Robert Ellis Miller, Director of 'Reuben, Reuben,' Dies at 89

Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

He also helmed 'The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter' and 'Any Wednesday.' His late wife was the documentarian Pola Miller.

Robert Ellis Miller, the veteran director of films including 1968’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and 1983’s Reuben, Reuben, died Friday. He was 89.

He had been living at the Motion Picture & Television Country House in Woodland Hills, Calif., since the death of his wife, documentarian Pola Miller (nee Chasman), two years ago.

Miller’s film version of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, the 1940 Carson McCullers novel about a deaf man’s relationship with a teenage girl in 1930s Georgia, starred Alan Arkin and introduced an unknown Sondra Locke to the screen. Both received Oscar nominations for their work, and the movie was nominated for a Golden Globe in the best drama category.

“Arkin, as Singer, is extraordinary, deep and sound,” wrote Renata Adler in a New York Times review. “Walking, with his hat jammed flat on his head, among the obese, the mad, the infirm, characters with one leg, broken hip, scarred mouth, failing life, he somehow manages to convey every dimension of his character, especially intelligence.”

Dan Bronson, the writer of HBO’s The Last Innocent Man, used Heart to teach students about the grammar of motion pictures during an earlier career as an academic. “Heart is one of the films that gave me the resolve to turn my back on tenure and ride the rollercoaster of Hollywood,” he noted in an essay about the movie. “But it did more than inspire me. It moved me.”

“Robert took over the direction of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter 10 days before we started shooting,” says Arkin. “It was a bit of an emergency situation, but you would have never known it from Robert’s demeanor or the way he treated his crew and troupe of actors. He was patient and good-natured and one of the kindest people I've ever met. We became friends during the filming and remained friends for the 50 years that have intervened. When we shot the film, it was still a time of intense segregation in the country and we were particularly proud of the fact that — in spite of shooting in Selma, Alabama, with a cast of both blacks and whites — we vowed that we would find a place for all of us to live together as the one family we felt ourselves to be. Robert helped make that happen. We tried for years to find another project to work on together, but sadly it never happened. He will be very much missed.”

Miller’s most warmly received film was the comedic drama Reuben, Reuben, starring Tom Conti as a debauched poet battling writer’s block. The picture was included in competition at Cannes — which Miller regarded as one of the highlights of his career — and earned Oscar nominations for Conti and writer Julius J. Epstein. It, too, was nominated for a Golden Globe (best drama).

“Very much in the British tradition of quality,” noted critic Emanuel Levy, “Robert Ellis Miller’s Reuben, Reuben is a modest, intimate and intelligent film, featuring an Oscar-nominated turn from Tom Conti, better known for his stage work.”

A warm, good-humored man with a love of puns and an infectious enthusiasm, Miller was fond of describing how MCA Universal’s powerful executive Lew Wasserman would confuse him with the similar-looking director Arthur Hiller. “Miller-Hiller!” he’d bark. “Hiller-Miller!”

Miller spoke warmly of Bette Davis, whom he had once directed, and whose neighbor he was in Los Angeles’ famed Colonial building, doing a spot-on imitation of the intimidating star as she would listen, hawk-like, then flick her cigarette ash across the floor, either in approval or disapproval.

An astute but generous observer of the industry, Miller recalled meeting the young Steven Spielberg, who came to visit one of his sets, and remembered how gracious the twenty-something was.

Once asked to name the greatest myth about the movie business, he replied: “That the camera never lies.”

At Harvard, Miller was president of its Dramatic Club and a member of the Hasty Pudding Society. He entered television upon graduation, assisting other major directors including Sidney Lumet before going on to helm such shows as Naked City, Route 66, The Twilight Zone and The Rogues.

His first feature was 1967’s Any Wednesday, starring Jane Fonda and Jason Robards Jr. Other credits included Sweet November, The Buttercup Chain, The Big Truck and The Girl From Petrovka. His last film was the 1996 ABC TV movie The Angel of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Miller and his wife spent several years living in London, where he helmed the Timothy Dalton starrer Hawks. Among the other A-list stars he directed were Goldie Hawn, Anthony Hopkins, Peter Ustinov, Cicely Tyson, Omar Sharif and James Coburn.

He received an Emmy Award nomination for 1961 anthology drama series Alcoa Premiere and a DGA nom for an episode of the 1963 medical drama series Breaking Point.

An active member of the Directors Guild of America, Miller was a lifetime trustee of its pension plan. He was also a charter founder of the Artists Rights Foundation and a member of the Motion Picture Academy.

“Robert Ellis Miller was a skilled and prolific television and feature director known for eliciting powerful performances, but to us here at the Guild, he was a service-oriented stalwart with a broad heart and a sharp mind who was always ready to give back to our Guild and the industry,” said DGA president Paris Barclay. “We will always be grateful for Robert’s extensive service — as an officer on the Directors Guild Foundation for 15 years; as a member of the DGA-Producers Pension and Health Plans Board of Directors for 24 years; as a founding member of the Artist Rights Foundation in 1991 and for his participation on numerous DGA committees over his almost 60-year Guild membership. Our deepest condolences to Robert’s family and friends.”

Survivors include his sister, Judith Merwin; nieces Sara Merwin and Deborah Chasman; nephews Peter Merwin, Daniel Merwin, Clifford James and Daniel Chasman; and brothers-in-law Chellis Chasman and Donald Merwin.

His funeral will take place at 12.30 p.m. on Wednesday at Sinai Chapels in Fresh Meadows, N.Y. In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations go to the Motion Picture & Television Fund.        

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