ARCHIVES: Jason Miller documentary ‘Miller’s Tale’ premieres as Broadway revives ‘That Championship Season’
Before actor and playwright Jason Miller was directed by award-winning filmmakers like William Friedkin, he was the star of a short film by an inexperienced college student.
As he often shied away from the national spotlight, Miller probably enjoyed the latter more.
Rebecca Ferris, founder of Cottage Films in New Orleans, grew up in Scranton and, like many residents, knew the late star before his untimely passing in 2001. Giving up his rising fame in Hollywood to return to his hometown, Miller became the artistic director of Scranton Public Theatre and coached many drama students throughout his life, including Ferris.
She was introduced to Miller by her acting coach, Agnes Cummings, at Scranton High School, where Miller often came to give students help and feedback. In 1998, Ferris was attending the School of Visual Arts in New York City and working on her first short film, “Birthday,” when Cummings gave the script to Miller. He loved it so much that he agreed to play one of the main roles.
“I think he got such a thrill out of taking people under his wing and helping them take off. I think that was a big reason why Jason wanted to be in my film,” Ferris said.
Miller played a recluse who lived out in the country and didn’t have much contact with anyone until a little girl ends up on his porch during a rainstorm. They make “a very sweet connection and become friends” in “a very unexpected way,” she described.
“It was much like he took me under his wing, this little girl who also lives this isolated life out in the country,” she added.
The experience left an indelible mark on the then-20-year-old student.
“It’s very rare for a first-time filmmaker, especially one who is a student, to have an Oscar-nominated actor in their film. I was very nervous when he agreed to be in it. I remember coming to the set and just wondering, ‘How on earth am I going to direct Jason Miller?’ I thought he was going to be showing me how to make the film and telling me what he thought what would make a good angle or how to set the pace or the mood, but he very much wanted me to flex my creative muscles, and he wanted to hear what I had to say and direct him,” Ferris recalled.
“He was very giving in that way, to encourage me to really go for my creative vision and not interjecting his own. I am so grateful to this day that he encouraged me in that way, and I think he did the same thing for a lot of people in Scranton, a lot of young artists.”
Even in death, Miller continued to be a creative inspiration for Ferris. In 2004, three years after his sudden heart attack, the city of Scranton commissioned fellow actor and friend Paul Sorvino to sculpt a bust of Miller to be displayed in downtown Scranton in his memory. Ferris decided to make a short film about the controversy surrounding its location, but the project snowballed into a seven-year journey that culminated in the creation of “Miller’s Tale,” an hour-long documentary set to premiere locally on Wednesday, March 2 at 8 p.m. on WVIA-TV.
The premiere just happens to coincide with a Broadway revival of Miller’s most celebrated work, a play entitled “That Championship Season,” which earned him the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. After getting to know Miller better through years of interviews with his friends, actors, directors, and many others, Ferris said she could assume where the playwright received much of his inspiration.
“If you look at ‘That Championship Season,’ the play itself is about ordinary people, and Jason was the kind of person who I think was most comfortable around ordinary people because he understood that even ordinary people were very complex. … He could sit at a bar and have a conversation about Shakespeare… and at the same time, he could have a conversation about Notre Dame football with a mailman who just got off his shift. I don’t think Jason had an ego that made him think that he was above interacting with anyone,” Ferris noted.
“I think that age-old adage ‘Write what you know’ is very much true. ‘That Championship Season’ is based in Scranton. It’s about five ordinary men from Scranton, people that Jason Miller knew like the back of his hand. … I think Jason had that gift of understanding that people may seem ordinary on the surface but, if you just take the time to get to know people, you’ll see all of their complexities and all of their nuances. I think that is why Jason was so inspired by Scranton, and I think that’s what brought Jason back to Scranton.”
After speaking with director Friedkin and actors Sorvino, Martin Sheen, Stacy Keach, and Bruce Dern, she knew that they could see his authenticity of character as well.
“All those actors agreed to be in my film because they loved Jason so much. They worked together 30 years ago, and that was pretty much the only thing they worked on together, but I think the experience was so meaningful to all of these actors that they agreed enthusiastically to be in my film,” she explained.
Ironically, Ferris remarked just a few months ago to a friend that the play would never receive a Broadway revival with the recent popularity of multi-million dollar shows like “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” and “The Lion King.” While she never doubted the greatness of the show, she doubted the “greatness of Hollywood,” even with Miller being widely known for his iconic role in the classic 1973 film “The Exorcist.”
Thankfully, though, she felt someone must have recognized the agelessness of “That Championship Season” and cast big names like Brian Cox, Kiefer Sutherland, Jim Gaffigan, Chris Noth, and Jason Patric, Miller’s son, taking over the same role his father once played.
“I think it is one of those timeless plays about the struggles that people go through generation after generation, finding meaning in their lives. What does it mean to be successful? Do we define ourselves by our greatest moments or by our relationships? The themes in the play really are timeless,” Ferris emphasized.
Scranton will once again have its time to shine nationally with an all-star cast, just as Miller always wanted for his beloved city.
“It’s Scranton on Broadway, and Jason Miller brought Scranton to Broadway. I think it was meaningful to people in 1972, and I think it’s obviously very exciting to have Scranton back on Broadway almost four decades later,” Ferris said.
“I couldn’t ask for a better time to premiere my film than when ‘That Championship Season’ is having a Broadway revival.”