It was a special treat to talk with Beliefnet’s own Martha Williamson about her beloved and groundbreaking television series, this week’s DVD pick: Touched by an Angel: Inspiration Collection
NM: What is it like to be an open believer in Hollywood?
MW: It has always been a challenge to be a person of faith in Hollywood for a number of reasons. One is that up until Touched by an Angel Hollywood has not considered spiritual programs to be especially commercial. It’s “show business,” not “show fun.” If they don’t see an upside for it, then they’re not interested. Also, you can’t afford to get sentimental when you’re making television. And people often equate spiritual matters with sentiment or fantasy and weakness. It was always a challenge to show that I am a person of faith and a good producer and writer.
You always have to find a good balance for keeping that line between your personal life and your work. What I discovered was that it all came crashing into each other when I was asked to do “Touched by an Angel.” When I was being interviewed by the LA Times even before the show began the first words out of his mouth were, “What do you believe in? What is your faith?” And I’d been interviewed all kinds for other shows and no one asked me “What do you believe in?” Suddenly people were asking and I realized I had to stand up and say I am not making a Christian show but I am a Christian making a show about angels, and I cannot compromise my beliefs.
NM: Is there an episode that is especially precious to you?
MW: The “151st Psalm” is one of my favorites. It was very tightly written. It was about a boy who made a list of things he wanted to do before he died. He was more reconciled to his dying than his mother was. His mother had a real journey of faith and learning how to praise God at the most difficult of times. TV Guide had a survey and that was the favorite episode. There are others I am really proud of. We did one about slavery in the Sudan. We actually screened that one for Congress before they introduced the Sudan Peace Act. Those are times when you look back and see we had an opportunity to be used for good. If this series is successful, there will be more and I would love to do those that are particularly dear to my heart from a personal level. When my father passed away I basically re-created the last episode and it was so powerful that when we shot we kept having to stop because everyone was crying. With some of those episodes I was working out my faith in fear and trembling before 20 million people.
NM: Do you feel that you do with the shows what the characters are doing? The shows, like the angels in them, bring a message of hope, grace, inspiration, and honor.
MW: You put your finger on it! I was raised by a man who was born in 1901, rather Victorian values, a Baptist from Southern Illinois, a loving, kind man, who made honor and integrity and grace and sacrifice the paramount values in our family. I can’t say I always successfully lived up to those, who has? But those are the standards we reached for and I wanted to encourage other people to walk that journey, too, that it’s worth it, that “whatsoever is good and true, think on these things.”
NM: What feedback did you get from viewers?
MW: One of my favorite examples is a fellow who was in prison for murder. He wrote to me to say that everybody in the cell block would gather around the TV that was nailed to the wall and watch “Touched by an Angel” because it was the only time they ever heard that they were loved. And I actually had the opportunity to visit him just to say, “You are loved.” I want to send these DVDs to him and say, “You are not forgotten.”
NM: You’ve touched on what I think is the heart of the show. This is not someone waving a wand and fixing things. It’s not “Fantasy Island” or “Bewitched.” This is about angels delivering a message of hope and support.
MW: That’s exactly what I said to CBS. They wanted to categorize it as a fantasy. I said “This is a one-hour drama based on something I believe is true.” I have to approach it with the same responsibility and accuracy as a medical show or a legal show. I’m not going to play fast and loose with what I believe to be true. I literally had the Bible and Billy Graham’s angel book. These are not recycled dead people. They don’t have to wiggle their noses or do tricks or turn into something else or do three good deeds before they can get their wings. We want to replicate as closely as possible what a real angel experience might be.
NM: Do you have a favorite movie angel?
MW: There are bits here and there, Wim Wenders is one. But I like “The Bishop’s Wife” with Cary Grant. He was attractive and sexy without being sexual, he was responsible. His job was to mend this marriage and to bring love back. I did not base our angels on anything but my own experience of what I would do or say if I were an angel or what I would want an angel to be like. But when I look back, there is a connection to that movie. And with Roma Downey and Della Reese, there was such chemistry. Roma was like what I want to be and Della was like my mother. And John Dye was like my dad. I wrote for my family, literally.