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George Miller, 61; Stand-Up Comedian Was Often on 'Letterman'

March 08, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

George Miller, a longtime stand-up comedian who appeared on close friend David Letterman's late-night talk shows more than any other comic, died Wednesday at UCLA Medical Center of complications from a blood clot in his brain. Miller, who was 61, had suffered from leukemia for years.

In all, Miller appeared on NBC's "Late Night with David Letterman" and CBS' "Late Show with David Letterman" 56 times in two decades -- a caustic but clean monologist needling Letterman while showcasing his latest lines and laments, usually about the stuff of everyday life.

"George was my oldest friend, and one of the funniest people I ever knew," Letterman said in a statement released through his publicist. "We are all very sad that he is gone."

The two had met in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, when both were emerging comics. They lived in the same apartment building across the street from the Comedy Store on Sunset Boulevard and were part of a class of young comedians that included Jimmie Walker, Jay Leno and later Robin Williams and Garry Shandling.

Unlike most stand-ups today, said Tom Dreesen, who also was part of the group, Miller "was just content to be a stand-up comedian.... He truly just wanted to write funny things and say funny things."

The goal was to get a spot on NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," on which Miller appeared many times.

Mostly, he did what all comics do: work the road. "I was once fired as opening act for Seals and Crofts because I got loaded and introduced them as Arts and Crafts," one of his jokes went.

Born George Wade Dornberger in Seattle, Miller was raised by his mother, Helen, after his father left the family when George was an infant, said Miller's uncle, Paul Rhymes.

When he was young, his mother bought him a pool table, and he was hooked. "He got quite good at it. He was a shyster," Rhymes chuckled.

"I was what they call a pool hustler," Miller told the Chicago Tribune in 1986. "That's absolutely true. For long periods of time I got by, barely skimmed by, just playing pool."

Miller went to Roosevelt High School in Seattle and later enrolled at the University of Washington, where he "majored in registering," he once told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

He came to Los Angeles in the late 1960s and performed in the few clubs in which a comedian could find a regular spot: the Horn in Santa Monica, the Ice House in Pasadena, and several years later the Comedy Store.

By 1979, when Miller and others were more established across the country, a group of Comedy Store regulars staged a labor dispute outside the club because they weren't getting paid for their gigs.

Miller then moved on to the Improv on Melrose Avenue and the Laugh Factory on Sunset Boulevard, where he continued to perform regularly.

By the end of his life, he was living both in a Los Angeles apartment and in his childhood home in Seattle.

He last appeared on Letterman's show Sept. 4.

Jamie Masada, owner of the Laugh Factory, said he is organizing a memorial for 3 p.m. March 16 at the club.

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