Jason Miller: Exorcist Priest Who Quit the Church
Jason Miller grew up in Scranton, Pa., a kind of dead-end kid hung up on theater at the prodding of his nun schoolteachers and Jesuit professors. But for 10 years after college, he was just another underemployed actor and uncommercial playwright, supporting himself as a truck driver, waiter and welfare investigator. The only prominence he seemed destined ever to achieve was in marrying Jackie Gleason’s daughter Linda. When Jason landed his first Broadway job, for example, it was with Man of La Mancha, but he was doorman outside the theater.
Then, suddenly last winter, Miller’s own impossible dreams (and a few personal nightmares) were realized in a rush. He got a play produced, a tragicomedy about the reunion of a high school basketball team, That Championship Season, which won Broadway’s triple crown—a Tony, the Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Next, just as that instant success created a “danger, the necessity to try to top it,” he found himself back in acting, as Father Karras in The Exorcist—and up for an Oscar next week as best supporting actor. On the darker side, “the worm in the heart” as Miller puts it, he has split with the church—”not the faith but the bureaucracy”—and with his wife.
He met and married Linda Gleason while he was doing graduate work at the Catholic University 10 years ago. “There was a great deal of joy in the early years,” he remembers. “But when I went to New York in 1966, then came the death struggle to survive.” Between odd jobs Miller slowly progressed as an actor, wound up at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival group, which gave Championship Season a reading, “and,” as Miller says, “the rest is history.”
Director William Friedkin, who was then casting The Exorcist, saw the play, “caught all the references to the Jesuits,” says Miller, and noticed in the program that the author was also an actor. Miller continues: “I didn’t know anything about The Exorcist then except that there seemed to be a lot of people whose heads were buried in that purple book on the subway. But I went to California to do the screen test, which consisted of serving a Mass, and I’ll never forget it. I used to be an altar boy, and all the chants came back from childhood. There I was doing this stuff in a big warehouse, a huge set. For the chalice we used a grapefruit can. For the Host we used a Ritz cracker. For the Gospel, we used Blatty’s book. I felt like I was in a dark universe.” The Exorcist has become such a monstrous success, Miller feels, because “people have lost faith in science and there are religious impulses that we have neglected.”
Jason and Linda have three children, 5 to 9, the youngest of whom, Jordan, a hydrocephalic, was recently hit by a motorcycle while he and his father were playing on the beach. “The accident has complicated things,” says Miller, but it has not kept him and Linda together. He blames their separation on his sudden success, his “obsession to do good work—my ambition is something that can frighten a woman.”
So Linda and the children remain at their Saddle River, N.J. home, while Jason is in Beverly Hills (keeping company with actress Susan Bernard) and writing the screenplay for Championship Season. It is not cast yet, but the part of the old coach may go to his father-in-law, Gleason. The film, like so many others today, is virtually womanless, says Miller, returning to an obsessive theme. “Maybe men are having deeper relations with each other,” Miller conjectures. “Women’s lib has a lot to say about this. Women doing something creative seem to be reasonably happy. The 40-year-old man in this country,” the 34-year-old writer observes, “is an adolescent. Women have a difficult time reacting to that.”