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Happy Birthday Film Festival: Martin Milner

This week, we here at Ticklish Business are celebrating the birthday of one of Kim’s personal favorites, the amazing Martin Milner. (December 28th would have been the actor’s 89th birthday).

Martin Milner began in the industry as a child actor in the late 1940s, before securing work as an adult over the next two decades, largely thanks to the growth of television. His weekly roles on series like Route 66 and Adam-12 allowed him to remain a mainstay on TV well into the 1970s.

In today’s Happy Birthday Film Festival, I’m tracing the course of Martin Milner’s lengthy acting career through an examination of some of his most important roles. These are some– but not all– of his best. This is hardly conclusive, after all. However, if you’re looking for a jumping off point into his work, here you go!

So, without further ado, here’s my curated examination of the career of Martin Milner!

1.) Life with Father (1947)

Milner made his screen debut at 16 years old in Life with Father, a film based on the memoirs of writer Clarence Day. The period family drama stars William Powell and Irene Dunne. Milner plays John, the second oldest Day child.

As his big-screen debut, this role is a massively important one in Milner’s career. Throughout the film, he’s surrounded by industry big wigs, particularly Powell and Dunne, both of whom were A-list stars at this point. He co-stars opposite Jimmy Lydon who, while not a particularly well known name with contemporary audiences, had been working at an intense pace for the previous 5 years on screen top-lining the “Henry Aldrich” film series. A very young Elizabeth Taylor also appears in Life with Father. The 15 year old actress made her screen debut just five years before.

Life with Father is a film which has fallen into the pit of public domain, so there are plenty of versions available. Though, they are often of questionable quality. The movie is also available to stream on YouTube.

2.) Halls of Montezuma (1951)

Halls of Montezuma is by far and away my favorite war movie. It features an all-star cast, including: Richard Widmark, Jack Palance, Robert Wagner, Karl Malden, Richard Boone, Jack Webb, Reginald Gardiner and Martin Milner (who shines in the ensemble as ‘Whitney’, a young soldier in the company).

Admittedly, Halls of Montezuma is only one of the dime-a-dozen war releases which poured out of the studios in the years following World War II. However, the movie stands out in Milner’s career as the first time he worked with Jack Webb, beginning a friendship which would last for more than twenty years.

While the role isn’t a sizable one for Milner, it is definitely a good one for the young actor. He gets a lot of quality screen time throughout the film and is actually a main focal point for the story’s emotional beats. This is a part where a talented young actor can shine.

Milner shows clear signs in Halls of Montezuma of the screen persona taking shape which would stick with him for much of his career. He’s very young. In fact, he’s barely 20 years old here. At the same time, there’s a homegrown quality which serves him well in this war movie (and would have really boosted his career had he been roughly ten years older). Unfortunately, it likely limited his roles as society was shifting into the 1950s.

Halls of Montezuma is available through various streaming sites as a rental. It is also available on DVD for those looking for physical media.

3.) Dragnet (1951-1959)

Okay, this might be a bit of a cheat. This isn’t so much an example of a single role; rather, Milner appeared in six (credited) episodes of Jack Webb’s ground-breaking crime procedural, Dragnet. At this point in its history, the show had only recently made the jump to television after debuting on the radio.

Milner took on a number of roles in the show. Though, his performance as high school student Stephen Bannon in the season four episode “The Big Producer” is often referenced in the lengthy run of the series.

The period was a bit of a slow one for Milner. He worked a little, but also served in the army for two years which drastically limited his flexibility. AZCentral.com quotes a 1989 interview with Milner in which he mentions that Jack Webb would write parts for him in Dragnet (even if there wasn’t one) when Milner was in Los Angeles, “to put a quick $125 in his pocket”. Milner and Webb next worked together in Pete Kelly’s Blues (1954).

I’ve yet to find early Dragnet in any consistent physical media form (it seems to be in the public domain pit). Much of the series does seem to be available on YouTube though.

4.) Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Sweet Smell of Success is a dark and gritty examination of the nightclub scene in 1950s New York featuring Burt Lancaster as gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Tony Curtis as press agent Sidney Falco. The Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman screenplay explores the depths of just how far the powerful Hunsecker will go when his sister Susan (Susan Harrison) falls for a lowly jazz guitarist (Milner). Faithful readers will take note that I spent much of Noirvember urging people to check out this slightly deeper cut.

The role is a step up for Milner, who appears with fourth billing in this superstar cast. Despite a rather thankless role as the adorable love interest, Milner gets a chance to step farther in front of the camera. For much of the early 1950s, his film roles had been either incredibly short (as in Mister Roberts) or buried in the ensemble (as in Halls of Montezuma).

In fact, it is Milner’s work in 1957 which propels him to the next stage in his career. Over the same summer, Milner co-stared in Sweet Smell of Success and Gunfight at O.K. Corral (where he had much less screen time). Both films featured a heavy-hitting, A-list cast lead by Burt Lancaster. In allowing Milner to step into these dynamic roles, his stock quickly escalated around the industry.

Sweet Smell of Success is available in physical media here!

5.) Marjorie Morningstar (1958)

Marjorie Morningstar once again sees Martin Milner taking a more decisive step towards stardom. He co-stars in this poignant coming-of-age drama opposite Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly.

Marjorie Morningstar comes in 1958, closely on the heels of Sweet Smell of Success. This time he plays yet another juvenile lead, the adorable Wally Wronkin. At this point in his career, Milner was a very young 27 and could still play these boyish, “good boy” roles, opposite the more worldly Kelly (who would have been approaching 46 at this point). Together with Natalie Wood, who was still a young woman and barely removed from playing teen roles, these performers bring a poignant examination of relationships, growth and sexuality, which remains incredibly timely to this part of the twentieth century.

Marjorie Morningstar is (in my humble opinion) an under-appreciated gem of the late studio system era. Wood is at the peak of her acting powers and carves an emotional examination of a woman growing up in the 1950s. While at the same time, Kelly reminds us just how good he was in dramatic roles. For fans of classic Hollywood who might not be familiar, add this one to your list.

Marjorie Morningstar is available to stream on YouTube and can be purchased on physical media, here!

6.) Route 66 (1960-1964)

Route 66 premiered on television in the fall of 1960. The hour long drama stars Milner as Todd Stiles, a young man recently uprooted from his life of wealth by the death of his father. 

The series takes its form from the anthology series’ of the 1950s, following Stiles and his friend Buzz Murdoch (George Maharis) as they drift across the country in Todd’s cherry red Chevy Corvette. The series ran on CBS for four seasons. 

The post World War II era is largely defined by the rush to normalcy recognized in so many of the situation comedies of the time. However, this is also the era of The Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac had published his landmark novel On the Road only a few years earlier. While so much of the culture emphasized a traditional idea of home and community, series like Route 66 demonstrate these ideas come in different forms. Home is what you make of it.

In Route 66, Martin Milner’s career reaches its full potential. In this weekly, long-running television series, the young actor became a household name (though a lack of syndication airings stymie the show in the contemporary pop culture memory). While his stock did increase with his motion picture roles, Milner’s weekly appearances on CBS would have elevated his work to an even wider audience.

Route 66 is available to stream through Shout Factory and is available on physical media, here.

7.) Murder By the Book (1971)

Okay, this is a bit of a tiny part here; however, it’s one that sticks with alot of people.

Columbo is… Columbo. The Peter Falk helmed series remained a mainstay on television for the better part of two decades. Every episode the mystery changed, a new crop of superstars was at the center of everything, and Columbo always got his killer.

Murder By the Book wasn’t the first episode of Columbo, Falk first played the part in 1968’s Prescription: Murder and then again in 1971’s Ransom for a Dead Man. However, this installment is the first in the show’s continuity as a regularly recurring series, and Martin Milner is the first victim (If you know Columbo, you know this isn’t a spoiler).

The episode is an absolute home run, which by Columbo standards is a tall order. It features a performance by Jack Cassidy which is rarely equaled in its twisted, colorful nature. In fact, Cassidy is probably my favorite Columbo villain. Check it out for Martin Milner, or merely for Columbo. Just, make sure you add this one to your list. 

Columbo is available to stream on Peacock and is available on physical media here.

8.) Adam-12 (1968-1975)

Adam-12 was, I believe, my introduction to Martin Milner. I was deep-diving into everything I could find on Jack Webb at the time, and it happened to take me to the uniformed police procedural.

Milner stars in Adam-12 as the adorably grizzled veteran officer Pete Malloy opposite wide-eyed rookie Jim Reed. The show follows their daily lives as they struggle through being police officers in the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s.

The show is part of the Dragnet extended universe (you didn’t know that was a thing, did you?) along with Dragnet, Dragnet 1967 and Emergency!. Each of the series demonstrate the grounded, almost gritty realism for which Webb’s work is known.

Milner and McCord are well used in Adam-12, particularly because the series isn’t as emotionally detached as Webb’s other work. While it does show some of the mundane, street level struggles of police work, it allows both actors to shine in the sometimes heightened emotionality. Audiences are allowed to stew in all the conflicting feelings right along with the two men as they tread the challenging path of a police officer during a period of complicated history.

Adam-12 once again shows Milner’s stability as a network leading man. This is the series of his to continue to live-on, most memorably through syndication, allowing it to remain in the minds of classic TV fans. While the Jack Webb tone isn’t for everyone, if you’re a fan of Dragnet, make sure you check out Adam-12.

Adam-12 is available on physical media here.

9.) Murder She Wrote (1984-1996)

Like Columbo, Murder She Wrote is a show that continues to live on in its delightfulness. The series aired on CBS for twelve seasons and followed mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher (Dame Angela Lansbury) as she solves crime in the murder capital of the United States– Cabot Cove Maine.

Milner appeared in five episodes of Murder She Wrote throughout its lengthy run. The roles do vary, depending on the week. Sometimes he’s the killer. Other times he’s a sheriff. However, when looking at the mystery show through a broader lens, Murder She Wrote is a treasure for fans of classic entertainment.

In its more than 250 episodes, Murder She Wrote captures the work of a generation of entertainers that we as viewers won’t see again. In the almost 25 years since Murder She Wrote went off the air, we’re loosing the performers from the middle of the twentieth century so fast. Martin Milner himself passed away in 2015. However, in watching the reruns of this show, there were so many brilliant performers who were still actively working, even late in life.

Murder She Wrote was a quarantine first-time-watch for me, and if you’re stuck at home like so many of us, it really is a must-see for fans of classic entertainment. There’s so much there to love. Check it out, here.

**

Martin Milner is one of those actors who just made things look so darn easy. When all was said and done, his career spanned more than 50 years on both the big and small screen. However, in interviews throughout his life, he always emphasized that he was a working actor. He did his job and he enjoyed it, making him one of the most likable and relatable gems of this era in classic television. It is a true shame that his name isn’t better known. Check out his work as you can!

Kimberly Pierce View All

Podcaster at Hollywood and Wine, historian and filmmaker studying contributions of women in Classic TV. Film critic for Geek Girl Authority. Classic film lover for Ticklish Business.

You can find me on Twitter @kpierce624!

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