November 23, 1987 12:00 PM

In a long-abandoned coal shaft 400 feet beneath Scranton, Pa., Jason Miller is working on his novel. It is a damp retreat and deathly silent. “No goddamn Disneyland,” he says. The beam from his miner’s helmet barely illuminates the legal pad on his knee, and the chill will drive him above-ground in an hour. But Miller, who is writing about the mid-19th-century arrival of the Irish in Pennsylvania, often makes this pilgrimage. “I go down for inspiration,” he says. “I hear the earth moving, shifting. I never knew the earth moved. It’s a mystical experience.”

His friends in town simply shrug. “The little guy hears voices down there,” says Bill McAndrew of the state’s Community Affairs Department. “The muse, I guess.”

For much of the past decade, that muse has been maddeningly soft-spoken for Miller, 48. A Scranton-raised actor and writer, he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973 for his play That Championship Season, the story of four onetime Scranton basketball heroes gathered for a 20th reunion. Right after that came an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the Jesuit priest in The Exorcist, and when Hollywood beckoned, as Hollywood will, Miller heeded the call. He stayed about 10 years, writing TV scripts and acting in smallish movies, without ever feeling at home. “You wake up in California every morning, and the weather is beautiful, and you say, ‘Big deal,’ ” he says. “It’s just not a good place for plumbing one’s depths as an actor or writer.”

Then in 1985 Miller went home to visit his ailing mother. He wound up staying three months and reached a decision: After making the movie Light of Day, he would return to this tattered former mining town with depths you can visit and weather that is imperfect.

Here in a four-room apartment, Miller is writing again. He is finishing one teleplay for CBS, another for his friend Martin Sheen, and he has taken over as artistic director of the Scranton Public Theatre. “There’s a power here in Scranton, something invigorating,” he says. “It’s a storyteller’s town. You can go to taverns and hear lyrical conversations, street poetry. L.A. is fantasyland, New York is bullshit, but Scranton is the spine of the country.” And he loves to stroll through its Irish neighborhoods, tossing footballs to kids and dropping in on old friends. In baggy pants, his face unshaved, a cigarette in hand, he looks older and immeasurably sadder than the man who left, bound for glory, 25 years ago. And he has received a mixed welcome.

“He came back because he loved us all,” says Betty Cooney, a family friend who still lives in the old-fashioned two-family house that was the model for the set of Championship, and whose back he is rubbing. “It’s an honor to have him here.” Miller’s father, John, a retired electrical contractor, is even more glad. Jason’s mother, Mary Claire, died a year ago, and John, frail, has moved in with Jason. “It’s uplifted me, his being here,” John says. “Life is starting to mean something again.”

Others look less kindly on this native son. Since the coal mines shut down in the early ’50s, Scranton has been fighting hard times, and some resent Miller’s showbiz laurels. “There’s jealousy,” says Ray Lavelle, a high school pal who works for Proctor & Gamble. John Churilla, an insurance salesman who grew up with Miller, suspects the mistrust runs deeper. Says Churilla: “Even before he became Jason Miller, when he was still Jackie or Howie, people thought he was weird.”

An only child, Miller was a loner who, when he felt like it, could be enormously entertaining. In high school he and William Kotzwinkle, now a well-known novelist, liked to “go around to bars and read Edgar Allen Poe aloud,” Miller remembers. “People would throw peanuts and beer.” But Jackie—or Howie—also was an All-City basketball star. When Miller entered the University of Scranton, the theater had already caught his eye. “Kotzwinkle and I would hitchhike to New York, sell our blood for $10 and watch the shows,” he says. He studied acting at Catholic University’s graduate school in Washington, D.C., then made his way to Manhattan to seek his fortune on the stage. With him was his new wife, Linda, a fellow Catholic U. student with a famous father. “We kind of eloped,” says Miller. “Jackie Gleason was against the marriage from the beginning.”

Suddenly the Millers’ lives were transformed. Championship became the toast of Broadway. “I had been so poor I wrote checks for $2.50,” he says. “When Championship hit, I put $5,000 in the bank, and the tellers all applauded.” The success also brought a Drama Critics award, a Tony and, in 1974, the end of his marriage. “It was difficult for Linda growing up as Jackie Gleason’s daughter, robbed of her identity,” says Jason. “She didn’t want to be wiped out again.” Their children—Jennifer, now 22 and a student, Jason Patric, 21, an actor and Jordan, 20, a student—stayed with their mother. Jason headed for the Coast.

At first that good life was fun. He made friends with actors like James Caan, Nick Nolte and Susan Bernard, with whom he had a son, Joshua, now 13. He drove a Porsche, fast. “California has its own magic,” he concedes. “In many ways it was good to me. I did some good work—an F. Scott Fitzgerald TV movie, a show about anorexia called The Best Little Girl in the World.” Then it all wore off. “He felt disillusioned with the whole razzmatazz,” says Paul Sorvino, a friend who acted in the Championship film. “If you want to go to a writers’ hangout in L.A., you have to blow dry your hair.”

There were rumors of more serious problems: booze and drugs. “We all flirt with it,” says Miller. “There was a point when I was my own worst enemy.” More important, he says, his writing dried up: “I felt restless, rootless.” His second marriage, to Ruth Josem, now a model, began to unravel.

That’s when he went home. “There’s a poetry in that valley,” says Kotzwinkle of Miller’s search for his roots. Churilla agrees. “It was a damn good move,” he says. “I don’t think he should stay forever though.” But Miller, now separated from Josem, has set no time limits. He is writing five hours a day, a 10-pound lump of coal—his talisman—always nearby, and confidently waiting for his town’s restorative powers to take effect. “Where do you go after a Pulitzer?” he says, laughing a bit nervously. “I’m still searching, still looking for a story I can put onstage that will have universal implications. I haven’t made my mark yet—only a scratch.” Then he pauses a long time. “My old high school is closed,” he says. “That gave me intimations of mortality. I figure I’ve got 25 more years”—he points at his brain —”before I’m tapioca.”

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