From apes to fish: The life and times of 'What's
By Mike Leonard, Hoosier Times
July 4, 2004
Miller is fond of the aphorism, "Life is what happens to you
when you're on your way to do something else."
The Bloomington native wasn't thinking about much more than being a
basketball player for John Wooden's UCLA Bruins and aiming toward a career
in physical education when a talent scout stopped him on the street and
asked to see his hairline.
Months later, Miller would become Tarzan, star of Tarzan
- The Ape Man, the 1959 film he jovially calls the worst Tarzan
movie ever made until Bo Derek and her husband, John, took a swing at the
venerable character in 1981.
"I was a misplaced basketball player and I was frightened to death by
what I was doing," he confessed recently.
But Miller continued in acting and carved out an enviable
career as a character actor, ranging from a regular role as scout Duke
Shannon in the television series "Wagon
Train" on through numerous movie, television and commercial roles.
For the past 14-plus years, he's been the Gorton's Fisherman with a visage
so recognizable the company changed its logo to resemble the ruggedly handsome,
bearded actor who first greeted the world at Bloomington Hospital 70 years
The affable Hoosier wrote his memoirs recently and with characteristic
humility titled the autobiography, Didn't You Used To Be What's His
"I've always appreciated my life and my career but I don't think I ever
really appreciated things enough until I sat down and actually read what
I wrote and thought, 'My God, look at how lucky you are!'" he marveled.
Miller was fortunate enough to have director George Cukor give
him his first screen test - and his first acting lesson. And to have Cukor
take him to dinner at the home of a fellow Hoosier, Cole Porter,
who regaled him with the theories on the origin of the Hoosier moniker.
He was lucky enough to work with or get to know a dazzling array of
actors, including Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Juliet Prouse, Charles
Bronson, Sidney Poitier, Jack Lord, Peter Sellers, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball
and many, many more.
They're all in the book, along with other anecdotes that make one marvel
at how many stories can come out of a life well-lived. Like the time during
a UCLA/North Carolina alumni basketball game when Miller, the oldest man
on the floor, found himself as the only defender against a fast break led
by Michael Jordan and James Worthy. "I cupped my hands and
yelled to the thousands (in attendance) - HELP!" Miller writes.
Didn't You Used To Be What's His Name? is written in a casual,
folksy style that doesn't pretend to be anything more than the memoirs
of a man who's led what might be called a quietly extraordinary life. When
Waldron High School won the 2004 1A Indiana High School basketball championship,
Miller squeezed in a chapter to point out some fascinating coincidences,
including the fact that his father, Ben, and his identical twin, Len, led
Waldron to the 1927 state finals and another set of identical twins led
the 2004 team to its title.
Ben and Len Miller played for coach Branch McCracken at
Indiana University and played against Wooden, the Purdue player
who would become Denny's eventual coach and mentor. And at UCLA, Miller's
teammates included future Louisville coach Denny Crum and Olympic
decathlete Rafer Johnson.
Still, it's the Tarzan connection that seems to have the most staying
power. "They say there are four fictional characters known 'round the world
Mickey Mouse and Tarzan,"
Miller said. There have been 20 different Tarzans and three have hailed
from the Hoosier state:
Lincoln from the silent film days; James
Pierce, from Freedom in Owen County; and Miller.
"It was a real honor to play Tarzan,
because he was one of the good guys," said Miller, who played a lot of
bad guys over the course of his career. "He was an environmentalist before
that word was even known. He was kind of a cross between Dr. Doolittle
and an Olympic athlete. And a few Tarzans were, in fact, Olympic gold medal
winners, including Johnny
Crabbe and Glenn
Despite the fact that a great many athletes prove to be terrible actors,
Miller sees a strong link between acting and sports. "They're both team
sports, actually. Even if you're doing a monologue and the guy on the spotlight
isn't with you, you're in the dark," he explained.
"There are stars in a movie or a play and there are stars on a basketball
team and supporting players," Miller said. "The coach is the director."
Being athletic and handsome always helped Miller, and for good genes
and good values, he thanks his father, Ben, who became an IU faculty member
and, later, the chairman of the physical education department at UCLA and
president of the American Academy of Physical Education. "He spent a great
deal of his time trying to justify his field of study to academia," Miller
The veteran actor continues to be an avid proponent of physical fitness
and he complains, passionately, that "We've become the fattest and most
overweight nation in the world and it costs our country dearly in dollars
and unfulfilled lives."
He's also become an ardent spokesman for mental health after inexplicably
being stricken with bouts of depression rather late in life. "They say
that there are 6 million men out there right now who suffer from depression
and will not seek help," Miller said. "At every opportunity I get, I urge
people to seek help. It's not a weakness. It's a chemical imbalance in
most cases. I'm just so grateful that mine is under control."
Used To Be What's His Name? is described at the ERBzine
Swag site - Book Section and is available on Miller's Web site at www.denny-miller.com
The author hopes to come through his home town on a book tour this fall.
A trip to the area seems logical, he said, especially given that a close
associate is George
T. McWhorter, curator of the Edward Rice Burroughs (Tarzan
creator) Memorial Collection
at the University of Louisville, KY.