Skip to main content

Former UCLA Basketball Player Denny Miller Passes Away

Sep 17, 2014

Former UCLA men’s basketball player Denny Miller, who went on to a successful 53-year acting career, passed away on Tuesday, Sept. 9, at home in Las Vegas after a courageous battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Miller was 80 years old.

Miller led a very diverse and fulfilling life, competing on the UCLA basketball team in the 1950s for head coach John Wooden, before embarking upon a career in acting that included a starring role as Tarzan in 1959, in addition to serving as a health educator and actor.

A multi-talented athlete, competing on the football, basketball and baseball teams at University High School in Los Angeles, Miller earned first-team all-city honors on the basketball court in 1952 before securing Western League Player of the Year honors. As a 6-foot-4 freshman guard/forward at UCLA during the 1952-53 season, he set the then-scoring record for the freshman squad, averaging 20.3 points per game (325 points, 16 games).

As a sophomore the following season, he played in 23 varsity games, averaging 4.0 points and 1.4 rebounds per game. From 1954 through 1957, Miller served in the United States Army.

Upon returning to Westwood, Miller was a part-time starter on the 1957-58 basketball team, averaging 3.1 points and 2.3 rebounds per game. As a senior (1958-59), he averaged 7.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in just eight contests, leaving UCLA to pursue his acting career. That season, he played alongside his brother, Kent Miller, who was a sophomore center.

While working as a furniture mover to help pay for school, Miller was discovered on Sunset Boulevard by a Hollywood agent who signed him with MGM. In 1959, he played the title role in the movie “Tarzan the Ape Man.” He acted in 20 films and in 235 television episodes, including on “Wagon Train” from 1961-64 as the Scout, Duke Shannon. He also made appearances on popular television series including "Gilligan's Island," "The Rockford Files" and "Dallas."

Miller was featured in more than 200 television and radio commercials. For 14 years, until he turned 70 years old, he was cast as the spokesman for Gorton's Seafood as the bearded Gorton's fisherman.

Miller earned his undergraduate degree from UCLA as a physical education major. As an undergraduate student, his father, Dr. Ben W. Miller, served as chairman of UCLA’s physical education department. Denny Miller taught fitness at the University of California (Berkeley), Humboldt State, Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., for the American Arthritis Foundation and for the United States Navy.

He authored three books – an autobiography titled Didn’t You Use to Be … What’s His Name? and two fitness books, Toxic Waste … Get to Know Sweat and Me Tarzan … You Train! Without Pain.

In his book Didn’t You Used to Be … What’s His Name?, Miller wrote, “I proudly belong to three groups of men. The biggest group is those men that have been honorably discharged from the U. S. Army. Belonging to that group has taught me to hate war. I belong to the P.T.A. – the Past Tarzans Association. It is a very small group of 19 men who have played the role of Tarzan on film. That experience taught me to not take myself too seriously. Being a cartoon will do that to you. My Nevada license is – XTARZAN. But the group of men I’m proudest to be a member of is that bunch of athletes who had the privilege of being coached by John Wooden. I love you, Coach!”

Born on April 25, 1934, in Bloomington, Ind., Denny Miller is survived by his wife Nancy, his son Brad and his daughter Courtney. His brother, Kent, passed away at the age of 70 on Aug. 2, 2009.