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Walter C. Miller, longtime director of Grammy, Emmy and Tony awards shows, dies

A close-up of Walter C. Miller.
Walter C. Miller died Nov. 13 at his Los Angeles home. He was 94.
(Family photo)

Walter C. Miller, the veteran director who helped forge the template for live awards telecasts by overseeing and fine-tuning the annual Grammys, Emmys, Tonys and Country Music Awards ceremonies for decades, has died at his home in Los Angeles.

Miller, who won awards by the armful, died Nov. 13 after battling pneumonia, said his son Paul. He was 94.

He was at ease in an industry teeming with enormous egos and outsize personalities and seemed to possess a native skill for knowing exactly which camera to cut to during live performances. He also bemoaned the languid pace of awards shows that, in his mind, seemed to stretch on interminably.

When NBC announced in 1998 that the Emmys show would last an unprecedented four hours, Miller winced at the thought of such a marathon ceremony.

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“It’s horrendously boring enough at three hours,” he told the Los Angeles Times that year. “But I suppose maybe if they can do something creative with clips they might manage to make it more entertaining.”

His longevity at the helm of the annual run of awards shows was staggering. He directed both the Grammys and the Country Music Awards broadcasts for more than 30 years and the Tony Awards for nearly 20. For three decades, he directed and produced the National Memorial Day Concert and A Capitol Fourth, the Independence Day concert in Washington.

“He had a tremendous respect for the artists and wanted them to feel comfortable and sound as good as they possible could,” his son said in an interview with The Times.

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Born Walter Charles Miller in New York on March 15, 1926, the future director got his start as a projectionist at ABC. His early credits included work on “The Bell Telephone Hour” and “Sing Along With Mitch.”

His first big break arrived in 1967 when he was asked to direct “The Belle of 14th Street,” a Barbra Streisand special on which he employed multiple cameras to give viewers the impression that they were there.

Once cemented as the go-to awards show director, Miller exuded a confidence in bringing out the best in the hosts and presenters at the shows.

While prepping for the 1998 Tony Awards, Miller told his staff not to micro-manage that year’s host.

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“Remember,” he said, “Rosie O’Donnell is not going to be a traffic cop on this show. She is hosting our show. She is a personality, and we are going to let her personality shine. Am I understood? She will shine.”

He was less charitable when comic Gilbert Gottfried got on a roll at the Emmys with a string of off-color Pee-wee Herman jokes.

“Not only is Gottfried not invited back, I don’t even want him to watch,” Miller told Newsday in 1992.

Paul Miller, who worked alongside his father and later directed “Saturday Night Live” and stand-up routines on Comedy Central, said his father believed that if an awards show ran over its allotted time, there was generally a comedian to blame, as they went off script in search of a laugh.

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Just the same, some of Miller’s closest friends were unpredictable and colorful comics such as Sam Kinison and Rodney Dangerfield.

Though the awards shows often seemed filled with spontaneity, Paul Miller said his father was a diligent planner who spent sleepless nights plotting out every camera move, every angle.

“He did his homework,” his son said. “He believed in being prepared.”

In addition to the awards shows, Miller directed variety specials for Frank Sinatra, Dolly Parton, Robin Williams, Bob Hope and Billy Crystal, among others.

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Miller was nominated for 19 Emmys during his career, winning five. He also won a Peabody and the Grammy Trustees Award.

Long divorced, Miller is survived by his son, daughter Deborah, grandchildren Trevor and Tess, and two great-grandchildren.


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