The role called for a clean-shaven man. Denny Miller looked again at his beard and debated. Should he take it off? Miller had grown a full beard for acting parts in a couple of westerns, and it looked good. “Hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said to himself, and left his razor behind in the medicine cabinet. However, after arriving at the audition, he took stock of his competition and wondered if he’d made a mistake. There were hundreds of other actors vying for the job, but there was only one beard among them – his.
Nevertheless, Miller’s instincts proved bang on target. Four callbacks later, “I had the job!” he says. Miller had won the role as the famous fisherman for Gorton’s seafood company. His beard intact, he shot his first commercial for them in 1991, and after an amazingly long, strong run (he could be seen on TV about 1,000 times a year), Miller recently hung up his yellow rain slicker and retired.
He didn’t start out to be an actor. In the 1950s, Miller and his younger brother, Kent, had full scholarships from UCLA to play basketball for legendary coach John Wooden. Working part-time as a furniture mover during his senior year, Miller was spotted by a talent agent. The agent asked the 6’4″ blond for a closer look…at his hair. Apparently Miller’s follicles had sufficient star power, and after a quick screen test, he was signed by MGM. He was then cast as the first blond Tarzan for the leading role in Tarzan, the Ape Man (1959) for $180 a week – and yes, he still has his loincloth.
Miller soon found a career as one of those ubiquitous actors who’s always seen but never noticed. (The title of his 2004 autobiography: Hey, Didn’t You Used To Be…What’s His Name?) His acting credits span 50 years and include more than 350 TV episodes. Many of the shows in which he appeared read like a hall of fame of the small screen: Gunsmoke; Hawaii Five-O; I Spy; The Fugitive; Mission: Impossible; The Six-Million Dollar Man; Fantasy Island; Battlestar Galactica; The Rockford Files; MAS*H; Charlie’s Angels; Dallas; Murder, She Wrote; Magnum P.I.; Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and dozens more. Among Miller’s most memorable characters was Duke Shannon in that classic oater from the early 1960s, Wagon Train. He also played the surfer dude who washed up on the beach in an episode of Gilligan’s Island. He worked on more than three dozen TV commercials, too. Remember when the Brawny paper towel guy was a blond? Yep, that was Miller.
As the Gorton’s fisherman, Miller’s rugged good looks and strong, good-natured manner breathed new life into the stiff old salt. Miller had taken a cardboard advertising mascot and made him into an approachable, desirable, and, most important to Gorton’s, trustworthy character. His portrayal of the classic fisherman proved so popular that Gorton’s managers changed the logo of their 158-year-old company, as well as all of the graphics on the packages of their frozen foods, to resemble Miller. His character was even immortalized recently as a life-size Lego sculpture.
But as effortless as the role may have seemed for him, it was no small feat. Miller isn’t a boater, and the only fishing he has ever done was as a small boy casting for blue gill and perch with his grandfather in northern Indiana. He even admits to getting seasick on occasion. In fact, Miller couldn’t get much farther from a fishboat than he is today. He and his wife, Nancy, live in Las Vegas.
All in all, Miller has had a healthy effect on boaters. Those thousands and thousands of impressions on TV added up. His foul-weather gear has become our version of a cowboy’s white hat – it’s what the good guys wear. It’s the mark of a trueborn son of the sea, a man who can handle the ocean in all her moods. Did Denny Miller invent the full beard or yellow rain slicker? Not quite, but he knew how to make us feel good about them.