Denny Miller, a noted UCLA basketball player in the 1950s who dropped the sport to play the title role in the 1959 movie “Tarzan the Ape Man” and went on to appear in “Wagon Train” and numerous other TV shows, died Tuesday at home in Las Vegas. He was 80.
The cause was ALS, said his wife, Nancy.
Miller, whose self-effacing humor made him a hit at Tarzan and western film festivals, knew his Tarzan movie was not a cinematic milestone. “In a book called ‘Tarzan of the Movies’” he noted in a 1997 Newsday interview, “it was under the heading, ‘Tarzan the Worst.’”
And he was well aware that he got the part because of brawn instead of acting experience, of which he had none at the time. Miller was spotted by a talent agent while moving furniture for a job he had with Bekins Storage. The agent arranged for a screen test at MGM and Miller got a seven-year MGM contract.
“I was going to be a basketball coach,” he said in a 2012 interview with the Charleston Gazette. “It was hard to explain my change in career plans — and my new contract with a major studio — to theater arts majors in my fraternity house.”
Though he loved basketball and greatly admired his coach, the legendary John Wooden, a film career had more potential to pay off handsomely. Besides, his first major role, even in a turkey of a movie, was great fun.
“I was a kid,” he said to Newsday. “Ride that elephant. Kiss that pretty girl. Why me, God?”
Miller was born April 25, 1934, in Bloomington, Ind. The family moved to Los Angeles when his father got a position teaching physical education at UCLA. Miller graduated from University High School and even though he dropped out of UCLA twice — to serve in the Army and when he got the MGM contract — he eventually earned his bachelor’s degree at the school in kinesiology.
Post-Tarzan, he played Duke Shannon on “Wagon Train” from 1961 to 1964, and appeared in numerous other well-known series, including “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Rockford Files” and “Dallas.” In later years he was in numerous commercials, most prominently as the bearded fisherman for Gorton’s Seafood.
Miller preferred comedy over drama — his favorite film role was in “The Party” (1968) — but he often played the heavy.
“I got a lot of work, usually because of my size,” he said in an interview with photographer Charles Gabrean. “I got beat up by everybody in town.”
In addition to his wife, Miller is survived by son Brad and daughter Courtney.
A previous marriage to actress Kit Smythe ended in divorce.