Opinion: Remembering Bob Miller

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One of the privileges of hosting a radio talk show is getting to meet so many interesting personalities here in Laguna. But sometimes, serendipity reigns, and a fascinating person is plopped down right next door to you. Such was the case with Robert (Bob) Miller, who passed away on March 6 after a brief illness.

It’s not easy being the son of anyone famous, let alone Arthur Miller, arguably America’s greatest playwright and third husband of Marilyn Monroe. He also practically birthed the paparazzi. You’d think these would be insurmountable odds for a normal life, but Bob was as humble, friendly and happy a guy as they come. He flourished in his own career as a commercial, TV and film producer and director, moving on to thrive in Laguna at his nectar of a home, surrounded by lush greenery and gardens. Bob enjoyed an enduring honeymoon of 45 years with his beloved wife Jean and the love of his three children and two grandchildren.

Bob was born in 1947 to intellectuals Mary Slattery and Arthur Miller (Mary edited all of Arthur’s early work and found his first publisher), and grew up Brooklyn Heights—back when the Dodgers were still there. He would reminisce about walking the neighborhood in summer and hearing the games broadcast out of every window, and always considered himself a Brooklyn boy at heart. But like many curious youths, Bob was destined for Greenwich Village, home to the burgeoning music and art scene that drew so many talents. Whether it was nurture or nature, it wasn’t long before he saw his future in the arts, and he toiled in small films before getting his first gig as a production assistant on 1967’s “Up the Down Staircase.” But the film that changed Bob’s destiny was “The Producers.” It didn’t hurt that Mel Brooks was already Bob’s comedy idol, and that part of Bob’s job was to drive Mel to and from work. Which resulted in a lot of dinners at Max’s Kansas City, the hippest spot in New York at the time. Those heady days working with a comic genius on an epic film cemented Bob’s path forward. But first, there was a quick interlude to hippydom.

Bob and his then partner Erica knew they had to go west, but decided to visit their friends Faye and Ken Kesey in Oregon first. Any aficionados of the ‘60s can guess what happened next. They moved into the barn. And stayed. It was the era of the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Hollywood could wait. But while immersed in a cosmic revolution, Bob also launched Far West Action Pictures, his first film production company. The company started small and local, and produced the “Sunshine Daydream” Grateful Dead concert and fundraiser for the Springfield Creamery (which is still operated by the Kesey family today). But as the hippy movement faded, Bob realized his aspirations as a filmmaker were limited in Oregon. By this time he had met and fallen in love with Jean, a fellow seeker who spent time on Kesey’s Magic Bus with the Merry Pranksters. They moved to Los Angeles in 1974, where Bob produced numerous commercials, and the iconic “I Love LA” Randy Newman music video. He also went on to direct nine plays for the Pittsburgh Playhouse, and also served as Distinguished Master of Arts in Residence at Point Park University for 7 years, where he was awarded an Honorary Doctoral of Arts degree.

But in what was perhaps the pinnacle of Bob’s professional career (and indeed a heartfelt family collaboration), Bob shepherded two of his fathers’ plays to the big screen—“The Crucible,” starring Daniel Day Lewis and Wynona Ryder, and “Focus,” starring William Macy and Laura Dern. Arthur wrote the screenplay to “The Crucible”, and was beyond tickled to see it translated to the big screen by his son. The film also spawned a new family member—Daniel Day Lewis, who met Bob’s sister (and Arthur’s daughter) Rebecca during the making of the film, and went on to marry her.

Despite the glamor of Hollywood, Jean and Bob moved to Laguna Beach in 1995 because, like many of us, they found their bliss here. It had the rural rootsiness of Oregon, while still being close enough to Bob’s place of work. They’ve been here ever since, raising their kids, gardening, traveling, playing tennis, and living what we all would agree was a rich, fulfilling life.

When I spoke to Bob’s youngest daughter Kate (a film editor herself), I could feel the deep love between them. She described her dad as an inveterate people person, engaging everyone he met, and bringing out their best selves. He had an infectious laugh and was a grand storyteller. And what stories he had! A noteworthy memory was having Marilyn Monroe get on the floor to play with him, undoubtedly making him the envy of every man in America.

I’ll miss hearing the Grateful Dead drifting from their house to ours, imagining Jean and Bob trading stories of concerts, tours and endless shenanigans in an era of mind expansion that only those keen or lucky enough to “be here now” or “been there then” have experienced. Or just seeing the guy who so resembled his dad, rumbling up his driveway in his beloved two-tone Buick ’55 Super convertible, cigar in his mouth, massive smile on his face, waving to his neighbors.

Bob is survived by wife Jean Miller, daughters Jessica and Kate Miller, son Zach Miller,
grandchildren Luke and Eli, sisters Jane Doyle and Rebecca Miller, and brother Daniel Miller.

We’ll miss you Bob, but thankful you are a free spirit flying free again.

Billy hosts Laguna Talks on Thursday nights on KXFM radio. He’s also the CEO of La Vida Laguna, an E-bike and ocean sports tour company. Email: [email protected]

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