An Actor Returns to UMD

Joel McKinnon Miller, from HBO's Big Love,

Returns to Campus to Graduate

Joel McKinnon Miller, UMD alumnus and central cast member on HBO’s new hit show Big Love, is revisiting campus after a gap of over twenty years. He left UMD lacking two classes for his degree. His circuitous route back to UMD took him around the country with a touring company performing Shakespeare, and then propelled him into television and film. In May 2007, Miller received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in theatre.


Miller’s acting career began at UMD. During the summer theatre productions of 1980 he had the lead in South Pacific, he played Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace, had a part in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and acted in the premiere of an avant-garde play by a Finnish playwright. “All that stuff in the summer made me a versatile actor,” said Miller. "It was great experience."

He returned to UMD summer theatre in 1981 taking on the lead in Roar of the Greasepaint — the Smell of the Crowd and playing Sir Lionel in Camelot. “My fondest memory of UMD was during that summer, because that’s when I met my wife,” he said. Joel’s wife, Tammy McKinnon, a native Duluthian, had come up to UMD from the UM-Twin Cities to work in the summer theatre costume shop.

Miller’s hairstyle has been influencing his life since his days at UMD. “I had to grow out my hair and my beard for the part of Sir Lionel” he said, “On the final night of the production I shaved my beard in the dressing room and surprised Tammy.” Now Miller has a completely different look. He sports a trademark flattop haircut.


Two classes shy of his degree, Miller took on short stints at the Minnesota Opera and Children’s Theatre. “I loved plays and opera. I knew it was what I wanted to do,” said Miller. When Miller heard that The American National Theatre and Academy (ANTA) was interviewing for actors in Vermillion, South Dakota, he made his way to the auditions and landed a part.

ANTA was the minor league team for John Houseman's The Acting Company, a classical theatre company out of New York which launched the careers of actors like Kevin Kline and Patty LuPone. "It was a great opportunity for me,” Miller said. He toured with ANTA for a year, crammed into hotel rooms with other actors, and scrimping from his meager pay for an engagement ring.

With a year’s tour under his belt, Miller auditioned for The Acting Company,John Houseman's major league. “It was in the actor’s equity union and that meant a decent salary,” he said. Tammy landed a spot on the wig and wardrobe team of the same tour. In May 1983, they married, and in July the Millers launched three years of traveling together by bus. Miller said, “Whenever possible we rented a car and went sightseeing. We took advantage of the opportunity to see the country everywhere we stopped.”


At the end of their third season on the road, the Acting Company performed Off Broadway in New York City and Miller hired a theatre agent. He left the tour bus behind and worked Off Broadway and in regional theatres for a couple of years.

By 1991, Miller made his television debut as a guest star on Murphy Brown. Since then, he has stayed in Los Angeles, acting for film and TV. His film credits include The Truman Show, Friday After Next, The Family Man, and After the Sunset, among others. His guest star roles for television include Deadwood, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Six Feet Under, Boston Legal, Las Vegas, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Cold Case.


Caitlin, Tammy, Joel and Owen Miller in Duluth at UMD's commencement ceremony

Miller has an incredible career and he did it all without a degree. But something was missing in his life. “A couple of years ago, my daughter, Caitlin, started thinking about college,” he said. He realized that if he finished his degree it would send a strong message about the value of education to his kids. Miller contacted UMD about finishing up his degree.The UMD administration determined that Miller needed to finish his required classes, a science class and a language class.

Miller enrolled in classes in California. On the night he took his first geology test, Caitlin and his son Owen were waiting at the door to hear about his grade. “Luckily, I got an ‘A’,” chuckled Miller. “That’s when I realized my kids were watching every move I made.” His second class was in Spanish and on that first test he scored a ‘C’. His son’s response was “What happened, man?” Miller cranked it up and got an ‘A’ in the class. “I did it for my kids, that’s the bottom line. You can make it in life without a diploma, but a college degree gives you options,” he said. “I came back and graduated in my cap and gown. I did it for them.”


Miller never stopped learning. Knowing who to listen to was important. He often relies on the advice of his agents. He has three agents: one for theatre, one for voice over, and one for on-camera work. In 1996 he played the part of a sergeant and got a flattop haircut. His agent gave him one of the best pieces of advice he ever received, to keep the haircut and get a new publicity picture. Miller has been working steady ever since. The flattop haircut resonated with casting directors. They could envision him playing a wide variety of parts.

“I'm a character actor," Miller said. "The character guy is the supporting actor. I like it because it gives me anonymity. I get fun parts, the best lines, and sometimes I do comedy. Every part is completely out of the ordinary.”

Things are changing slightly for Miller with the HBO show Big Love, which is about Utah Mormans and polygamy. “I’ve got a regular contract now. I am not a guest, and my name is in the front titles,” he said. Miller plays the part of Don Embry, best friends with the show’s protagonist, Bill Hendrickson, played by Bill Paxton. “My part is fairly busy, although I'm still considered a supporting actor,” said Miller.

— written by Cheryl Reitan

UMD Homepage 2007

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