Denny Miller, Star of 'Tarzan' and 'Wagon Train,' Dies at 80

Miller in 'Wagon Train'
Courtesy of Everett Collection

He played basketball at UCLA under John Wooden and appeared with Peter Sellers in 'The Party' and in commercials for fish sticks

Denny Miller, who played scout Duke Shannon on the classic TV Western Wagon Train and was the first blond Tarzan on the big screen, has died. He was 80.

Miller, who wore a yellow rain slicker as the Gorton’s Fisherman in TV commercials for the seafood company for more than a decade, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in January and died on Tuesday in Las Vegas, his agent, David Moss, told The Hollywood Reporter.

The strapping 6-foot-4 Miller, who played basketball at UCLA for legendary coach John Wooden in the 1950s, also is known for his role as Western movie actor “Wyoming” Bill Kelso in the delightful 1968 Peter Sellers comedy The Party, directed by Blake Edwards.

Miller appeared in two episodes of CBS’ Gilligan’s Island: one as surfer Duke Williams, who washed ashore after a tsunami, and another as Tongo, an ape man who is captured and put in a cage.

Miller appeared over three seasons in more than 100 episodes of Wagon Train, which aired on NBC and ABC from 1957 to 1965. He then segued to playing an Air Force sergeant who is married to a Las Vegas chorus girl (Juliet Prowse) in the short-lived NBC sitcom Mona McCluskey.

Miller starred as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ lord of the jungle in the low-budget Tarzan, the Ape Man (1959), a remake of the 1932 classic that starred Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller. Footage from that film, as well as Tarzan’s yell, were recycled from the original (both were made at MGM).

A native of Bloomington, Ind., Miller was thinking about pursuing a career as a basketball or football coach when he was spotted by an agent on Sunset Boulevard. He signed a movie contract at MGM after his screen test was directed by George Cukor and appeared in an uncredited role in the Frank Sinatra drama Some Came Running (1958).

Miller also worked in such films as Making It (1971), written by Peter Bart, Buck and the Preacher (1972) and The Norseman (1978).

The actor made more of a mark on television, with stints on dozens of shows including Have Gun — Will Travel, The Rifleman, Ben Casey, The Fugitive, I Spy, The High Chaparral, Hawaii Five-O, I Dream of Jeannie, The Brady Bunch, The Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica, Barnaby Jones, Charlie’s Angels, Dallas, Magnum, P.I. and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Survivors include his wife, Nancy.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

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