Behind the Story

Let me preface this by stating that everything I have written here is based primarily on my own personal memories of conversations with my father or of statements my father made in my presence. I have also, in some cases, used historical references and will cite these whenever possible. Therefore, this is not meant to be an “authorized biography” but rather a collection of recollections of one son about his father. If any of my siblings has a different point of view they are more than welcome to share this with the World should they choose to do so.

Foundation from Life

Over the years, many people have asked me whether my father had been an alcoholic. They find it difficult to imagine that he could have written about the disease of alcoholism with such depth and emotion without having had personal experience. To the best of my knowledge he was not an alcoholic but he certainly did have personal experience with and exposure to the effects of the disease of alcoholism. His father Rolland James Miller, was a building contractor and by all accounts a heavy drinker.

In one account, related to me on several occasions by my father, his uncle, also a heavy drinker, had gotten drunk and passed out while smoking. After burning his own house down the drunken uncle moved in with my dad’s family. It was the beginning of the Great Depression and my father, 10 years old at the time, recalled an incident that would later provide him with the background for a key scene in The Days of Wine and Roses.

It was Christmas time and just after dad’s 10th birthday. At the onset of the Depression Rolland James Miller had lost pretty much everything and they were using apple crates and such as furniture. Depression or not the Miller family was determined to celebrate Christmas and so they had decorated a tree with foil from gum wrappers and cigarette packs.

One night, my father, who had gone to bed, heard a ruckus coming from the living room and crept down the hall to investigate. Dad’s uncle had come home in a drunken state and had apparently become enraged at the sight of the Christmas tree. Dad watch in silence as the drunken uncle broke the tree apart in a rage.

A few years later, dad enlisted in the US Navy and found himself immersed in the War in the Pacific. By his own account, he saw many of his shipmates killed and witnessed some of the unspeakable horrors of war.

Like many war veterans, I think dad experienced some degree of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in addition to suffering some pretty severe trauma to one of his knees related to an incident that occurred during his service in the South Pacific.  And like many war veterans he was, in my observation, a moderate drinker. Although I never saw him drink any alcohol during the day, it was typical for him to have a scotch on the rocks or two before dinner, wine with dinner followed by an after dinner drink or “night cap” as it was often referred to in those days.

That being said, I think he succeeded at capturing the essence of the disease of alcoholism because he was a good writer and because he thoroughly researched the subject as he did with all of his works. And like many writers, he enhanced his writing by incorporating elements extracted from his personal life experiences.

Birth of a Love Story

In the early days of television, the networks (remember those) generally tried to steer clear of controversial subjects that might be deemed inappropriate for family viewing. It was not uncommon during television’s infancy for writers, producers and directors to experience pressure from advertisers to “sanitize” the storyline. Fred Coe believed in his writers and fought to keep the sponsors from tinkering with their scripts, some of which would turn out to be quite controversial.

After returning from a troublesome film project in California, dad had told Fred Coe that he wanted to give up on writing and planned to get a sail boat to sail away on with the family. According to the story as dad told it, Coe pleaded with him to reconsider and write one more drama for Playhouse 90, something powerful about the dark side of human emotion.  Dad said he would consider it.

One night in late 1957 or early 1958, around 2am, JP Miller found himself unable to sleep. An idea had been swirling around in his head and the swirl had become a torrent. He got up and decided to call Fred Coe whom he knew would likely be awake and drinking. It’s my recollection that dad told Coe that he had the story—two young people fall in love. They drink together and then the bottle becomes more important to each of them than they are to each other. The backbone for Days of Wine and Roses was born.