Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion was one of the Sci-Fi Channel’s original programs, and those who watched the show when it aired in the early 1990s remember it fondly to this day. While its eccentric host, Dr. Franklin Ruehl, immediately springs to mind at the very mention of Mysteries, not far behind would be its intrepid reporter, Dennis, whose cross-country adventures added intrigue mixed with humor. Going by the stage name Dennis Michaels, actor Dennis Michael Miller single-handedly developed his character’s memorably nerdy persona, which endeared him to Sci-Fi Channel audiences of the early ’90s. In March 2022, Mr. Miller answered Brett Homenick’s questions about his work on Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion.
Brett Homenick: Going back to the very beginning, when and where were you born?
Dennis Michael Miller: I was born at Queen of Angels Hospital in Los Angeles, California, and grew up in nearby Arcadia. My father was a fireman, and my mother worked as a waitress.
BH: What can you tell me about your childhood?
DMM: I had a fairly normal childhood. My first main interest was baseball and loved playing Little League. I played second base and earned the nickname “Hoover” because I was very good defensively and sucked up every ball that came anywhere near me.
There was a movie theater in walking distance from my home called Cinemaland, originally called the Santa Anita Theater. The first movie I remember there is It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) when I was six years old, and I absolutely loved it. I think that is the movie that was the spark for my future interest in filmmaking. That movie, along with The Great Race (1965) and all the Abbott and Costello movies I watched on TV Saturday mornings, molded my niche for comedy and slapstick action sequences.
I think I was around ten years old when I made my first Super 8 movie. My older brother had made one for a project in school, and I was mesmerized by the concept.
So I emptied my piggy bank — it was actually a Snoopy bank — and bought a 50-foot roll of Super 8 film. I gathered my friends, and together we made an epic, three-and-a-half-minute feature about a goofy superhero named Captain Kaputnick. I continued making these movies through high school.
BH: Were you interested in the paranormal at all around this time?
DMM: Thinking back, I did not have any kind of interest in the paranormal — other than watching Scooby and the gang hunt down ghosts. Those darn kids. However, I do remember being afraid of going on the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland until I was around 14.
BH: Please tell me a bit about your college years and what you pursued there.
DMM: In college, I only took all the required classes so I could take cinematography classes to make more movies. I wasn’t much interested in school other than that. This is where my filmmaking became more elaborate and more professional. It was at this time I really started to get into wild chase scenes, mostly inspired by the crazy chase at the end of the movie What’s Up, Doc? (1972). It was also the time I got into performing crazy stunts and trying to top them with each film I made. My mother would never watch my movies.
Looking back, there were things I did where I could have easily died — on film. It was in my college years where I honed my talent for shooting exciting chase sequences, which would pay off later on with America’s Funniest Home Videos. It’s also where I met Jason Cardwell, who would end up being my partner in crime on both AFHV and Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion.
BH: How did you get into show biz?
DMM: Already being a huge fan of exciting chase scenes, you can probably imagine my jaw hitting the floor when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). I can’t tell you how many times I saw that in the theater just to see the amazing sequence where Indy [Indiana Jones] went in pursuit of the Ark on a truck. Wow!
One night, watching a first season episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos in 1989, they had this thing called “Assignment America.” The particular challenge that week was to make a movie spoof, and, me being a huge Indy fan, it didn’t take long to decide what I wanted to spoof. Of course, the entire sequence would be an exciting chase scene. To this day, I still don’t see it as a spoof, but an homage. It was not even particularly designed to be funny, just exciting.
So my film partner Jason and I went to work. We took my brother’s Toyota truck, a motorcycle, and an Indy costume out to the desert. I couldn’t afford a real leather jacket, so I found a women’s dark vinyl jacket with huge lapels. After cutting them and folding them under, and dragging the coat around in the dirt, it became a passable Indy jacket on film.
We shot the opening scene at the famous Star Trek rock formation location [for the episode “Arena”] at Vasquez Rocks. We were able to finish the opening sequence before being kicked out by a ranger, so our location shifted to a nearby dirt road outside the park. Thinking back, I was lucky I wasn’t hurt because we were in the middle of nowhere, and there were no cell phones back then.
So we shot the video, and I went home to edit it with my newly acquired Sony RM-E100V video-editing controller. This was a device that attached your camera and a Sony VCR with a flying erase head and had a frame accuracy of 30-plus-or-minus frames, which at the time was very accurate.
I was happy with the final cut, but the ending worried me. The original ending was after Indy escaped with an ancient-looking Chinese box he had pursuing. He opened it up and was thrilled to find a tube of Ben-Gay, which is something he really needed. I thought it was funny, but I feared it wasn’t the punch line that would get us on the show. So, like many Hollywood productions, we did a reshoot.
The new ending had Indy swinging by his whip through an apartment window, landing on the couch, then opening the box. Inside was a TV remote control, which he took out and clicked. The TV came on just in time for the beginning of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Indy smiles and says, “I love this show.” I openly admit this was a total suck-up, but it worked.
About a month later, I was on a ski trip in Copper Mountain, Colorado, when there was a voice message on my answering machine from the producers of Home Videos. They loved the video and were going to put it on the show. I was so excited I cut my trip short, got in the car, and drove home in one day to meet them on the TV lot in Los Angeles.
By the way, it was Bob Saget who came up with the name Pasadena Jones, since I lived in Pasadena at the time. I have to say more about Bob. He was a super nice guy. If you read all these stories lately on how he was all about helping people, I can tell you that is true. I had chances to speak with him a few times at the studio, and he was always super nice and did not treat me as some TV wannabe.
One day, I was in need of some career advice, and I left a note on his desk asking for such. I drove home thinking he probably thinks I’m crazy for wasting his time, and that I’m sure he gets that request all the time. To my amazement, when I got home, there was a five-minute-plus message from Bob on my answering machine. He gave all this great advice, and things he went through in the biz, and it is something I will never forget. I wish I knew where that tape was; it was lost through moves over the years.
BH: Could you tell us about what you did for America’s Funniest People?
DMM: After we did another video for AFHV, which [became] the first-ever production video to win a prize on the show, we were asked to do bi-weekly videos for America’s Funniest People. Every other week, I would write, act, and edit a two-minute mini movie. Lots of action, of course. When we first started, Dave Thomas from SCTV was the producer on the show. He was awesome because he was one of us. He loved the videos we did, and often offered up ideas of a missing shot or two. I was having the time of my life! From making Super 8 movies with friends to having my stuff on a top-10 show.
Then disaster struck. Dave Thomas left, and they brought in a new producer whose recent credits were he produced videos for Playboy. He hated my stuff from the get-go. Hollywood politics came into play, and I started hating what I wanted to do all my life. I remember for a Rambo spoof they wanted the writers of the show to help write it. In the end, I ended up not using their stuff, and the producer called us into his office. He reprimanded us, saying ABC was not happy with the Rambo clip. It ended up being a power play thing, since the Rambo clip was on their best-of show at the end of the season. That’s Hollywood for you.
BH: How did you get hired to work on Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion?
DMM: I was pulled in by Jim Carbonetti. We had met because he also had a clip on America’s Funniest Home Videos called the “The [Amazing] Colossal Baby.” So he brought Jason and I in to do the road segments. It sounded like so much fun it didn’t take long to accept the job.
BH: What were your initial impressions of Dr. Franklin Ruehl?
DMM: I’m trying to remember when I first actually met him. I remember watching him record the episodes through the glass from where I was editing. When he was working, he seemed very serious, and at first I didn’t interreact with him very much. Eventually, over a month or so, I got to know him better.
BH: In your estimation, how much of what we saw on TV was his real personality?
DMM: He wasn’t nearly as serious as he was on the show. I was able to make him laugh quite often, and he enjoyed to laugh and be silly. I think on the show his persona was serious-nerdy, as when in real life he was more fun-nerdy. I’d see him mostly in line for the food truck that stopped at the studio every month. I say studio, but it was really a warehouse in [Sylmar]. In line, I would get him to laugh, which was more of a giggle. I thought he was a great guy who loved what he did.
BH: By this time, there was another Dennis Miller who had made it big in comedy, so you were billed on the show as Dennis Michaels. Please discuss the name change and how you decided on Michaels as your new surname.
DMM: I chose Michaels because Michael is my middle name. I considered Michael Miller, but I thought it was too close to Michael Myers from Halloween (1978). Funny thing is, and I just discovered this recently, the comedian Dennis Miller also has the middle name Michael. By the way, every time Bob Saget introduced a clip of mine on AFHV, he would also refer to me as not that Dennis Miller. Dennis Michaels solved that problem.
BH: How much did you develop the persona of the character, and how much of it was input from the staff?
DMM: That character mostly came from the glasses. I put those on and looked in the mirror, and the character kind of came out. Since the subject matter was often bizarre, I thought it would be funnier if the character considered himself as a serious reporter, not even realizing how completely odd things were. Giant Indian cannibals eating a tribe of redheaded people in a cave? Sure. In his eyes, there was no doubt that really happened. He was never in on the joke. A running gag I came up with later in the season is, he’d be walking around with a microphone with the cord dragging behind him. You could see the end of the cord, which was just dragging along, not plugged into anything.
BH: I understand that you wrote, edited, and directed all of your segments. Typically, what was that process like, and how long would it take?
DMM: Yes, that is true. I did two major road trips for the show. The first was through California and Oregon. The second trip was huge. From Los Angeles, through the Midwest, to Pennsylvania. Then down the East Coast to Orlando, then back to L.A. It took over a month to complete.
The California trip had three of us — myself, Jason, and his brother Jarrod. In most cases, we did not know where the next story was going to be until two or three days before we were supposed to shoot it. We would get updates on the road as to where we were going next.
So the typical process was, once we found out the next story, I would take the notes we got from the producer and quickly try to make a story of it. The day we arrived on location, we would have quick interviews with those involved to help fill in the details. That night, in the hotel, I would write things up the best I could, then we would shoot the next day.
Everything we shot for the show was always shot in one day. Then we would move on and repeat the process. Jason and his brother really helped throwing in ideas on location that improved the piece. This was important because there was practically zero budget for this trip.
For the second trip, [the] budget was even tighter. It was just me and my girlfriend who operated [the] camera. That was it – Motel-6ing it across the country and back. It was the same process as before, finding out future destinations while on the trip. For this, which produced maybe 70% of the segments I produced, [it] was completely on my shoulders.
Despite things like running out of money a few times, being in questionable areas with just the two of us and expensive camera gear, and rat-infested hotel rooms, it was the best trip of my life.
I will admit, however, this trip carried a lot of pressure. Without Jason and his brother pitching in ideas, or Jason’s camera expertise, it was basically all on me. All the writing, being on camera, and setting up all the camera shots. Doing this all on my own, and keeping executives at Universal happy, was quite daunting. I had many sleepless nights worrying about the next day. Despite all this, I still look back and think it was an amazing trip.
My favorite part? We took a three-day break at the halfway point near Philadelphia for three days while the producers lined up enough segments for our trip back. I remember convincing them there were some great stories in Orlando, even though there really wasn’t. My girlfriend and I just wanted to go to Disney World.
We ended up doing one story in Orlando called Xanadu: Home of the Future. In reality, it was a little outdated. At one point, it mentioned that someday people will be cooking with microwave ovens, which of course people had already been doing for about 10 years. That segment never made air, but we got to go to Disney World.
So, in the end, the process for all of these segments [was] just making it up as we went, flying by the seat of our pants.
BH: Did you try to balance comedy with accurate reporting, or were they mostly entertainment segments?
DMM: That was always a battle. Me being a comedy guy, I wanted to get some laughs. However, the producers wanted it played straight. We tried sneaking in laughs based on the character’s seriousness in crazy situations. I rarely tried to throw in a “joke.”
Some examples: There was a segment about a haunted hotel built over a mine where several coal miners were killed. Every year, there would be a fire at the hotel, and people believed they were started by the ghosts of the miners. Because the fires usually started in the kitchen, which by the way had so much grease and safety violations, we couldn’t resist. Still being very serious, we tried to sneak in a line about enjoying the smell of grease in the morning. Then we ended the segment saying I still had no clue how the fires started, while leaning up against a rusted-out propane tank just a few yards from the kitchen. All of that got cut.
I was able to sneak in the dragging mic cord not attached to anything, but it was very subtle.
There were so many situations that were just screaming to be poked fun at, but I was told by one of the producers that I can’t be funnier than Dr. Ruehl. This is the same producer who said this is the Dr. Ruehl show, not the Dennis Miller show. It was a bit frustrating [being] told not to be funny.
BH: One of your most memorable segments to me was your visit to Dealey Plaza in Dallas to discuss the unusual coincidences between Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Could you share any memories from this shoot?
DMM: I do remember shooting that segment. It was quite overwhelming shooting right where that all happened, even a bit emotional. I had heard all those coincidences before, so it was fun doing a story I actually had heard about. Everything was shot so fast. By the way, we never received permission to film at most of the places we did these stories. It was guerilla filmmaking, for sure.
I remember there was a lot of waiting time as tourists shot their photos, and we would have to try and squeeze in each shot in between family photo shoots. After we were done, I remember sitting there, trying to take it all in. Easily the most emotional place we filmed.
BH: In that segment, I’ve always noticed that you used the phrase, “Yes, you guessed it,” twice and very close to each other. Was that something you wanted to fix in editing but couldn’t?
DMM: (laughs) Yeah. I always hated that. The unfortunate part of this whole experience, because of the tight budget, I was let go a week or so after I was done with the cross-country trip. So I did not have the chance to edit every one of my segments. This may be one of them.
BH: Another notable segment was when you talked about “who do voodoo” in New Orleans. Do you have any memories of this shoot that you could share?
DMM: I actually tell this story to this day. That was such an interesting, bizarre experience. We shot a bunch of footage at The House of Voodoo for the segment. The woman we interviewed, who owned the shop, was very nice. I remember thinking that, even though she owned a store that sold everything from love potions to voodoo dolls one would use to torture people they did not like, she seemed very normal and down-to-earth.
After our interview, she said she had more interesting artifacts to show us at her home and asked if we would be interested in shooting there in the morning. I agreed, and my assistant and I showed up at her home at 9:00 a.m. the next morning.
When we walked in the door, it felt like stepping into the Twilight Zone. I remember feeling immediately uncomfortable the moment I heard the door shut. The home was wall-to-wall potions, voodoo dolls, alligator heads, and who-knows-what floating in glass jars. Then we met her husband. It was 9:00 in the morning, and he was having shots, completely plastered. In front of me and his wife, he was hitting on my assistant, who I was dating at the time. It was an awkward situation, to say the least. We felt fortunate to get out of there not ending up being buried in their backyard and being a story on another mystery show.
By the way, we did another story there on the graveyards of New Orleans. An amazing location, but a terrible part of town. There were some shady-looking characters eyeing our camara equipment. Remember, it was just the two of us, so we were happy to move on from New Orleans.
BH: I also remember when you went to [Nebraska] to do a story on [Strategic Air Command], and you even got to sit in the cockpit of a jet and pretend to shoot at an imaginary enemy. Please tell us about this one.
DMM: That one was very interesting. Just having access to see something a lot of people have never seen was quite a thrill. The most amazing part to me was standing in a missile silo, just looking up in awe. Sitting in that cockpit quite spectacular, as well. One of the few moments my character being a bit silly didn’t get cut. I remember thinking it was pretty much just a tourist attraction now, but there was a moment in time when it was quite harrowing. Real people in the thick of things, where their job pretty much revolved around the end of the world as they knew it.
BH: Are there any other segments or memories from your work on the show that stand out?
DMM: The biggest story for me was being on the battlegrounds in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on Halloween night. I remember taunting the ghosts to come out and show themselves. But I guess ghosts are like cats; they never do what they are told to do. It was very daunting standing on that hill, thinking about how many people died there. I think of all the ghost stories I did, that was where I felt the most like we weren’t alone on the hill. You could almost feel their presence.
BH: How much did you work with director Jim Carbonetti and producer Todd Stevens?
DMM: Not very much, really. I did work [on] one story with Jim about the haunted room at the Hotel Coronado in San Diego. That was cool because, in reality, there was no way I would ever be able to afford to stay there. Not only was I staying there for free, but we got to stay in a haunted room. It must have been the ghost’s night off — she didn’t show up. Years later, I learned she shows up in the reflection of the TV, but we didn’t know that at the time.
From what I remember, Todd was always running around the studio on the phone, frantically trying to juggle everything and keep the show running.
BH: Is there anything else that you’d like to share about Mysteries?
DMM: I am proud to say I was a part of one of the four original series for the Sci-Fi Channel — yes, that is the better name. “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” completely fits. The road trips were amazing in the fact that I went places I normally would never have gone, from a cave in the middle of nowhere way outside of Winnemucca, Nevada, which in itself is in the middle of nowhere, to a disease museum. I have fond memories of those trips, mostly good ones.
There were maddening and frustrating moments, as well. Running out of money in the middle of the cross-country road trip, where my mom had to bail us out and get a room for us to stay in. Maddening that after that trip where I gave them some good segments basically on my own to where I was let go a week after I got back. To be honest, I was furious at that one. Before I left, I was promised to have a job at least through February, only to be let go in early December. I felt that was a cheap and ungrateful shot.
BH: I know it’s a sensitive subject, but I have to ask. Who actually fired you from the show?
DMM: “Fired” is the wrong word. Like I said, the show had an extremely tight budget. I wasn’t fired. Since all my segments were in the can, I was expendable. I was officially “let go.” As for who, I can’t even remember his name. I can tell you it was not Jim or Todd. It was the same person I had butted heads with before. The same one who said, “This is the Dr. Ruehl show, not the Dennis Miller show.” To this day, I do not know what he contributed to the show. He was just good at talking a big game, but it was all a facade.
BH: How did you find out the show was cancelled?
DMM: Since I was let go, I don’t really know about the moment it was cancelled. It’s not still on? Season 30?
BH: After the show, did you keep in touch with Dr. Ruehl?
DMM: I wish I had, but I did not. I was sad to hear of his passing.
BH: Looking back on it all these years later, what do you think of the Mysteries as a series?
DMM: I look at it now, and it seems a bit like Wayne’s World. Not in the silliness, but the fact that it was pretty much a basement production, except it was a warehouse. The show was completely shot with Hi8 video camcorders, including the set pieces with Dr. Ruehl. The difference being, the cameras in the studio were directly hooked into ¾[-inch] Beta decks. I remember we had to remember to actually hit the record button on the camera every 10 minutes; otherwise, it would shut itself down after 10 minutes of nonuse and ruin a take.
BH: What have been some of your projects since Mysteries ended?
DMM: After the whole being-let-go-from-Mysteries fiasco, I decided I had enough of Hollywood. I got a job running the video department of a video game company called Interplay. The video game industry was just getting into playing more like movies, so it was just like being in Hollywood but without all the politics. I’ve been working in the industry ever since, most recently as a casting and VO [voice-over] director for games like Wasteland 2 and 3, and The Bard’s Tale IV.
I also wrote a few video games, including a Bard’s Tale game in 2004, which IGN magazine called the funniest video game ever. I also wrote a game called Heist, which I got the pleasure of directing some great talent such as Christian Slater, Bruce Campbell, Ed Asner, Clancy Brown, and Rutger Hauer.