He was friends with John Belushi and John Candy, Mel Brooks, and Ringo Starr, but you probably never heard of him. Here’s the story of his last afternoon.
I would be surprised if you knew who Ira Miller was, even though you’ve probably seen him or heard his voice somewhere. If you watch old Mel Brooks movies you can find him working there, part of the scene, a professional funnyman, and character actor, not famous but known and respected by his peers.
Ira lived a quiet life in Hollywood, teaching improv at Second City, doing voice-overs, smoking prodigious quantities of weed, and hanging out with a very select crowd of musicians, comedians, and actors. If you knew Ira, you were probably in the business, and you probably stayed up late.
When Ira died in September of 2012, we had been friends for almost sixty years, starting as schoolboys from the same neighborhood in Chicago. Ira always told me that we first met as thirteen-year-olds when I shared a nudist magazine I’d found in a trash can with him. What I remember from the beginning is something that happened when we were about seventeen or eighteen.
I was finding my way into the drug world in those days, and I had stumbled onto something called Asthmador, a medicine for people with Asthma. Asthmador was supposed to be inhaled, but if you dropped it instead, you could get seriously messed up. Asthmador was easy to get in those days, available over the counter in any drugstore. You just bought the little green container, filled up a gelatin cap with the powder inside, swallowed it, and soon, you were flying sorta-legal higher than shit. The high however was like being hit in the head with a sledgehammer, because what you were taking was a mixture of Belladonna and Datura, a cousin of Deadly Nightshade.
I ran into Ira one night, told him about this new stuff, gave him a handful of caps, then forgot all about it. A few weeks later, when I ran into him again, he said: “What was that shit you gave me? Whatever it was, don’t ever give it to me again!” He told me he had gone home, taken a cap, and after a while, when nothing had happened, he had taken a couple more.
Then it had hit him all at once, this triple dose, and he knew, absolutely knew he was going to die. Dying seemed OK, he told me, the problem was he didn’t want to tell his mom while they were sitting there watching TV. Instead, he got up, mumbled goodnight, went into his bedroom, closed the door, and laid down to wait for the end. He told me, “I laid there all night, and most of the next day, and I gradually realized I wasn’t going to die. So the next afternoon I came out of my bedroom and sat down in the kitchen, and my mom said, “What happened to you? I was ready to call an ambulance,” and all I could say was, … “I got the twenty-four-hour flu ma; it’s going around.”
Ira and I stayed friendly through the Chicago years even though I came and went a lot. By 1970 he was part of a comedy group called The Conception Corporation. They had an album called A Pause In The Disaster that was doing well, and they were getting ready to make an experimental video called Void Where Prohibited By Law.
I signed on as Technical Director, and during the filming, we cemented our friendship. We were never going to see each other every day, but we liked each other, and it was always a pleasure to spend time in each others company. We were friends.
When Void was finished, Conception Corporation picked up and moved to Los Angeles seeking fame and fortune, and I went along. We opened a theatre on La Brea where we showed Void to audiences on 27 inch TV screens while they lounged on the worlds biggest water bed. There were parties and our first taste of life in the Hollywood Hills and slowly we all got busy.
Ira became an actor, a comedian, and an acting teacher, and he lived the life he wanted to live while I lived mine. We stayed in touch and saw each other a few times a year, friends with our history between us, and we might have gone on that way forever, but then around 2010 he was diagnosed with cancer. We grew closer as he fought it, and for a while, everybody was hopeful, and then slowly, there was no more hope, so they sent him home.
A small group of friends rallied around him to share the last days, and I was one of them. The room was filled with funny people so the stories were often funny and there was Morphine and a little of his beloved weed to ease his pain, so Ira was funny too, right until the end.
I missed the end. I came by the apartment in the middle of the afternoon, and Ira had passed away just a little while earlier. He lay on the bed, his eyes closed and his face at peace. The little bedroom where he rested was filled with soft light and his quiet presence. Several of us sat there with him, awed in the beautiful gravity of the moment. We were waiting for his older brother who was flying in from Chicago, but it would be several hours before he could get there, so we asked the nurse to delay calling for the sad black car and then we sat there with Ira while we waited.
Until this moment, I had never directly experienced death. Many friends and family had died but always in other places, away from me. My father’s sudden death when I was seven was kept from my brother and me until after the funeral, a terrible choking mistake. I only knew of death as a terrible absence, the inexplicable disappearance of someone you loved and the emptiness left in their place that was big enough to hide all that had been there before.
We sat there, and Ira didn’t go away. He laid on the bed, quiet and serene, in some important way beyond the body, still there. He wasn’t going to tell us any more stories, laugh at any more jokes, but he was still there.
We sat there for three or four hours and became accustomed to this new Ira. We told stories and laughed and slowly came to understand we were part of something special. It is a beautiful thing to sit with someone as they leave and then to stay with what remains for a while longer. The person isn’t contained completely in the body. The person resides as well in the memories of those who have been with them. Something of Ira stayed in the room with us while we sat with him that afternoon. He smiled at the stories and mourned his own passing, and he said goodbye to us as we said goodbye to him. We all knew it was true.
A Michael Dare Gallery of Ira
Michael Dare was a friend of Ira’s too and over the years Michael made many modified Polaroids of Ira and his friends, a rogues gallery of comedians and musicians. It would be a shame not to show them to you so here they are,
Ok, one last thing, I asked Murphy Dunne to fact check the Conception Corporation part of the story and he wrote me back with this;
You may want to mention that close to the goodbye time, a youngish actor stopped by to thank him for his first film role (in Loose Shoes). it was Bill Murray.
Also, John Kapelos was cabbing home from an acting gig in Toronto when Ira called and asked where John was. John explained the cab situation. Ira asked him if he would stop on his way and pick up a turkey leg for Ira. John described that he was just getting back to town again and Ira said: “OK, but can you still pick up the turkey leg?” John stopped and delivered.
You can find more of my stories here; Stories I’ve Been Meaning To Tell You
and see some pictures from an eventful life; here
Or see some of my pictures for sale here; Pixels