Saturday, October 12, 2013
Now Let Us Praise Jack Miller
When I telephoned the Toronto Star's news desk to report the passing of Jack Miller aged 85 there was an awkward silence.
"I don't think my generation would be interested," the temporary reporter said and then hung up.
But once upon a time Miller was the nation's most read and influential TV columnist.
He'd started at it in 1954 at The Hamilton Spectator and lasted 16 years on the beat --he was one of the first reporters to write exclusively about TV along with The Telegram's Ron Poulton and The Star's Gordon Sinclair.
I was a kid way back then but when I started reading papers I always gravitated to the entertainment sections.
Our family devoured all three Toronto dailies day and later I grew to appreciate the TV columns of Jon Ruddy and Bob Blackburn in The Tely, Roy Shields and Patrick Scott in The Star and Dennis Braithwaite in The Globe And Mail.
This was the Golden Age of TV criticism --these guys believed in the CRTC, they believed in the CBC, they wrote daily about the enfolding Canadian TV scene.
When The Star's Patrick Scott retired from the beat in 1971 he told management only Jack Miller at The Spec could replace him --Scott personally subscribed to the Hamilton paper just to read Mller.
"It was a big break for me," Miller once told me. "I was very scared at first because of the calibre of talent in that section.
"Then I realized I was probably the oldest guy in the room and I had the most experience."
Miller remembered early on Star management had him driven in the dark of night to an old warehouse in Scarborough.
"On the stage were all the members of the Star's board of directors. Chairman Beland Honderich had ordered this secrecy because he wanted to purchase Peterborough's Channel 12 and move it to Toronto.
"I patiently explained this was impossible. CHEX had gotten its license precisely to serve Peterborough. And there was a Channel 12 also in Rochester. Its signal would be compromised by moving CHEX into the Toronto area. It wasn't the answer the board expected. They never proceeded with the proposed sale."
As it turned out I replaced Miller at the Spec --I was 24 --he was 44-- and he did his best to bring me up to speed. He went everywhere with his wife Helen --they were known in the trade as "Meet The Millers" --a reference to a current show on Buffalo's WBEN-TV.
Somewhere I have a delightful photo of Helen swimming with Phyllis Diller in the swimming pool at Manulife Centre --the Millers lived there high up in some luxury.
Another memory is of a joint interview with Hugh O'Brien and the fact that even when I was asking Hugh a question he was looking at Helen's beautiful long legs.
During CRTC sessions I noticed the Commissioners would invite Jack back into their private room to explain some arcane regulation. I can still see Jack chatting away and commission member Northrop Frye taking notes.
Jack became so good at this the CRTC asked him to join but he refused saying journalism was always his first love,
In 1980 Jack asked to transfer to the science beat (I replaced him once more) where he shone with his ability to explain complex subjects in easy to read prose.
He retired in 1992 and looked after Helen as she battled cancer making sure he drove her back to their home in St. Catharines every night after treatment at Princess Margaret hospital.
Last time I talked to him was a few months ago and he was all excited about his latest phone gadget.
One thing's for sure --the art of TV criticism was much the poorer when he left the beat.