November 03, 1980 12:00 PM

People can’t seem to agree about Arthur Miller, and the mere mention of his name can produce an argument. Not the least of it stems from the fact that he is not the Arthur Miller, the playwright, although both graduated from the same Brooklyn high school. This Arthur Miller is a Harvard Law School professor and one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the legal question of privacy. Beyond that there is broad room for controversy. Fred W. Friendly, a Ford Foundation adviser, considers Miller “one of the five or six outstanding teachers of the law in the U.S.” A former student describes him as “a tyrant” who controls his classes through outrageous showmanship. And a veteran New York journalist, who attended one of Miller’s seminars on media and the law, calls the professor “Perry Mason with a blow-dry hairdo.”

In fact, Miller, 46, has at least three personas. There is the sober academic, author or co-author of nearly 30 learned volumes who has ambitions of becoming a judge. Next, there is the closet flamboyant who once a year departs from classroom routine to prance before his students in drag as Bette Midler or stripped down to boxing trunks a la Rocky. Finally, there is Miller the TV emcee, host of a weekly show on the law that goes head-to-head in Boston against Family Feud. The show does surprisingly well in the ratings. But there are some who find Miller’s behavior incompatible with professorial dignity. He admits the thought has occurred to him. “I’m an extremely serious scholar,” he explains. “Maybe I’m having an identity crisis.”

It would not be the first time. Born in Brooklyn, the son of a lawyer, he remembers himself as “a fat little kid with ear problems” who was a furiously enthusiastic baseball and softball player. Graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School in 1952, he decided to use his middle initial, R (for Raphael), to distinguish him from his fellow alumnus, whose Death of a Salesman was a Broadway hit. “I got teased a lot,” Miller recalls, “especially after he married Marilyn Monroe.” An aimless teenager whose security-conscious mother hoped he would become an engineer, Miller went on to earn high honors at the University of Rochester, dropped engineering in favor of history, and was admitted to Harvard Law School. There, beset by anxiety (“I felt sure I was flunking out; I used to sit in class trying to find people less prepared than I), he ranked fourth in his class and made the Law Review.

Miller served three years as an associate with a New York law firm before moving on to teach at Minnesota and then Michigan. There, in 1966, he was asked to look into the impact on copyrights of an interuniversity electronic library. The assignment took him into his first investigation of privacy law and technology. The following year he testified before a Senate subcommittee investigating the threat to privacy of a proposed National Data Center. Later he published the first authoritative book on the dangers of computerized information banks, hit the talk-show circuit to alert the public to the issue and helped prepare legislation on fair credit information practices. “Suddenly,” he says, “I was in the news.”

Miller returned to Harvard in 1971, and now teaches courses in civil procedure, copyright law and judicial administration. To charges that he is exacting, the professor pleads guilty: “I am. I don’t spoon-feed. I like to come into a class with 150 of the brightest minds in the country and make them go beyond the material. You can’t tell a judge, ‘Your Honor, I’m not prepared,’ so you must start with high standards and mastery of the material. Besides, if I’m so nasty, why do they want to take my course?”

The least of their reasons, perhaps, is Miller’s annual Erie Day Extravaganza. It is named after a 1938 case involving a man struck by an Erie Railroad train, which raised vital questions of federal vs. state law. On Erie Day, he dresses up for a hammy skit—portraying John Travolta colliding with someone on the dance floor or Bette Midler being mobbed by fans. “I’ve been a prankster ever since I first taught,” says Miller. “Good teaching doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, and there’s always a point to my prank.” The point is to illustrate which law determines responsibility for damages.

Inevitably, Miller’s theatrics brought feelers from television. The result is Miller’s Court, a half-hour verbal free-for-all aimed at making the law comprehensible. Assisted by guest experts, the host leads an audience of “jurors” through heated arguments on subjects like civil disobedience, gay rights and gun control. “Yell and shout,” he tells them. “I want to hear noise. Don’t let the experts push you around.”

“It’s good television,” says Bruce Marson, vice-president of WCVB, the ABC affiliate that carries the show. “I love to watch the faces of the audience. It’s so rare to see people think.” Miller admits he was intimidated at first by the pace of the show (“It’s like watching an express train go by when you’re on the local”), but seems to thrive on the exposure—the erosion of his own privacy notwithstanding. Divorced since 1978, he lives alone in Cambridge, where he writes a newspaper column and is working on a new book based on his TV series. Plans are being made to syndicate Miller’s Court nationally. Since July he has been making a weekly appearance as law commentator on ABC’s Good Morning America. Once self-conscious about his on-camera second career, Miller has been heartened by favorable reviews from his colleagues. “Some judges and lawyers have been willing to come on the air with me,” he says. “I don’t feel like a pariah. Of course,” he adds, “some people are no longer surprised at anything I do.”

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