What the Hell Happened to Penelope Ann Miller?

penelope ann miller

Once upon a time, she was Hollywood’s “It” Girl.  All signs pointed to Penelope Ann Miller being a household name.  She was beautiful, talented and sought-after by casting agents.  She appeared opposite De Niro, Pacino and Brando.  And yet, somehow the A-list eluded her grasp.

What the hell happened?

Miller - BB Playbill biloxi blues playbill

Penelope Ann Miller started off as a stage actress.  She got her big break opposite Matthew Broderick in Neil Simon’s Biloxi BluesBiloxi is the middle chapter in Simon’s “Eugene trilogy”.  The play was a big hit.  Three years later, Broderick and Miller would reprise their roles for a film adaptation.

Off stage, Miller and Broderick were a couple.  Miller described Broderick as her “first love”.  She also had a relationship with an understudy, Woody Harrelson.


Miller made the leap to the big screen as Elisabeth Shue’s best friend in Chris Columbus’ 1987 comedy, Adventures in Babysitting.

As you can see from the still above, it wasn’t exactly a glamorous role.  Miller was required to freak out in pretty much every scene.  But she did it excellently.

miller - miami vice

In the mid-80’s it was practically a rite of passage for young actresses to guest star on Miami Vice.  In 1987, Miller appeared in an episode entitled “Death and the Lady.”  She appeared on several other shows as well as she paid her dues.

miller - biloxi blues

In 1998, Miller had a couple of high-profile roles.  She was reprised her role Matthew Broderick’s fresh-faced love interest in Mike Nichol’s adaptation of Biloxi Blues.

It was a prestigious project, but Miller’s role is pretty small.  Biloxi Blues is all about the soldiers.

Penelope Ann Miller 1991

Off-screen, Miller and Broderick were dating.

miller - pee wee

The same year, Miller also appeared as Paul Reubens’ fiancée in the follow-up to Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Big Top Pee Wee.

Big Top Pee Wee was nicknamed, Big Flop Pee Wee when it was released.  It answered the question: What do you get when you make a Pee Wee Herman movie without Tim Burton?

miller - miles from home

Later that year, Miller appeared in the drama, Miles from HomeMiles was directed by Gary Sinese and co-starred Richard Gere and Helen Hunt.

Next: The Freshman and Kindergarten Cop


Posted on July 1, 2011, in Movies, What the Hell Happened?, WTHH Actress and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 48 Comments.

  1. Great new feature! I have a recommendation, but I don’t know if she falls more under the “What the Hell Happened To” banner, or if she even qualifies for either series. There is definitely a question that needs to be answered though, and that’s: Why did a promising young starlet who starred in several top films suddenly vanish from the limelight?

    Brooke Adams

    She co-starred in two of my favorite sci-fi films of yesteryear…Invasion of the Body Snatchers (’77 remake) and The Dead Zone (1983). She was also listed as one of twelve “Promising New Actors of 1978” in John Willis’ Screen World.

    I just don’t get it, and I need answers.


    • After focusing on so many A-listers who dropped off the face of the earth in “What the Hell Happened” I thought it had taken on a certain cache. Sean Young might disagree, but I consider it high praise to be included. It means people miss you!

      Rather than dilute the A-list feature, I figured I’d open this up for actors who didn’t have the classic rise and fall. They came close. But they never quite became household names. That throws open the door for a lot of people who don’t necessarily qualify for WTHH.

      I have some good memories of both Body Snatchers and Dead Zone. I’ll have to see what I can find out!


  2. Yeah, the interesting thing that I found out right away about Brooke is that she actually was expected to become a big star by many in the movie industry. There are quite a few articles from the 70’s where she’s featured as an A-list “star of tomorrow”. And things were going that way until…? That’s where you come in. She’s not well known today, because those movies are 30 years old, and she never attained her goal of becoming an A-lister. It’s an older story than Penelope Ann Miller, but I think it’s interesting.


  3. You might find she’s not interesting enough to cover. The article at that link suggests she temporarily retired in ’95, but that hardly explains what happened to her rise to the top that was already on a downward slope in ’83. She didn’t start a family until ’89 according to the article.


    • Yeah, that’s what I’ll have to dig into. I figure she likely didn’t pursue her career very seriously, the opportunities never materialized or both.


  4. Does Jude Law qualify yet for “What the Hell Happened to…?” yet? He was huge just 5 years ago.


    • I think Mr. Law may qualify for a “Fecth” column more so than “What the Hell Happened?” He was always on the cusp of breaking out into the A-list, but never quite made it. His output was impressive. Like you say, 5 years ago he was in every single movie. But almost none of them were hits. And while his output has slows in recent years, he hasn’t exactly disappeared. In fact, thanks to the Sherlock Holmes movies, he has a lucrative franchise going.


  5. One thing you didn’t mention in your story on Penelope Ann Miller is that she actually played the same part in “Biloxi Blues” on Broadway. This might’ve actually been her big break. The show starred Matthew Broderick and for crying out loud, it’s Neil Simon. Woody Harrelson was also an understudy on that production. The show was about as big a hit as Broadway was producing at the time.


    • Good point. Had it not been for Biloxi, who knows what would have happened. Big Flop Pee Wee wasn’t launching any careers.


  6. Was she and Broderick an item for a couple of years? That’s what the Broadway theater circles reported during the stage and film production on Biloxi…I kind of thought that was true since they also reteamed on The Freshman. I have always loved her acting and thought she complimented every role she played.


    • I have seen rumors that they were a couple, but nothing substantial. I was obviously a Miller fan back in the day. However, I think she had a problem of looking too young for a lot of her roles. Especially when she was cast opposite much older men like Al Pacino. She is a talented actress and a beauty on the screen, but sometimes I don’t think Hollywood knew what to do with her.


      • Don’t understand the too young idea, but I’m no expert. She was sexy as all get out in Carlito’s Way. She was very convincing as Pacino’s love interest and made the movie. But, I’m a fan and liked her in Carlito and The Freshman. The scene when she walks in to the class room and announces she is “Carmine Santino’s daughter” is hilarious.


        • I was a big fan of Millers. But she didn’t seem to have the life experience you would expect from a character who was supposed to be a long-ago flame of the character played by Pacino. He had just gotten out of prison after I don’t remember how many years. Did he start dating her in high school?


  7. Penelope Ann Miller has a supporting role in Oscar favorite “The Artist.”
    I saw it last night. Great work by most involved, but it just didn’t enthrall me the way I was expecting it to.
    A friend said it has the same plot as “Anchorman.” She’s not entirely wong.


    • They said the same thing on Roger Ebert’s program. Well done, but not especially engaging. They didn’t have any insights comparing it to the cinematic works of Will Ferrell though. Their loss.

      Yay, Penelope Ann Miller! She has been popping up quite a bit of late.


  8. In fairness to Forever Lulu, I didn’t give it the fairest viewing. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hated it. I watched roughly the first 20 minutes or so. Then, as often happens in a house with little kids, got called away. What I saw in the first 20 minutes didn’t motivate me to put it back on. It seemed heavy on the melodrama. I just wasn’t feeling it. Maybe if I give it another crack somewhere down the line, I’ll get caught up in it.

    I still haven’t seen The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag. But I want to so I can expand on that part of this article. It was a real missed opportunity for Miller.

    I would actually argue that Miller got a lot of lucky breaks early on. Biloxi Blues was a big deal. And being carried over from the play to the movie was pretty huge. Then The Freshman, Kindergarten Cop and Carlito’s Way were all good fortune.

    The problem was, when it came time to capitalize on her earlier breaks, she got stuck in crap like The Shadow, The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag and Year of the Comet. Her window of opportunity to take it to the next level was relatively short and it just never came together.

    But I’m glad she’s still around. I am always happy to see her when she shows up on screen.


  9. Somebody in Penelope Ann Miller’s IMDb message board suggested that she as an actress lacked the emotional depth and charisma that makes a movie star. Somebody else argued that part of Penelope’s problem is that she suffers from what is called “Shirley Temple Syndrome”. This means that she’s not exactly “womanly sexy” as she is “cute” in a high-school or college girl sort of way. This perhaps worked well enough in something like “Adventures in Babysitting” but not in stuff like “Carlito’s Way” or “The Freshman”. At the end of the day, it was arguably hard for her to convincingly be tough or sensuous (or for that matter play into sexuality, intrigue or innuendo) as a more mature woman.


    • I think there may be something to that. However, a lot of people thought she pulled off “womanly sexy” in Carlito’s Way. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for it.


  10. “The Year of the Comet” is the movie that William Goldman always uses as an example of his maxim “Nobody knows anything.” He talks about how he thought that pursuing a vintage bottle of wine would be a brilliant concept for a movie, and how all down the line everybody thought it was a great script, would be a huge movie, and then it came out and tanked completely.

    I say this simply because whenever that quote gets mentioned, I laugh and say, “Let me ask you something — do you think that anybody would go see a movie about a couple trying to track down a vintage bottle of wine?”


  11. This is a great WTHT! Course the whole series is great. I knew she was a decent actress but I didn’t know how great, until seeing her in “Carlito’s Way” where she played SMOKING HOT with Al Pacino. As much as I detest most violent films, I loved this one and saw it many times. I’m also not a fan of movie sex scenes, but was blown away by the scene with her and Pacino where she does the striptease just for him and he breaks the chain on the apartment door. Yes, she did benefit by playing opposite him, he can make even mediocre actors seem good because he is so darn brilliant, but she aced that role. Penelope Ann Miller, could have been definitely much more i think, if she chose to. Evidently she chose a different path.


  12. What happened to Thora Birch?–and other actors that seemed to disappear for no reason…:

    My usual name for these is Penelope Ann Miller who was pretty busy in the early 90’s and then largely dropped off. Looking at her IMDb, she was apparently doing a bunch of TV movies I’d never heard of and actually had a few movie roles in the past couple years including The Artist (which I haven’t seen). So good for her, I guess.


  13. David Dunbrack

    As I understand it, Penelope Ann- Miller had an affair with Al Pacino during Carlito’s Way and went public about it. He was not happy and ” black-balled” her!


  14. If you haven’t seen Carlito’s Way (Al Pacino, Sean Penn, 1993), get it on Blu Ray. I think it’s as good as Goodfellas and better than Godfather 3. It’s about as good as Scarface. She is in her prime in that movie, and was one of the most beautiful and talented actresses.


    • I liked Carlito’s Way. I agree it’s better than Godfather 3, but that’s not saying much. It is a spiritual successor to Scarface, but I think that movie is pretty over-rated. I can’t put Carlito’s Way anywhere near Goodfellas. But I love Goodfellas. Carlito’s Way is definitely worth checking out for any fan of the genre. And it’s probably the career high point for Miller.


    • Agree with you Kirk, that Carlito’s Way is a very good movie. I saw it a number of times and then had to stop watching. Not because of any flaw with the movie, just couldn’t handle the pain anymore. yes, the actors got me that involved. Miller has much to be proud of in that role.


  15. Penelope Ann Miller signs up for ABC’s “American Crime”:

    She’ll co-star on the racial drama from the Oscar-winning writer of “12 Years a Slave.”


  16. watching ‘Other Peoples Money” and was wondering what did happen to Penelope. Nothing really. She is still working in all genre’s. as far as “A Listers” is concerned most of those people actually leave me cold as far as their acting talent goes. I mean…Jennifer Aniston is an A Lister. Go figure.


    • I was a big fan of Miller’s back in the day. But then again, I also like Aniston well enough. I remember really enjoying Other People’s Money, but I haven’t revisited it in years. Did you enjoy it?


  17. u didnt mention her work in a minute with stan hopper it was cancelled after 13 episodes it sunk her career


    • Norm MacDonald’s Television Endeavors, Ranked:

      1. A Minute With Stan Hooper (2003)

      In this show, Norm played a big-city TV reporter who hosts a one-minute weekly segment called… well, you can probably figure that out. He focuses on stories from Small Town America, but fears he’s losing touch by doing the segment from New York. So, he moves back to his hometown with his wife (Penelope Ann Miller), and would have some quaint misadventure every week. Not one of Norm’s finest efforts, and sure enough, it was canceled after just six episodes. If you’re curious about this show, every episode is on YouTube, including a few that never aired on television. That’s the pilot above. Maybe you’ll enjoy it more than I did.


  18. Stars that bucked your expectations:

    I first saw Penelope Ann Miller in a production of Our Town that was on television in the late 80s. I thought she was fantastic and that she would be huge. She was in a couple of movies in the early 90s where she was just ok (I remember Kindergarten Cop and Other People’s Money). I don’t think that she really ever achieved star status.


  19. Retrospective / Review – The Shadow (1994)


  20. Lebeau’s comment concerning “Other Peoples Money”

    “The movie got mostly negative reviews and was a flop at the box office. I haven’t seen it in 20 years, but I remember liking it. Of course, by this point I was partial to Miller. So, maybe that swayed me.”

    For all its worth, that exactly mirrors my take.


  21. Awesome blog, Le Beau! I have a suggestion: Gretchen Mol. I seem to remember her being on the cover of Vanity Fair in ’97/98, being touted as the next big thing. She’s worked steadily since then but she never became a household name, e.g. Julia Roberts.


    • Glad you like it, Shayne. Mol has always been on my short list. At one point, I was going to write her up. But she was still on Boardwalk Empire at the time. Now that BE is cancelled, I can see doing an article on Mol relatively soon. Relatively because I probably won’t get another WTHH article posted until after the Razzie articles wrap up in June.


  22. Penelope Ann Miller

    The actor: Penelope Ann Miller, who began her career on Broadway in the ’80s, then became a Hollywood “It Girl” in the early ’90s, thanks to hits like The Freshman and Kindergarten Cop. Miller migrated to character parts and television roles over the past decade. She’ll soon be seen in the new TNT series Men Of A Certain Age, and can currently be seen in the motocross melodrama Free Style.


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