Plan Pays Well for Tom Miller
By Mike Drew
Miller (center) with Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker
Tom Miller's title is executive producer,
and he's one of the best in television history.
In TV, executive producer
means "Blame this cat if we flop because if we make it, he
Miller has fathered a few
TV failures. In a mellow mood, he'll admit to working on
"Me and the Chimp" and "Blansky's Beauties,"
which wasn't pretty. Nor will "Joanie Loves Chachi"
be carved on Miller's tombstone. But he's also dreamed up
a passel of hits.
An executive producer's
job can range from raising money to writing scripts and
escorting them onto the air. Miller does his share of
script polishing and supervision. But his real talent is
forming creative partnerships.
His own, with producers
Edward Milkis and Bob Boyett, have produced some of the richest
pairings in TV history: The Fonz and Richie in "Happy
Days," "Laverne and Shirley" and "Mork and
After successful network
runs, all are earning Miller a fortune in syndication.
The Milwaukee native was
graduated from Nicolet High School (1958) and the UW-Madison
(1962.) His father, Ed, is president of Spic and Span Dry
Tom's golden touch
continues. Premiering last spring with six installments,
his "Perfect Strangers" tied for 10th in last season's
ratings. And it's off to a fast start this fall.
"Valerie," with Valerie Harper, isn't doing as
well. But after surviving its own spring tryout, it's
fighting to stay on NBC's Sunday night schedule opposite
"Murder, She Wrote."
The key to
"Strangers" success so far seems an old Miller
speciality; the buddy system. This family sitcom pairs
comic actors Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker as innocents
abroad in Chicago.
Pinchot plays Balki
Bartokomous, a Mediterranean shepherd who's moved in on a
distant cousin (Linn-Baker). Balki's problem with the
manners, morals and language of his adopted country owe a clear
debt to Miller's "Mork and Mindy." Pinchot's
uninhibited style is a variation on a theme mined earlier by
When Balki is told he's in
debt, he responds, "Now I'm a true American."
That recalls Mork's description of a US jail: "It's where
you get free food and clothes and pay no rent."
With no trouble, you can
see Mork mouthing Balki's description of his adopted country:
"Land of my dreams, home of the Whopper." Or
hear him offering to fix a radio: "It's probably just the
But a deeper vein of humor
runs through "Perfect Strangers." Mostly it's a
fable about two vulnerable young men, hoping their friendship
can survive Chicago.
In Pinchot, 27, and
Linn-Baker, 32, Miller and Boyett have formed a classic
Alumni of the Yale
University Drama School, Pinchot and Linn-Baker didn't know each
other on campus.
After college, both scored
in TV guest spots and hit movies. Baker played the TV go-fer
who escorted a fading movie idol (Peter O'Toole) around New York
in the classy "My Favorite Year."
breakthrough was grander. As a haughty art gallery clerk
with a strange accent in "Beverly Hills Cop," he
swiped scenes from Eddie Murphy.
That so impressed Miller
and Boyett that they built "Perfect Strangers" around
him. In a Los Angeles interview last summer, the actor
"Like Balki, I'm
impulsive, gullible, loving, uninhibited and curious. I,
too, try to lift off the adult, tense things so that I can be a
kid. Balki is a totally innocent version of myself."
Miller and Boyett dreamed
up "Strangers" while watching national pride surge at
the '84 Olympics. All three networks turned down their
series until ABC, third place and desperate, gave it a go.
That was with only three
weeks notice last spring. When Miller / Boyett learned
that "Strangers" would be scheduled between
"Who's the Boss?" and "Moonlighting," they
promised to make that deadline. It was the best spot on
ABC. Pinchot recalled the time:
"I was living in a
flop house and suddenly camera crews from all over the world
descended. I had Rolling Stone on one phone and USA Today
on the other." (Editor's note - this is a
paraphrase of a story Bronson told about his success in
"Beverly Hills Cop," not "Perfect
Now out of the flop house,
he's into buying antique Scandinavian beds for $9,000.
"But I still can't
get Tom Miller on the phone," he said, with a wry glance at
his boss. "He won't give me his home number."
As Pinchot developed a
teenybopper following, "Strangers" took off. The
show now reaches across the audience spectrum.
"It's pulled the best
reviews of anything I've ever done," said Miller, whose
credits include the movies "Foul Play," "Silver
Streak" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in
"Tom Miller has
shaped a whole generation of television," said an admiring
"He packaged and sold
our show -- one big feat. TV is a collaborative process
and Tom is the overseer. He has the sharpest eye for
spotting problems and fixing them. Every outline and
script draft goes through him; he gives notes to the writers and
they stick to them."
After getting an
English-speech degree from the UW, Miller landed his first
Hollywood job with the help of Milwaukee publicist Ben Barkin.
He honed his skills on
such TV series as "Love, American Style," "The
Brady Bunch" and "The Odd Couple," 20 TV movies
and dozens of series pilots. In 1974, he crossed the
golden road from worker to ownership with "Happy
Days." Much of that show was based on Miller's
Milwaukee," he said in Los Angeles. "It rooted
me in reality and values which have served me well in good and
Miller says that a reality
base helps make "Perfect Strangers" work.
"As far as our
scripts push Bronson and Mark, the actors ground things in the
real world," the producer said.
Co-producer Dale McRaven
interrupted: "As a series progresses, you usually try to
find what your stars can't do. We keep finding new things
these guys can pull off."
Working on that, escorting
"Strangers" segments through post-production and
trying to pump more life into "Valerie" keeps Miller
too busy for movies these days.
But he plans a Goldie Hawn
feature film next year.
Meanwhile, he pores over
the weekly ratings, praying that "Strangers" survives
long enough to join "Happy Days" and Miller's other
babies in syndication.
"ABC is ecstatic with
'Strangers,'" Miller said. "They were getting
18% of the audience in its Wednesday time period last year for
'The Insiders.' They hoped for a 25 with us and we're
"When we beat
'Highway to Heaven' the first week out, ABC was jumping up and
"I like doing series
that people either love or hate, like 'Happy Days.' It ran
That made Tom Miller very
rich. With "Perfect Strangers," he'd settle for
a five year run. That would put "Strangers" in
syndication and add to Miller's growing empire of hit comedies