That Championship Season catapulted Jason Miller to overnight success

Between acting gigs in the late 1960s, Jason Miller collected a salary as the doorman for the original New York production of Man of La Mancha. He filled those quiet hours hunched in a chair writing his first full-length play, Nobody Hears a Broken Drum. That drama, which chronicles a violent Pennsylvania coal-mine strike, was produced off-Broadway, where it closed after six performances. Miller nursed his disappointment for a month, then began to outline a new script. As he would later say, "The work is the refuge." That next play was titled That Championship Season.

Miller wrote the searing drama — which is currently being staged by Dramatic License — mostly in Dallas, adhering to a three-hour-per-day writing schedule while acting in a dinner-theater production of The Odd Couple. The day he returned to New York he inadvertently left the script in a light cardboard box on the roof of the car taking him to the airport. As he departed from the motel, Miller looked out the window and saw a hundred script pages floating across a nearby field. He sat momentarily stunned by the surreal sight — before springing into action to retrieve his fluttering play.

A year later he was stunned again, this time by the realization that he had become the oldest cliché in theater: an overnight success. When That Championship Season opened at New York's Public Theater in May 1972, the 33-year-old actor/playwright was showered with superlatives, buried under an avalanche of adjectives. As if to prove that lightning could indeed strike twice, two months later it was announced that Miller would make his motion-picture debut as Father Karras, the leading role in the film version of the best-selling novel The Exorcist. He promptly moved his family to a rented home near the Atlantic Ocean. That's where we first met through the intercession of a mutual friend. I spent two days as his houseguest.

Mostly we talked about his play, which concerns the twentieth reunion of a state-champion high school basketball team at the home of its former coach. Their lives filled with prejudice and fear, these forgotten champions personify the broad swath of American losers. A successful playwright could not have told this story.

But when we met, Miller personified success. "Let's face it," he said. "Championship has reached a point of appreciation that borders on your fantasies. Some of those reviews I wouldn't have dared to write in my fantasies. But the whole myth in this country is how success destroys." He might have been predicting his own future.

Two months later, That Championship Season made a smooth transfer from the Public Theater to Broadway, where it won the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize. The next year Miller's performance in The Exorcist received an Academy Award nomination as "Best Supporting Actor." But in time, Miller lost his footing. His next play never did get written; his film acting career did not materialize; his marriage fell apart. Uprooted and aimless, he moved back to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he had grown up (and where Championship Season is set). Jason Miller died there of a heart attack at 62; even before his death, both he and his play had fallen into neglect. It's just now being rediscovered; Liev Schreiber and Brian Cox are rumored to star in a Broadway revival.

When I think of Miller now — and I recall him with the deepest affection — my mind often returns to an afternoon in October 1975. He had just completed an acting role (another priest) in a forgettable television movie in Mexico and was living in a rented California beach house, which rested on a bluff north of Malibu.

As we sat on the sun deck, I happened to ask how his mother had come to name him Jason.

"She didn't," he replied. "She named me Jack. I chose Jason for myself."

Why?

"I always liked that story in mythology," was his simple reply.

I was tempted to remind him that, while Jason did succeed in capturing the Golden Fleece, in Thomas Bulfinch's The Age of Fable the tale concludes, "What became of the fleece afterwards we do not know, but perhaps it was found after all, like many other golden prizes, not worth the trouble it had cost to procure it." I was tempted to say something of the sort. Instead I silently sipped my lemonade, while Jason Miller stared out across the blue Pacific at argosies on the horizon that only he could see.

 
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