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The Making of a Star

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The Making of a Star

Two opera singers made an unexpected impact, one at UMD in 1978 and the other 35 years later in Los Angeles. Joel McKinnon Miller was there, first as a spectator and later as a star, and both moments were galvanizing.

Back in the 1970s when he was in high school, Joel drove with his dad from their home in Rockford, Minn., to the U of M for singing lessons with Dr. Roy Schuster. They made the 40-minute commute once a month, and Joel expected he’d continue studying with him through college, but Dr. Schuster was retiring. “There’s an opera diva who’s moving up from Kent State to UMD,” offered Dr. Schuster. So Joel and his dad pointed their car north for a campus visit.

While checking out UMD, Joel watched a student named Sheldon sing an aria while being slowly dragged around the floor by his classmates. “It was an opera workshop, and it was about focus,” remembers Joel. “I saw this, and this guy had an incredible voice, and he didn’t miss a beat, and I said, ‘I want to do that.’”

And he did, years later. In front of his Golden Globe—winning cast and crew, he belted a tune from Rigoletto with such skill that a niche was born.

Who is Joel McKinnon Miller?
Joel McKinnon Miller, UMD alumnus, is one of the stars of Fox’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” a comedy that toppled “Girls,” “Modern Family,” and “The Big Bang Theory” for a Golden Globe in the Best TV Comedy category. He plays Detective Scully, a character described as “middle-aged, lazy, and overweight” on the show’s Wikipedia page. Now “opera aficionado” could be added to that description.

Between takes, he’d chatted about his opera training with the show’s star, Andy Samberg. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s” producers got wind of his vocal vigor and asked Joel to sing on air. “I haven’t sung opera in front of people for 30 years!” Joel replied, trying to shrug off the request, suggesting he’d practice for a few weeks, then give it a shot. “How about now?” they insisted. So he dug deep, recalling his training at UMD, and let it rip.

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BROOKLYN NINE-NINE: Det. Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio, L) chats with Detectives Scully (Joel McKinnon Miller, C) and Hitchcock (Dirk Blocker, R) in the “The Bet” episode of BROOKLYN NINE-NINE. ©2013 Fox Broadcasting Co.

“When you’re an actor and you’re getting invited to the party, you don’t want to not have an answer,” he quips as a way of explaining why he accepted the on-the-spot challenge to sing. “As an actor, you have to be ready for anything. Like, ‘You ride horses?’ ‘Yes.’”

For acting students, reading a page out of a professional’s real life story goes beyond textbook teachings. UMD’s theatre majors had the opportunity to hear Joel share his gift for “riding horses,” i.e., saying yes to opportunities, this past April when he returned to UMD for the 40th anniversary of the Marshall Performing Arts Center’s dedication.

He might talk about versatility, as Joel’s known as a character actor. Before “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” he played Don Embry on HBO’s “Big Love.” He started in Hollywood with a guest spot on “Murphy Brown” and has had parts in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Super 8.” UMD’s theatre program gets the credit; he says that acting and singing his way through college gave him the flexibility needed to fully morph into varied roles.


Check out the trailer for Brooklyn-Nine-Nine and keep an eye out for our alumnus.

“I Loved It Very Much.”
While, in hindsight, he’s grateful for the theatre chops, the former vocal performance major was somewhat reluctant to make the move to the main stage: “In the summer of 1980, the theatre head, Rick Graves, asked, ‘Are you auditioning for summer theater?’ I said, ‘No, no, no, no.’” Joel already had a full plate, but, worn down by the heavy recruiting, decided to go for it.

The experience inspired him to change his major to theatre, which led to a touring opportunity with John Houseman’s The Acting Company. Joel toured the country for a few years, then did some off Broadway work, regional theatre, and, in the 1990s, scored a guest role on “Murphy Brown,” the top-rated show at the time. His career as a TV and film actor was launched.

But if you ask Joel, the best thing to come from his move to theatre was meeting his wife, Tammy McKinnon, a Duluthian. Tammy worked in the costume shop when Joel was starring in summer theatre at UMD.

Joel McKinnon Miller during his UMD days

Joel McKinnon Miller during his UMD days

Joel, Tammy, and their son and daughter were back at UMD in 2007 for Joel’s belated graduation. He left Duluth in the 1980s just two classes shy of getting his degree, but was motivated to finish up as his daughter started thinking about college. “I’d been telling our daughter how important it was, so I thought I should do it, too,” he explains. Back on campus he saw Griggs Hall, where he met his best friend and watched the ore ships come in. “I loved it very much. I thought about joining the merchant marines!”

He may not sail the unsalted seas but, with his ability to play everything from a detective to a polygamist with conviction, it’s possible that Joel could be cast as a merchant marine someday, adding to his rich résumé as a famous character actor. And when he does, UMD will be watching, proudly.

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This story originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of the UMD ‘Bridge’, which was released exclusively online for the first time. View the article and the rest of the issue.

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