Saturday, September 13, 2014

Denny Miller Passes On

Denny Miller, who played Duke Shannon on several seasons of Wagon Train, made two notable guest appearances on Gilligan's Island, and made history with the film Tarzan, The Ape Man in 1959 as the first blond Tarzan, died 9 September 2014 at the age of 80. The cause was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as motor neurone disease (MND) or Lou Gehrig's disease.

Denny Miller was born in Bloomington, Indiana on 25 April 1934. When his father got a job teaching physical education at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) the family moved to Los Angeles. Mr. Miller attended UCLA and played basketball for the UCLA Bruins. He dropped of UCLA for a time to serve a hitch in the United States Army. After his stint in the service he returned to UCLA. It was in his senior year that an agent for MGM discovered him and signed him to a contract with the studio. He dropped out of UCLA again, but would later return to get a bachelor's degree in kinesiology.

Denny Miller made his acting debut in an episode of the TV show Northwest Passage in 1959. He appeared in an uncredited role in Some Came Running (1958) before starring in Tarzan, the Ape Man (1959). Tarzan, the Ape Man was made on the cheap by MGM, who not only recycled footage from the classic 1932 version (as well as footage from Tarzan and His Mate and the 1937 version of King Solomon's Mines), but Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan yell too. The film was not well received by critics and, while Denny Miller enjoyed making the film, he later joked about its lack of quality. In 1960 Denny Miller appeared on episodes of such shows as Overland Trail, Have Gun--Will Travel, Riverboat, Laramie, and The Rifleman.

The Sixties saw Denny Miller at the peak of his career. He played Duke Shannon on the final three seasons of Wagon Train. He also co-starred with Juliet Prowse in the single season sitcom Mona McCluskey. He made two notable guest appearances on Gilligan's Island, playing Tongo the Ape Man (parodying his role of Tarzan) and surfer dude Duke Williams. He guest starred on such shows as Michael Shayne, Ben Casey, The Fugitive, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, Death Valley Days, The High Chaparral, Hawaii Five-O, I Dream of Jeannie, and The Virginian. His most notable film role during the decade was playing cowboy "Wyoming" Bill Kelso in The Party (1968). He also appeared in the film Love in a Goldfish Bowl (1961).

In the Seventies Denny Miller appeared in such films as Making It (1971), Doomsday Machine (1972), Buck and the Preacher (1972), The Gravy Train (1974), The Island at the Top of the World (1974), The Norseman (1978), and Cabo Blanco (1980). He guest starred on such shows as Gunsmoke, The Brady Bunch, McCloud, Dusty's Trail, The Streets of San Francisco, Emergency, The Six Million Dollar Man, Alice, Quincy M.E., Wonder Woman, Battlestar Galactica, and The Rockford Files.

In the Eighties Denny Miller appeared in several episodes of Dallas as Cliff Barnes' foreman Max Flowers. He guest starred on such shows as M*A*S*H, Charlie's Angels, Vega$, The Incredible Hulk, Simon & Simon, Hart to Hart, The Fall Guy Matt Houston, Hardcastle and McCormick, Murder She Wrote, and Magnum P.I. In the Nineties he appeared on Lonesome Dove: The Series and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In 2005 he made his last screen appearance, in the film Hell to Pay (2005). He appeared for years in commercials as Gorton's Fisherman.

Anyone who ever had the honour of meeting Denny Miller knew he was a very nice and gracious man with a wonderful self-deprecating sense of humour. He often joked about his career, in particular about his role as Tarzan in the 1959 Tarzan, the Ape Man. While Mr. Miller often joked about his career, however, the truth is that he was actually quite a good actor. Standing at 6' 4" he was often cast in dramatic roles. In fact, he is well known for his guest appearances in many Western TV shows over the years, as well as his regular role as Duke Shannon on Wagon Train. While he played more than his share of Western villains and heroes, Denny Miller always preferred comedy. He played one of the funniest characters in The Party. His guest appearances on Gilligan's Island remain remembered to this day, playing two very different characters (the scheming Tongo the Ape Man and the rather clueless surfer Duke Williams). For all that Denny Williams often made fun of his career, he was actually a very talented actor. He was also a very charming and gracious man as well.

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