NEW YORK — Jonathan Miller, the British theater and opera director known for his radical re-stagings of classic works, died Wednesday at his home in London. He was 85.
His death was confirmed by his son William, who said his father had Alzheimer’s disease.
Although he was best known as a director, Mr. Miller was a man of many talents. He was regularly called a Renaissance man, and although he disliked the term, which he said was invariably used “by people unacquainted with the Renaissance,” it fit him well.
He first achieved fame as an actor in the antiestablishment revue “Beyond the Fringe,” a hit in both London and New York. He went on to win acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic for his productions of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado,” and other works. He also produced and hosted television shows.
Most unusually, he was a medical doctor, with a special interest in neurology, who periodically left the world of theater to practice medicine. But his absences never lasted long.
Mr. Miller’s theatrical career began at Cambridge University, where he studied science but was also, as he put it, “tripped up” by comedy. He joined the Footlights, the Cambridge theatrical club whose members would later include David Frost, John Cleese, and Eric Idle, and starred in two Footlights revues that transferred to London, winning acclaim for his skills as a mimic, before joining forces with Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Alan Bennett in “Beyond the Fringe.”
That show, a mix of broad comedy and political satire, had a two-week run at the 1960 Edinburgh Festival before moving to the West End later that year and then, in 1962, to Broadway. The four performers won a special Tony Award.
Mr. Miller said then that he found himself “absolutely intoxicated by the United States.” It was, he mused, “a kind of promised land, a place where intelligence was at a premium,” and he was “swept away by the intellectual ferment.”
Between performances at the Golden Theater, he wrote movie reviews for The New Yorker, appeared on Jack Paar’s and other talk shows, was the subject of an article in Life magazine, and wrote and directed scripts for American television.
He did not, however, take a medical post at Mount Sinai Hospital as he had hoped. Instead he returned to London, where he was appointed editor of “Monitor,” the BBC’s main arts program.
It was the sort of career choice he often claimed to regret. Like Chekhov, whose “Seagull” and “Three Sisters” he staged with great success, he said he regarded medicine as his wife and the stage as his lover.
This attitude was probably influenced by his father, Emanuel Miller, a distinguished child psychiatrist and a remote parent who told his only son that he was squandering his talent on ephemera when he should be engaged in scientific research.
Jonathan Wolfe Miller was born on July 21, 1934, in London. His mother, Betty, was a successful novelist; his father was a founder of Britain’s child guidance clinics. Jonathan attended the intellectually demanding St. Paul’s School, where he made a lifelong friend of Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, whose journey to international fame began when Mr. Miller showed the original manuscript of his book “Awakenings” to a London publisher.
Then came what he later called “the bad thing I did”: agreeing to remain with “Beyond the Fringe” in London and New York instead of pursuing the career that had seen him qualify as a doctor, work as a house physician and pathologist in London, and write a paper published in The Lancet about the treatment of mercury poisoning.
Upon his return from America, he not only presented intellectually upscale programs for “Monitor,” but also directed dramas for the BBC.
Mr. Miller’s stage directing career began in 1962, with John Osborne’s one-act play about sexual fetishes, “Under Plain Cover,” at the Royal Court in London. His trajectory continued with a well received Off Broadway production of “The Old Glory,” by Lowell, in 1964; and in 1966 with a Broadway farce called “Come Live With Me,” whose failure left its coauthor, Lee Minoff, so disenchanted with Mr. Miller that he parodied him as the over-intellectual Jeremy Hillary Boob PhD in his screenplay for the 1968 animated film “Yellow Submarine.”
In the late 1960s, Mr. Miller’s directing career took off, leading to his appointment as an associate director under Laurence Olivier at the National Theater.
As with a fringe production that transformed “The Tempest” into a parable about colonialism, Mr. Miller was putting into practice the credo he later enunciated in his book “Subsequent Performances.”
Classic plays — he seldom directed anything contemporary — were to acquire new life by setting them in periods and places that would speak to modern audiences.
For a man widely liked for his warmth, generosity, humor, and stimulating company, Mr. Miller could be verbally ferocious, as well as surprisingly thin-skinned.
In the 1980s, after resigning from the National Theater, he denounced Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the culture-murdering equivalent of typhoid, unappreciative theater critics as “worse than leukemia,” and England as “an ugly, rancorous, racist little place.” Because of these feelings, he increasingly looked outward, turning to opera in far-flung places.
Not that he neglected other media or, indeed, Britain itself. In 1978 he presented the BBC’s “Body in Question,” a 13-part series about human biology during which he performed an autopsy on a dead vagrant.
In 1986 he returned to Broadway to direct Jack Lemmon and a young Kevin Spacey in a revival of O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”