J.P. Miller, a onetime boxer and closet poet who successfully wrote his way through the Golden Age of Television, motion pictures and even novels but is probably best remembered for his achingly memorable script exploring alcoholism, “Days of Wine and Roses,” has died. He was 81.
Miller died Thursday of pneumonia in Stockton, N.J., where he spent much of his professional life after deciding residency in Hollywood “victimized me.”
Before the dramatic classic “Days of Wine and Roses” was a motion picture starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in 1962, it was a startling teleplay. Aired on “Philco TV Playhouse” in 1958, the production starred Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie as the couple who slide into alcoholic ruin, and was directed by John Frankenheimer.
When the small screen version was rebroadcast on PBS in 1981, a Washington Post reviewer cryptically observed the production “suggests there once was a possibility that television would turn into an art form.”
Miller got $1,300 for the script, as he did for all “Philco TV Playhouse” scripts. He didn’t have to look far for material--no further than his own past.
“I was a big boozer myself at one time and went to a lot of AA meetings,” he told an interviewer.
James Pinckney Miller was born in San Antonio and worked as a professional boxer billed as Tex Frontier. He served as a Navy lieutenant in the Pacific theater during World War II, earning a Purple Heart.
He also attended Rice University and Yale Drama School and wrote poetry published in small literary magazines. Although he would find far greater success writing prose, he later confided he remained a “closet poet” who liked nothing better than to “write poetry which I know will never be published and never read by anybody but me.”
Fortuitously, Miller came of age as a writer just as live television was developing with its unquenchable thirst for dramatic scripts--good scripts. His first sale was an episode for “Man Against Crime,” for which he was paid $750.
As the 1950s waned along with television’s brief golden age of bringing theater into the living room, Miller moved easily into screenwriting. He turned his 1954 teleplay “The Rabbit Trap” into the 1959 motion picture of the same name and then repeated the exercise with “Days of Wine and Roses.”
A few years later, Miller earned an Emmy for “The People Next Door” starring Eli Wallach and Cloris Leachman and broadcast in a CBS revival of “Playhouse 90" in 1968. That, too, he turned into a motion picture in 1970.
Tiring of Hollywood with its “big houses, swimming pols, starlets [and] 12-year-old scotch,” Miller moved to New Jersey and determined to write novels. He turned out “The Race for Home” in 1968, “Liv” in 1973, the metaphorical “The Skook” in 1984 and most recently “Surviving Joy.”
Miller never strayed too far from television. He earned a Mystery Writers of America award for “Your Money or Your Wife” broadcast on CBS in 1972 and an Edgar Allan Poe Award for his television adaptation of the Vincent Bugliosi Jr. novel “Helter Skelter,” about the Charles Manson family, seen on CBS in 1976.
Miller earned kudos for numerous docudramas based on real news events, including “The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case” on NBC in 1976, “Gauguin the Savage” on CBS in 1980, “I Know My First Name Is Steven” (written with Cynthia Whitcomb) on NBC in 1989 and “The Preppie Killing” on CBS the same year.
If “Days of Wine and Roses” was the best known of Miller’s eclectic body of work, certainly his novel “The Skook” was the most unusual.
The protagonist, a middle-age builder on a fishing trip, escapes harassment by a biker gang and falls into a mysterious cave where he has long soul-searching discussions with the “Skook"--a character he once made up to entertain his children. One reviewer described the book as Hemingway escapism from mundane life, and another envisioned the title critter as “a dachshund-sized creature with short, bowed legs, wings, horns and a long curly tail.”
Calling the novel “a sharp contrast to Miller’s previous works” a Times review noted: “This is, in part, a story about deep-set fears of living a boring existence at middle-age with an unfaithful spouse . . . The Skook itself is a tempting metaphor for man’s inner strengths and purities, for his fears of the unknown and his dread of the all-too-familiar.”
Miller had recently completed a draft of his memoirs of his war experiences, “A Ship Without a Shore.”
Divorced twice, the writer is survived by his third wife, Julianne Nicolaus, whom he married in 1965; four sons, James Pinckney “Jace” Jr., John, Montgomery and Anthony Milo; two daughters, Sophie and Lia; and one grandson.
Funeral services will be private. Memorial donations can be sent to the Hunterdon Medical Center Foundation in Hunterdon, N.J.