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Volume 4557

Denny shares anecdotes from his long career in show business
1. Love Those Fans
2. Give Me Chicken
3. Poitier and Belafonte

Denny and Nancy

"Denny Miller Flashbacks" is an ongoing feature in ERBzine
in which Denny will share a different anecdote each week.
Readers are reminded to join us each Friday for a new Miller flashback.


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Coffee Houses were popular hangouts that often showcased promising talent.  Some future big names launched their careers in these cabarets.  The "in places" had long lines to get in.

When my acting career was just getting started, I worked at one of these night spots as a "cook's helper."  It was my job to take and fill the kitchen orders and set up the trays for the waitresses.  I could see and hear the entertainment from the counter.  It was nothing like the "famous" Studio 54, in New York, but it was fun!

One night a Blue Grass group was performing.  There was a fiddle player, several guitarists and a blind banjo player.  When they took their first break, they came over to my counter and ordered some food and drinks.  The banjo player ordered a glass of milk.  I placed the glass in his hand and said, "Here's your milk." He took my hand and said, "I enjoy you on Wagon Train."

I had just started on Wagon Train and was surprised that he recognized my voice; it felt good!  It was a great compliment for a fledging actor.  It reminded me of a quote from James Thurber's "Thirteen Clocks."  Thurber wrote about a magical man that went through life doing good for other. He says, "I can feel a thing I cannot touch and touch a thing I cannot feel. The first is sad and sorry. The second is your heart!"

The banjo player's thoughts touched my heart and I told him so.  I've thought of that kind man many times since that night.

I have been fortunate, throughout the years, to be touched by the many kind comments from fans.  When I attended Dum-Dums I have always felt welcomed and among friends. Thank each of you for touching my heart!



Frightening Life
Chicken.  You’ve heard that rattlesnake tastes like chicken.  I’ll never find out for sure.  I am content with chicken.  I like it most ways it can be cooked.  But, I am chicken to eat rattlesnake.

"Lijah" was one of the best parts I ever got to play.  It was an episode on “Gunsmoke.”  The script was written by Bill Blinn, who also created “The Rookies” and “Eight Is Enough.”

Lijah was a mountain man.  He didn’t get along with other people because of an unhappy childhood, so he became a loner.  He was a trapper and dressed in animal skins.  In fact, from a distance, he looked like a moving hill of animals.  Every piece of his clothing was made from animal hides.  The only store-bought thing he had was was his hat.  He had two weather-beaten felt hats.  Why two?  One hat leaked on the side and one leak on the top. So, he sewed one inside the other and that solved the problem.  He was a practical man.

He was also deaf.  My mother was deaf for many years.  It can be a lonely, frightening way to live.  Playing the part of a deaf person presents unique challenges for a hearing actor.  You cannot react to the actors when they speak to you.  You cannot react  other sounds around you.  Like the sound of rattle snakes.

In the script, Lijah goes down an old well to save a little girl he saw fall in.  This little girl was played by Erin Moran and I called her “Lady Bug” in the episode. In the walls of the well are some niches.  These niches are home to two rattle snakes.

The set designers built a twenty-five foot high tube on the sound stage.  The inside of this tube looked like an old well.  There was scaffolding and steps alongside so the actors and the camera crew could get to the top.  The well was built in sections to allow one section to be removed so the camera could be placed at the bottom to shoot up through the well.  A canvas painting of sky was stretched above the open mouth of the well.

They were going to use real, live rattle snakes in the niches.  The "Snake Wrangler" let me watch him stitch the snakes' mouths shut.  One stitch on each side of the front of the mouth would do it, he said.  That was the snake could not open his mouth but could still flick his tongue out.  The wrangler explained there was no reason to pull the fangs out because there were little, baby fangs under the big ones.  I watched the stitching with undivided attention.

The camera was ready at the bottom, shooting up through the space of the well that had been removed.  I was at the top ready to scoot down the well to save "Lady Bug." My back was against the wall and my feet were in front of my on the opposite wall.  The idea was for me to inch my way down buttocks first.

The wrangler placed the two rattlers in their niches and I waited for the director's call for action.  It did not come.  Instead, I heard feet scrambling and a lot of cursing below me.  The rattlers had fallen out of their niches.  I climbed up and out onto the scaffolding.  Looking down, was chaos.  People were running in every direction and the wrangler kept shouting "It’s okay. It's okay."  It was not okay as far as they were concerned.  Not for me neither.

The snakes were corralled and calm was restored.  The director suggested they try it again before everyone got in place again.  After several more failed attempts to keep the snakes in the niches, it was decided to postpone the shoot until the next day and use smaller rattle snakes. For me, it was like having a dental appointment called off a day.  I didn’t get any sleep that night.

The new rattlers were much smaller and fit in the niches.  The camera was ready and I was in my awkward seated position, at the top of the well.  I would inch my way down, down past the snakes to save Erin, who did not have to be there for the shot.

"Action!"  Down I went.  I reached out for support.  My arm went right in front of the snake.  It was dark inside the well and remember, Lijah can't hear the warning rattles.  I react as if one of the snakes hits me in the arm, like the script calls for, and I continue to the bottom of the well.  The snakes were still in their niches, asleep for all I knew.  I am just thankful that neither one tried to bite me.  "Cut." yelled the director.

You can always tell when something hasn't gone right in a shot.  The director and the cameraman get together for a little, quiet conference.  Well after just such a conference, the director walked up to me and said "Do you think you can do it gain?"  "I guess so." I mumbled.  "What went wrong?"

He whispered, "Your eyes were so bugged out, nobody would believe you didn't know those rattle snakes were there."  So, we did it again!

I told you I prefer chicken when it comes to rattle snakes.


Durango, Mexico is high desert.  This means it is very, very dry.  This also means it is dusty.  In the Spring the "Dust Devils" can knock you off your feet, fill your eyes and mouth with grit, make eating outside impossible, and spook your horse.

It also means it is a perfect place to shoot a Western!  That’s why I was there for three months.  I was going to work with Harry Belafonte in "Buck and the Preacher."   I'd eat sand any day for that opportunity!  It was Sidney's debut as a director and he was also playing Buck.  You guessed it – Harry was the Preacher.

Cameron Mitchell was the main heavy and I played his nephew, a stupid bundle of angry nerves.  One of Jeff Foxworthy's definitions describes the role I played.  "If you whistle through your tooth when you talk, you just might be a Red-Neck."

My character's goal was to get Buck's wagon train of slaves to turn back to the plantations.  Having been declared FREE, their goal was to settle farmland out West and live as free people.

I had already done one hundred and ten episodes of the television series “Wagon Train.”  You would expect me to be a handy horseman.  You would be wrong.  Even with all those hours on a horse, people could still read a newspaper between my butt and the saddle.  When it came to horsemanship, I was a misplaced basketball player, bouncing all over the place.

The first shot in “Buck and the Preacher” was a long shot of the bad guys riding into town.  About fifteen of us gathered about a half a mile away from the camera.  Sidney yelled, “Come on!” and we were off.  Cameron had the fastest horse and for him it became a race. The rest of the guys were stunt men and real cowboys.  Among them was my Double, Walter Scott.  Walter made a good living riding broncos on the rodeo circuit.

In this scene, I was also riding with the group.  I was in last place before we ever got started.  When Cameron got to the camera, I was still about fifty yards back.  Everyone was there by the time I rode up, demonstrating one of my patented stops.  When I finally got my nag to stop, my right foot was hooked around the pommel, my right arm was wrapped around the horse’s neck, the horse’s nose was in my left armpit, and I was looking down the horse's left ear. Sidney pretended not to notice my lack of equestrian skills and suggested we do it again, at a little slower pace.

Cameron didn’t take direction sometimes and it took three takes and some prodding from a couple of stunt men for the group to arrive as a group.  After that shoot, Walter Scott was my Double and for the next twelve weeks he rode all over the high desert and made me look great on a horse!

I have been lucky to work with fine directors.  Each has his or her own style of getting what they want from a scene and the actors.  Sidney created an atmosphere of relaxed calm so the actor had the courage to go for it... "IT" being to let their character come to life in the telling of the story they are working in.  They can go out on a limb and know the director will catch them if they fall, or if they go too far or not far enough.

On top of a windy, bleak mountain, we were rehearsing a scene between the Sheriff and I.  We got into an argument and I ended up slitting the sheriff’s throat.  After a couple of times, Sidney motioned for me to follow him and we walked off away from the cast and crew.  He turned to me and took one step closer so our eyes were less than a foot apart.  Not taking his eyes from mine, he whispered, “I just don’t believe you hate us n*****s enough.”   He smiled and walked back to the set.

There it was.  In his first job as a Director, he knew, as the Director, he was my safety net.  He was saying, you can go bananas in this scene, go as far as you want and I will catch you if you go too far.  We rehearsed the scene one more time and I added a large dose of hate.  Then we shot the scene in one take.  When we finished, I looked at Sidney and he nodded.  That made me feel great.

My character, in this film, died in a way that left no doubt that I was dead and woudn’t be returning.

Harry played a very unusual Preacher.  His Bible was a handy place to hide a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun.  His “good book” was really a holster. So, when he took up a collection, he really TOOK a collection!

When I peeked over a rock, to get a good shot at the Preacher, Harry blasted me with that shotgun. Before the scene, the special effects crew showed me their special air-compressed blowgun.  I watched them load its inch-wide barrel with a Max Factor blood containing hundreds of little pieces of sponge in it. It was a close shot.  So, when the blast from Harry’s shotgun came, WHOOSH goes the air gun and my face was instant raw hamburger.  Ugly? Very!

There was an immediate hustle and bustle of hands with towels, hands with a folding chair for me to sit in, so they could clean me up and inquiring minds wanted to know if I was alright.  I was aware of more hands, with what seemed like gallons of Murine.  Lots of blinking.  I’m okay.  Well, I was okay until I heard the camera operator tell Sidney that I blinked too soon and that we would have to do it again.

“The show must go on!”  I could kill whoever came up with that slogan!  Of course, we did the scene again.  This time I didn’t blink too soon, it worked and it took a double dose of Murine.  For the next couple of days, I looked like I had cried and cried.  But I lived to die another day, or two, or three.

Buck and the Preacher in Wikipedia
Buck and the Preacher in IMDB
Buck and the Preacher Trailer


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