Jonathan Miller, the British theater and opera director known for his radical restagings of classic works, died on Wednesday at his home in London. He was 85.
His death was confirmed by his son William Miller, who said his father had Alzheimer’s disease.
Although he was best known as a director, Miller was a man of many talents. He was regularly called a Renaissance man, and although he disliked the term, which he said was invariably used “by people unacquainted with the Renaissance,” it fit him well.
He first achieved fame as an actor in the anti-establishment revue “Beyond the Fringe,” a hit in both London and New York. He went on to win acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic for his productions of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado” and other works. He also produced and hosted television shows.
Most unusually, he was a medical doctor, with a special interest in neurology, who periodically left the world of theater to practice medicine. But his absences — as, for instance, a research fellow in neuropsychology at the University of Sussex in 1983 — never lasted long.
Miller’s theatrical career began at Cambridge University, where he studied science but was also, as he put it, “tripped up” by comedy. He joined the Footlights, the Cambridge theatrical club whose members would later include David Frost, John Cleese and Eric Idle, and starred in two Footlights revues that transferred to London, winning acclaim for his skills as a mimic, before joining forces with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook and Alan Bennett in “Beyond the Fringe.”
That show, a mix of broad comedy and political satire whose targets included Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Britain, had a two-week run at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival before moving to the West End later that year and then, in 1962, to Broadway. There it ran for a year and a half, and the four performers won a special Tony Award.
Miller said then that he found himself “absolutely intoxicated by the United States.” It was, he mused, “a kind of Promised Land, a place where intelligence was at a premium,” and he was “swept away by the intellectual ferment.”
Between performances at the Golden Theater, he wrote movie reviews for The New Yorker, appeared on the Jack Paar and other talk shows, was the subject of an article in Life magazine and wrote and directed scripts for American television. He also made many friends, including poet Robert Lowell, and writers George Plimpton and Susan Sontag, who called him the first person she had met truly at home in both science and the arts.
He did not, however, take a medical post at Mount Sinai Hospital as he had hoped. Instead he returned to London, where he was appointed editor of “Monitor,” the BBC’s main arts program.
It was the sort of career choice he often claimed to regret. Like Chekhov, whose “Seagull” and “Three Sisters” he staged with great success, he said he regarded medicine as his wife and the stage as his lover.
This attitude was probably influenced by his father, Emanuel Miller, a distinguished child psychiatrist and a remote parent who told his only son that he was squandering his talent on ephemera when he should be engaged in scientific research. That left Jonathan with lifelong feelings of guilt, which led him on several occasions to announce that he was abandoning what he once called “this footling flibbertigibbet world of theater.”
Jonathan Wolfe Miller was born on July 21, 1934, in London, where his Jewish grandparents on both sides had settled after fleeing anti-Semitism in what is now Lithuania. His mother, Betty, was a successful novelist; his father was a founder of Britain’s child guidance clinics. Jonathan attended the intellectually demanding St. Paul’s School, where he made a lifelong friend of Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, whose journey to international fame began when Miller showed the original manuscript of his book “Awakenings” to a London publisher.
Then came what he later called “the bad thing I did”: agreeing to remain with “Beyond the Fringe” in London and New York instead of pursuing the career that had seen him qualify as a doctor, work as a house physician and pathologist in London and write a paper published in The Lancet about the treatment of mercury poisoning.
Upon his return from America, where he had learned about the workings of television, he not only presented intellectually upscale programs for “Monitor,” but also directed dramas for the BBC, notably a dreamlike version of “Alice in Wonderland” with John Gielgud as the Mock Turtle and Peter Sellers as the King of Hearts.
Miller’s stage directing career began in 1962, with John Osborne’s one-act play about sexual fetishes, “Under Plain Cover,” at the Royal Court in London. His trajectory continued with a well-received Off Broadway production of “The Old Glory,” by Lowell, in 1964; and in 1966 with a Broadway farce called “Come Live With Me,” whose failure left its co-author, Lee Minoff, so disenchanted with Miller that he parodied him as the over-intellectual Jeremy Hillary Boob Ph.D. in his screenplay for the 1968 animated film “Yellow Submarine.”
In the late 1960s, Miller’s directing career took off, with revivals of Sheridan and Shakespeare at Nottingham Playhouse, leading to his appointment as an associate director under Laurence Olivier at the National Theater.
For the theater, he used his medical experience to direct Michael Hordern as a senile King Lear and elicited a major performance from Olivier himself as a Shylock intended to resemble a 19th-century Rothschild. As with a fringe production that transformed “The Tempest” into a parable about colonialism, with Ariel as a Jomo Kenyatta figure carrying a fly whisk, Miller was putting into practice the credo he later enunciated in his book “Subsequent Performances.”
Classic plays — he seldom directed anything contemporary — were to acquire new life by setting them in periods and places that would speak to modern audiences.
His determination, however, to stage an all-male “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which brought out Oscar Wilde’s gay subtext, exacerbated what became a feud with Olivier’s successor, Peter Hall, who thought the idea “a touch mad.”
The causes of the rift were both artistic and personal. Hall came to believe that Miller was undermining him. Miller saw Hall as not just tyrannical, but also as “a ball of rancid pig’s fat rolled around the floor of a barber’s shop.”
For a man widely liked for his warmth, generosity, humor and stimulating company — Dick Cavett called him “one of the most amazing conversationalists the world has ever produced” — Miller could be verbally ferocious, as well as surprisingly thin-skinned.
In the 1980s, after resigning from the National Theater, he denounced Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the culture-murdering equivalent of typhoid, unappreciative theater critics as “worse than leukemia” and England as “an ugly, rancorous, racist little place.” Because of these feelings, he increasingly looked outward, turning to opera and staging Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and others in places as far-flung as Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Florence and Tokyo.
Not that he neglected other media or, indeed, Britain itself. In 1978 he presented the BBC’s “Body in Question,” a 13-part series about human biology during which he performed an autopsy on a dead vagrant. Then he took control of the BBC’s “Bardathon,” in which all Shakespeare’s plays were televised, several of them directed by Miller himself. In 1983 came “States of Mind,” a 15-parter in which he interviewed the art historian Ernst Gombrich, the philosopher and scientist Daniel Dennett and others about consciousness and the brain.
In 1986 he returned to Broadway to direct Jack Lemmon and a young Kevin Spacey in a revival of O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” notable for the overlapping dialogue that shortened its usual running time. And from 1988 to 1990, he was artistic director of the Old Vic, often reviving lesser-known classic drama and staging Jean Racine’s “Andromaque” and Pierre Corneille’s “Liar.”
But it was his production of Leo Janacek’s opera “The Cunning Little Vixen” at Glyndebourne in 1975 that proved to be truly career-changing. An unusually realistic “Figaro” for the English National Opera was followed by Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” and the “mafia” “Rigoletto,” set in 1950s New York, that triumphed in London in 1982 and at the Met in 1984.
Other international successes included a “Mikado” set partly in 1930s Hollywood, a Mussolini-period “Tosca” and, in St. Louis in 1982, a “Così Fan Tutte” that led The New York Times’ Donal Henahan to write that Miller was thinking more incisively than anybody about how to bring opera to modern audiences.
Production after production embodied what Miller had learned as a clinician. What brought them to life, he claimed, were tiny behavioral traits, like tapping a pencil, scratching an ear or, in the case of a diva expressing grief, simply twisting her hair and staring into the distance: “It’s my passionate, almost religious belief that it is in the negligible that the considerable is to be found,” he said.
Miller’s creative restlessness did not lessen with time. In 1991 he staged six operas in six cities, including Tel Aviv and Vienna. In 1993 his modern “Così,” with Mozart impeccably dressed by Armani, gave him a belated Covent Garden debut. The next decade saw him directing “The Cherry Orchard” in Sheffield, “Hamlet” in Bristol and Christopher Plummer as Lear in Stratford, Ontario, and at the Lincoln Center, as well as presenting television programs on subjects ranging from influenza to atheism and creating sculptures from found wood and scrap metal, one of which became the set for his revival of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” for Graz Opera.
In 2002 Miller was knighted “for services to music and the arts,” though, characteristically, he said he wished it had been for the services to science he had failed to deliver. Self-doubt and insecurity, along with bouts of depression, never left him.
In addition to his son William, he is survived by his wife of 63 years, Rachel Collet, a doctor; another son, Tom; a daughter, Kate; and several grandchildren.
Miller once said that his life had resembled a butterfly’s, moving from flower to flower. “But,” he added, “they do pollinate.”
“There is a point to their existence,” he continued. “I hope there is to mine.”