzer

TIMES THEATER WRITER

Jason Miller, an actor and playwright whose “That Championship Season” won a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize as the best play of 1973, died Sunday of a heart attack at his home in Scranton, Pa. He was 62.

Miller had his own championship season in 1973: Not only was his play triumphant, but he appeared as Father Karras in “The Exorcist,” for which he received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination.

His writing and acting careers never again reached those pinnacles.

At least on paper, Miller’s career resembled the arc of the characters in “That Championship Season.” In that play, the coach and players on a high school basketball team reunite after 20 years, only to find that their subsequent achievements never attained the luster of the night they won the state championship game.

Yet Miller’s brief burst of fame was intense. In his book “Uneasy Stages,” critic John Simon praised Miller’s success with “That Championship Season,” saying: “An author who can be both surgically probing and charitable, both muckraking and forgiving, performs that marriage of incisiveness and generosity from which truths are born.”

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Miller was born in Long Island City, N.Y., but his parents--his father was an electrician and his mother taught children with special needs--moved to Scranton when Jason was an infant.

An athlete and elocution champion in a Catholic high school, he entered the University of Scranton on an athletic scholarship but soon switched to acting and writing for the theater. His one-act play about a prizefighter, “The Winner,” won a Jesuit-sponsored contest.

After graduating in 1961, Miller studied drama at Catholic University in Washington, where he met Linda Gleason, a daughter of comedian Jackie Gleason. They married in 1963 and performed Shakespeare together in local high schools before moving to New York, where Miller worked as a struggling actor and in various day jobs throughout the 1960s. The couple later divorced.

He also continued writing. Miller later said, “When you write a play, you act out all the parts, so what you’re doing in the daytime is preparing for your performance at night. You get to the theater warmed up.”

In 1970, Miller’s efforts began to yield results. His one-act “Lou Gehrig Did Not Die of Cancer” premiered that year and has since gone on to many productions. His full-length “Nobody Hears a Broken Drum,” about oppressed Irish miners in Pennsylvania in 1862, had a brief off-Broadway run in 1970.

Miller wrote “That Championship Season” that year during his off hours from an acting job in a dinner theater production of “The Odd Couple” in Fort Worth. After he had completed 153 pages, Miller and other cast members were driving to the airport when the manuscript blew out the window and scattered over a field. Miller and his friends retrieved every page, he later recalled.

A year later, he played a leading role in “Subject to Fits” at the New York Public Theater, whose impresario Joseph Papp became the first producer to agree to mount “That Championship Season.”

The production opened at Papp’s theater in May 1972. Four months later, it moved to Broadway, where it played for 700 performances, closing in 1974.

The original cast featured Richard Dysart as the coach, with Charles Durning, Paul Sorvino, Walter McGinn and Michael McGuire as the former players. When the play came to the Shubert Theatre in Century City in 1973, Forrest Tucker and George Dzundza headed the cast.

The play was converted into two television movies. The first, directed by Miller in 1982, featured Robert Mitchum as the coach and also starred Bruce Dern. Miller updated the script for a 1999 version on Showtime, which Sorvino directed.

Miller garnered success as a television actor in later life, appearing in the title role of “F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood” in 1976 and in a made-for-TV movie about anorexia, “The Best Little Girl in the World,” in 1988. He repeated his “Exorcist” character in 1990’s “Exorcist III.” He also wrote several TV movies.

After winning the Pulitzer, Miller told The Times that he felt an obligation to continue contributing to the theater. “I think it would be ungracious not to,” he said. “Theater is in desperate straits, and I’d like to help pick it up.”

But his produced theatrical output after “That Championship Season” was slim. He wrote and appeared in “Barrymore’s Ghost,” which was produced in Seattle in 1997, and he returned to his hometown in 1986 to become artistic director of Scranton Public Theatre.

He is survived by three sons, “The Mao Game” author and film director Joshua, actor Jason Patric of Los Angeles, and social worker Jordan Miller of Fort Lee, N.J.; and a daughter, Jennifer Miller of Granada Hills.

Jason and Joshua Miller were collaborating on a new play, “Me and My Old Man,” at the time of Miller’s death.


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