In the award show/live event genre, there really aren’t superstar director names like Spielberg, Tarantino, Coppola or others. It just doesn’t work like that… with the exception of my friend, Walter C. Miller, who passed at the age of 94 on Friday at home with his family around him. He was not only one of a handful of directors — Dwight Hemion and Marty Pasetta also come to mind — who wrote the book about multi-camera coverage of live events, an art form and mathematical logistics nightmare all its own. He also became the first man in the chair to have spread those talents across both country and pop music, directing and ultimately producing both the CMA Awards and the Grammys as well as the Tonys, the Emmys, Comic Relief and dozens of other live events whose degree of difficulty left numerous other directors sitting in puddles beneath their chairs.
But to me — and I worked side by side with him on the Grammys for close to 30 of my 40 years as producer/executive producer — his proficiency in the chair, as mystifying and daunting as it could be, was only half of what I learned to love, appreciate and, most importantly, learn from this New York-born, WWII (how he pronounced it) vet who could just as easily cut you to bits with his mouth as he could with a rapier… which is how we referred to his wit, occasionally. And what else did this man possess that was greater than his innate and instinctive ability to look at 15 or 20 cameras at the same time and “call” the perfect shot, whether it was preplanned or not?
There were actually two things that Walter did pretty much better than anyone else. The first was his musician’s temperament (he played the violin), which led him to cut cameras to follow the music and disregard the temptation by many of today’s MTV directors to believe that their “direction” was more important than giving the audience the feeling that they were there. Now, that might sound elementary, but trust me, It’s much more of an art than stylized shots, raked angles or frantic over-cutting designed to mask lack of preparation. Cameramen almost always knew what Walter wanted, and when they didn’t, they showed him things that put a smile on his face — which was always preferable to the alternative, as anyone listening in on Walter’s legendary headset learned almost immediately. We might have been doing a G-rated show, but it was an X-rated headset, as we were all to discover one year when a highly censored couple of minutes of Walter’s headset wound up on Rick Dees’ radio show and almost brought the Recording Academy and the network to its knees. Apologies and mea culpas followed, but Walter was back in the chair the next year.
The second thing that separated Walter from his director contemporaries was also unique to his style of relating both to his staff, and equally importantly, to the artists we worked with. In 1980, Pierre Cossette put the two of us together on the Grammys — me to produce, and Walter to direct — after several years with a previous producer/director. I think Pierre’s darker instinct was that either he had caught lightning in a bottle or that only one of us would come out alive. Walter was already a seasoned director with numerous network credits and a mouth to match, and I was this hotshot producer, three years out of PBS music shows in Chicago, with an already developing approach of dealing with talent, but who was dumbstruck watching Wally in action. What I learned from that first year we were together could have filled an encyclopedia. (That’s a multi-volume collection of anecdotal information with pictures, for those of you analogically deprived.)
We both survived that first year, and 33 more. But from that moment on, when I put my mind to it, I would hear Walter’s voice in the way I dealt with talent, respecting them, dealing with them on the only level that I knew could elicit mutual respect, and always trying to get to the point where we were making serious decisions — and knowing that it had to be fun. And o this day, that’s how I approach what I do — and when it’s good, I hear Walter.
And that dance, often with me in the lead while he watched over me like I was the apprentice to the master (not that apprentice), was part of some pretty intense moments with artists that ranged from Prince to Whitney Houston, from Billy Joel to Bruce Springsteen, from Beyoncé to Barbra Streisand. Notice I haven’t mentioned any country acts. I wasn’t foolish enough to tread on that hallowed ground, first because they all loved Wally (or “Mr. Miller”), and secondly, because he just loved them back so much it was wonderful to watch, from Garth to Taylor and especially his favorite, Vince Gill.
I realize I haven’t given you much of a biographical sketch of my friend Walter, but you can find that elsewhere on the Internet. But if you take away that Walter Miller was unique, was loved by almost everyone he worked with (and hated by a few others), you get it: the picture of a person not often found anymore in this or any other business. I often said — to his face, to my credit — that beneath that gruff exterior was an even rougher interior. But that’s the kind of joke Wally loved. I can see him shaking with laughter now, and I always will.
I would be remiss, on the other hand, if I failed to include at least one classic Millerism that I heard on many more than a single occasion, one that, at its most vitriolic, was sometimes aimed right at my heart. Inevitably, at some point during a show, when I saw myself not only failing to make a point but seeing those eyes narrow to cobra slits, a slight tremor making its way from his feet to his head, boom, there it was, and there wasn’t any mistaking its intent. ”Just what…,” he would begin, and though I didn’t need a finish to that phrase, there was no getting out of the way. For effect, he waited until a crowd had gathered for maximum humiliation. ”Just what don’t you understand about go fuck yourself?” It was a rhetorical question and required no answer. With Walter Miller, no answer was really the only answer.
I loved him and miss him very much. We won’t see another one like him. Ever.
Ken Ehrlich was the executive producer of the Grammy Awards from 1980 through 2020. Walter Miller worked on the show as a director, producer or consulting producer from 1980 up until 2009. For an overview of Miller’s TV career going back to the 1960s, read here.