Through his iconic voice and through his movies which displayed extraordinary skiers, envious mountain escapes on many of the most majestic and captivating mountain ranges in the world, and through his entertaining and humorous narration we glimpsed an extraordinary life, and a more extraordinary individual. Sadly, that life ended January 24 on Orcas Island, WA.
In a fundamental way, it was Miller’s voice, humor, and his artistic vision that personified his work. A truly iconic voice, it was displayed in more than 38 films he directed, and his credits also included an astonishing 750 sport films, as well as numerous books and stories. Through all this he established a legacy for skiers, riders, and skiing which will continue for generations.
Still, while so many can easily recall Miller’s distinctive voice – and his charismatic humor which personified his annual ski films - many know little of the rich life of this movie producer and skier.
Born in Los Angeles, on October 25, 1924, to Albert and Helena Miller, Miller was the youngest of three children. With a childhood marked by the Depression, his interests involved skiing, surfing (it was California), and photography. As a young man Miller attended the University of Southern California, then enlisted in the Navy less then a year into World War II. Serving in the South Pacific, he first filmed skiing in 1944 while on vacation. Subsequently, on his discharge, he bought an 8mm camera and, following a trip to resorts including Alta, Jackson Hole, and Aspen, he stopped in Sun Valley. There, camping in the parking lot in a small trailer and working as a ski instructor – living the life of a ski bum - he balanced skiing with beach summers in California. It also marked the beginning of his career as a ski film producer.
First sharing his films with family and friends at parties, he established Warren Miller Entertainment in 1949, beginning his tradition of producing a new film annually, and renting halls and theaters for his annual ski films. Soon more than 100 cities were showing his films, and his reputation grew. While he sold the company to his son Kurt in the 1980s, who later sold it to Time, the company continued producing his annual ski films. More recently, the films used previous narrations, with Miller relaunching the company in 2010.
In many respects, Miller’s films, and his influence, blazed the trail for other ski film producers. From Greg Stump to Matchstick Productions, the modern ski film industry truly owes Warren Miller an enormous debt. In his later years, enjoying time at the Yellowstone Club in Montana, where he owned a home and established the Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, a program intended to help children learn entrepreneurial skills, Miller often entertained guests during fireside chats as he shared grand tales of his life, and his countless memorable mountain adventures.
Miller’s films, as those who saw these works knew, were more than ski films. Each contained Miller’s classic humor, his engaging and lyrical voice, as well as the extraordinary photography depicting astonishing beautiful ski locations. His films were a fun and rollicking adventure into the mountains with friends always exploring and daring nature and the terrain. From steep slots and cliff jumping to notable crashes, Miller’s films always entertained.
Married five times, and blessed with three children, his first wife Jean died of cancer at a young age. In subsequent years, with his wife of 30 years Laurie, Miller enjoyed sailing a 47-foot Bayliner near his home.
Miller’s voice was so distinctive it was rumored that his wife forbade his talking in lift lines for fear the crowd would fawn over him and disrupt their day. He was inducted into the US Ski Hall of Fame in 1978, and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Skiing History Association in 2004. On January 24, when he died at his home in Washington, it snowed more than a foot at Mount Baker in Washington.
The world lost an icon of the sport, and a man of unusual wit, humor, and with a zest for life, the mountains, and the sport of skiing.
Contributing columnist Tony Crespi has served as both a ski school trainer and development team coach. His column is published throughout the season.