By Jack Kintner
Blaine author Ron Miller’s latest book, “Conversations with Classic Movie Stars,” has just hit the shelves and is already his publisher’s best-selling volume. It’s easy to see why.
“It’s about the process of what these famous people did for a living,” Miller said, adding that it’s a look below the surface “of what’s generally known about people we’ve all seen and know.” Miller co-authored the book with a colleague, former entertainment writer James Bawden of the Toronto Star.
Miller, 77, was a nationally syndicated television critic for 22 years, from 1977 to 1999, shortly before moving to Semiahmoo in 2001 with his wife Darla.
As such, it’s hard to come up with a Hollywood name he hasn’t met or known personally. His interviews include material from actors who rarely granted them, such as Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Maureen O’Hara and Luise Rainer, the first actress to win back-to-back Oscars in 1936 and 1937.
Miller likes to relay the story of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. “Gene Autry was a blues singer,” he said, “and a Western Union operator before he was discovered by Will Rogers and turned into a singing cowboy.” The movie studio hired another cowboy singer, a man from Ohio named Leonard Slye, who would be able to take Autry’s place should future contract negotiations turn sour. “When Autry went into the service, Leonard Sly became Roy Rogers, King of the Cowboys.”
Later the studio offered Rogers the chance to have a stunt double do his riding for him as they had for Autry. “No dice,” said Rogers, who made more money from personal appearances than from his films, and realized that if people came out to see him, they’d want to see him mounted, rearing high in the air on Trigger. He did all his own riding.
Miller defines the classic era as the 25-year period beginning in 1930 with “talkies,” movies with soundtracks, and ending in 1955 with the decline of the studio system, when anti-trust laws required movie studios to divest themselves of their local theaters.
“Cary Grant was nothing like his suave public persona,” Miller said. “He used to say that he was playing a role all the time, that of being Cary Grant.” He was originally Archie Leach, a kind of rough-cut Englishman. Originally hired in Hollywood by Mae West, he “used to talk about how short she was, kind of fat and a bit of a slob.”
Miller and Bawden’s book is the first of a planned five-volume series. The next one, yet to be named, deals in part with people who starred in horror films, including Lon Chaney, Anthony Perkins, Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and John Carradine.
A Santa Cruz, California native, Miller worked for the San Jose Mercury for 37 years. “They at one point gave me a choice to cover movies or TV,” he said, “and I chose TV, because it ends up being a much broader subject. And all the old films end up there, anyway.” Knight-Ridder, the chain which owned the paper, syndicated Miller’s TV column to over 140 newspapers around the country.
He once interviewed Charlton Heston at his house, located high up at the head of Coldwater Canyon in Los Angeles. Miller said “there was a telescope on his deck aimed at one of the houses below, at someone’s swimming pool. I later interviewed Angie Dickinson and looked up at Heston’s house, and that’s where the telescope was aimed. I told her about it, and she shook her head, mumbling something about ‘that old reprobate.’”
The books Bawden and Miller will produce are intended to be an oral record of an important period of American cultural history. “We’ve saved all our interviews, in many cases the original tapes. The material is irreplaceable, but it also will now be widely available,” Miller said.
Miller will present material from the book at two upcoming public events. On Saturday, May 21 at 1 p.m. at the Library Presentation Room at Western Washington University, Miller will present a two-hour lecture illustrated with numerous film clips as a part of the university’s Academy of Lifelong Learning. Registration deadline is May 14 but there may be non-member space available after the deadline. Cost is $20 for members, $25 for non-members. Visit wwu.edu/all for more info.
On Thursday, May 26 at 7 p.m., Miller will read from his book and discuss it at Village Books, 1200 11th street, Bellingham.
“Conversations with Classic Film Stars” is available in hard cover and as a Kindle e-book.