Peter Miller

Fellow actor of James Dean's typecast as a hoodlum
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The Independent Online

Peter Miller, actor: born New York 2 September 1930; married (one daughter); died Santa Monica, California 7 October 2003.

Peter Miller was one of a bevy of actors who enjoyed a successful screen career during the mid-1950s, at a time when Hollywood was chasing the wind of social change that was sweeping through America.

Nicholas Ray decided to direct a movie about children of middle-class American families and their problems. The rise in juvenile delinquency was then the United States' greatest fear. And so it was that Warner Bros allowed production of Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

Ray turned the very making of the film into an act of rebellion, breaking with convention and offering his cast of James Dean, Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood, Dennis Hopper and Peter Miller free rein in the creation of their characters. The result was explosive. Church groups agreed with the Hollywood gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons that such material would incite mass rebellion by teenagers against government, parental control and social conformity, and tried to have the film banned. They failed, and Rebel Without a Cause went on to become one of the best youth movies to come out of Hollywood in the last 50 years.

Although highly capable as an actor, Miller never quite managed to rise beyond the role of hoodlum or delinquent. In a career that spanned more than 20 years, he was at his busiest during the 1950s with roles in such films as Blackboard Jungle, Crime in the Streets and The Delinquents.

Born in New York City, he never settled in Hollywood. He found it too phoney, and preferred the East Coast. "New York is vital," he told The New York Times in 1955:

I'm not one of those wise guys wanting to put Hollywood down; it is just that it does nothing for me. Real people are harder to find. Maybe they are out there somewhere behind the bricks and mortar of the Beverly Hills mansions; I just don't think I'll ever find them.

He worked in odd jobs to support his passion for acting before braving a life of endless castings and auditions for roles in Off-Broadway theatre. It was whilst backstage at the Biltmore Theatre that he met a casting director for Warner Bros who subsequently brought him out to Hollywood.

Once there, he began appearing in bit parts and uncredited roles. Socially, he hung out at Googie's café on Hollywood Boulevard, a hot spot for young teenage stars such as James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Dennis Hopper and a former Finnish beauty queen who had taken American television audiences by storm - Vampira.

"East of Eden was about to be released, and Dean's performance in it was the talk of Hollywood," remembered Miller for a documentary about James Dean in 1996:

I presumed that my association with an actor on the brink of major stardom would catapult me into stardom, I was wrong, but that didn't prevent me from enjoying his friendship. He would entertain us with his poetry and his encounters with a bevy of Hollywood starlets. He was as passionate about his craft as he was with racing cars and collecting guns. There were rumours about his homosexuality, that he had this affair with Rock Hudson whilst making Giant [1956]. That was never apparent to me.

Miller played one of the high-school hoodlums, Joe Murray, in Blackboard Jungle (1955) alongside Glenn Ford and Sidney Poitier, and Carter in David Friedkin's crime investigative drama Handle with Care (1955). In Crime in the Streets (1956) Miller played "The Fighter", a tough member of a New York street gang headed by John Cassavetes as Frankie Dane and including Sal Mineo as Baby Gioia.

During the 1960s, with the shortage of film offers, Miller moved into television, where his juvenile- delinquent typecasting continued: he threw punches on Navy Log (1955), was arrested in an episode of US Marshal (1958) and took his built-up angst out on Richard Chamberlain in Dr Kildare (1961), before enjoying a recurring role on General Hospital. Occasionally he broke his rebellious mould, and in 1956 was cast as Moran in MGM's costly but highly successful sci-fi tale Forbidden Planet.

Miller played Pete in Vincent Minnelli's Tea and Sympathy (1956) and was cast as Cholly, the head of a brutal gang, in Robert Altman's The Delinquents (1957). He exchanged his scuffed street-fighter white pumps for boots and spurs in the western The Iron Sheriff (1957); for the war comedy Imitation General (1958), he played a hospital medic.

By the 1960s, his career became sporadic. He appeared on the large screen for the last time in the comedy drama Fools' Parade in 1971. Marriage and business investments outside the entertainment industry curtailed his acting career and by 1973 Peter Miller had retired.

Always on hand to answer questions on his relationship with James Dean, he latterly became a frequent guest at film conventions and festivals, reuniting with his old friends Vampira and Brad Dexter.

Howard Mutti-Mewse