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George Trumbull Miller (1943–2023)

by Karl Quinn

from Sydney Morning Herald

Australian film and television director George Miller, who scored a massive hit in the 1980s with The Man From Snowy River before going on to make movies in Hollywood, has died of a heart attack in hospital in Melbourne. He was 79.

Although he was one of this country’s most commercially successful filmmakers for a period and played a huge role in shaping the way we saw ourselves, the Scottish-born director was destined always to be known as “the other George Miller” by dint of having risen to prominence at almost exactly the same time as the creator of the Mad Max franchise, former medico Dr George Miller.

George T. (for Trumbull) Miller will be best remembered for his High Country epic, which grossed $17.2 million locally on its release in 1982 (the equivalent of $68 million in today’s money), did huge business worldwide, and spawned a sequel, an arena spectacular and a penchant for Akubras, Drizabone jackets and RM Williams boots.

But the film he treasured most dearly was one that the rest of the world greeted with absolute disdain.

“Dad’s favourite of the films he made was Les Patterson Saves the World,” says his son Harvey Miller, co-founder with Monte Morgan (son of pollster Roy Morgan) of the band Client Liaison, in which brother Geordie also plays.

The central plot of the movie, which starred Barry Humphries as the alcoholic diplomat of the title and as housewife superstar Dame Edna Everage, revolved around a disease that was spread by contact with toilet seats. Whatever the virtues such a story might have offered, the film was doomed to failure when it was released in the same week as the Grim Reaper AIDS campaign. It duly bombed, but has become something of a cult classic in the years since.

Harvey Miller remembers his father claiming that after the premiere Humphries said he never wanted to see the film again, while then-treasurer Paul Keating asked “why are we funding this shit?”

And yet, he says, “that was the film he was most proud to show us. He never sat us down as kids and said, ‘Watch The Man From Snowy River’. He just made us watch Les Patterson Saves the World.”

That was typical of his father, Harvey says. “He was just a real eccentric. I only ever saw him wear shorts. I never saw him cook a meal. There was this oddball naughtiness, but not in a clownish way.”

Sigrid Thornton, who worked with Miller on five projects, including The Man From Snowy River and miniseries All the Rivers Run – which was co-commissioned by HBO and was the first made-for-cable miniseries to be shown in the United States remembers him as a “a man who was full of stories”.

 “He was relaxed, collaborative. He was one of my biggest mentors in terms of understanding the nature of film, of performance. I learnt an enormous amount from George.”

Dr George Miller, who met him a few times in the mid-1970s when he was trying to get Mad Max made, also remembers him fondly. “He was very kind to me,” he says. “He was an established director at Crawfords, and he gave me advice on casting, crewing and shooting in the streets of Melbourne.”

At the time, it was the medico who was known as “the other” George Miller, while the more established man was referred to by his nickname, Noddy.

“A few times I received his mail by mistake,” the Babe producer (and director of its sequel) recalls. “When The Man From Snowy River hit the screens, a group of my mum’s friends congratulated me for making such a lovely film. ‘So much better than that Mad Max’.”

George Trumbull Miller was the son of Scottish migrants who arrived in the country in 1947, when he was four years old. They settled in Wonthaggi, on Victoria’s Bass Coast, where his father worked as a coal miner. Later, his mother found work in the kitchen at Parliament House in Melbourne.

George started in the business out of high school, landing a job in the mailroom of Crawford Television. By 21 he was working as a cameraman, but after just a couple of weeks he got his big break. “They’d throw you in at the deep end to see if you sank or swam,” he told this masthead in 2008. “I was one of the ones who swam.”

He worked on Division 4, Matlock Police, The Box, The Sullivans. The boom in TV miniseries blew him to the colonial-era Against the Wind, starring pop singer Jon English. It also gave him a taste for period drama, a field he would plough many more times.

Those stories were crucial parts of the way the nation came to understand itself in the early days of the so-called Australian New Wave. “There were lots of untold stories from a First Nations perspective, as we now know,” says Thornton, “but that was really our first historical exploration on film, and George was at the forefront of that.”

Adapted from Banjo Paterson’s poem, The Man From Snowy River film cost a modest $3 million to make. In the US alone it was in cinemas for more than a year, taking almost $US21 million (about $A85 million in today’s currency). Today it is still in the top 20 Australian films at the local box office, in unadjusted terms.

That success put him on the radar of Hollywood, where he made the sequel to The Never-Ending Story, Christmas movie In the Nick of Time with Lloyd Bridges, and the family movie Zeus and Roxanne.

That last featured a scene in which a dog rides to safety on the back of a dolphin – footage that has been excerpted and repurposed on social media tens of millions of times.

“That’s probably been seen more times than The Man From Snowy River,” notes Harvey. “The reality, unfortunately, is it’s probably going to be what survives him, more than Snowy.”

Miller’s final film was the 2009 exploitation thriller Prey, starring Natalie Bassingthwaighte. But you won’t find it on his imdb credits; after a dispute with the producers, he demanded his name be removed.

The director is credited instead as Oscar D’Roccster – the other other George Miller.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for George Trumbull Miller

Citation details

Karl Quinn, 'Miller, George Trumbull (1943–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/miller-george-trumbull-33190/text41406, accessed 18 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

28 November, 1943
Edinburgh, Scotland

Death

17 February, 2023 (aged 79)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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