2016-06-30

As Dyan Cannon nears the end of her reading, she is blinking back tears. She almost whispers the final words, slips off her glasses with a slender hand, and glides from the spotlight with a gentle shake of those long golden curls. The room answers with applause.

A movie audition? Another successful take on the "Ally McBeal" set? Guess again. Cannon, a.k.a. the sexy Judge "Whipper" Cone on the hit Fox comedy, has a cross sparkling at her neck and a Bible in her hand. She's not acting up there; she's praying.

This week Al Gore and Joe Lieberman opened a broad but vague offensive against Hollywood, that Babylon where any mayhem--violence, sex, and plain old boorish behavior--is fine as long as it sells. Yet there are people in Hollywood who worry about these excesses, whose faith or social conscience compels them to challenge the entertainment world's give-'em-what-they-want ethic.

"To a lot of people this industry is a straight ticket to hell," says Dawnn Lewis, a Seventh-Day Adventist who has starred in such sitcoms as "A Different World" and "Hanging With Mr. Cooper." Yet, she says, "there's a lot of good people out here trying to do a lot of good things."

On a recent sunny Saturday in Beverly Hills, Lewis and about 150 industry types gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel for the second annual "Praise Breakfast" organized by Media Fellowship International, one of more than a dozen Christian groups in Hollywood. As the crowd ate scrambled eggs at tables adorned with peach- and cream-colored roses, Cannon, who leads a popular Bible study on the CBS studio lot, read from the New Testament; singer Deniece Williams read from the Old; and one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, CBS Studio Center president Michael Klausman, gave a keynote speech, crediting his success to Jesus.

Klausman estimates that more than 1,000 Christians meet for organized prayer every week at his lot alone. In August, 30 screenwriters met for a month-long workshop aimed at Christians who want to write--and sell--stories for the large and small screen. Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena along with nine other religious groups host an annual "City of Angels" Christian film festival aimed at building bridges between clergy and film executives and screenwriters. Just about every night of the week, you can find Bible studies or social gatherings at churches, studio lots, and homes.

Hollywood Christians compare their position to Joseph's experience in Egypt: good folks stuck in a heathen land, trying to do the right thing. Many Christians here simply hide their faith, fearing ostracism, rejection from secular Jews inside Hollywood, and criticism from evangelicals beyond.

"We're the only people still in the closet," says Barbara Nicolosi, a Catholic who runs "Act One," a workshop for Christian screenwriters sponsored by Inter-Mission, a Hollywood Christian network with 3,000 on its mailing list.

"X-Men" producer Ralph Winter, a devout Presbyterian, faults the "flavor of the week" mentality, "this frenzy to have the latest and greatest and make a bundle of money." Such pressures present "tremendous challenges for people of faith," says Nicolosi, who worships at a parish in Santa Monica popular with the Hollywood crowd. "It's hard to keep your faith if you make it. It's hard to keep your hope if you don't."

Rather than risk ridicule in an industry where it's hip to thank God at awards shows but not at church on too many consecutive Sundays, many choose to be a more subtle influence. "They see their victories not in what ends up on the screen, but what doesn't end up on the screen," Nicolosi says. "These people are my heroes. They call it holding the line."

Sometimes it can mean asking "What would Jesus do?" after reading some scripts; the answer sometimes is: "He wouldn't."

Christians aren't the only ones worried about Hollywood's morals. Screenwriter David Weiss, an Orthodox Jew with a film in development at Paramount Studios, stands up for his faith when it conflicts with his job. Some people raise moral issues quite apart from religion. Suzanne Cryer, one of the stars of ABC's "Two Guys and a Girl," convinced the writers that their mean-spirited jokes about fat people weren't funny. Asked if she has any religious practices, she said, "No. I read The New York Times."

And Christians don't always show their cards. Winter, for instance, convinced stars Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen that the plot should take a different and more clever turn; together they pressured the director to change the script. Faith--as far as Winter's cast and crew knew--simply wasn't a factor. "You don't get extra points for being religious inside the studio," says Winter, who has walked away from projects that didn't convey positive messages. "Anybody's going to be respectful of your beliefs, but if you start talking about Jesus, that's a problem. That's divisive."

Some say it's no different from any other business; mention Jesus on Wall Street and you won't get too far, either. Klausman, the CBS executive, attends Calvary Chapel and rarely turns down a chance to talk about Christ, but says he intentionally doesn't flaunt his faith at work. Klausman acknowledged he's taken heat from Christians outside Hollywood for his role in producing shows some consider pretty un-Christian. Klausman provides the set, the physical lot, and the labor for "Will and Grace," the Emmy-winning comedy featuring an openly gay character.

As Klausman sees it, he's just doing his job. "If I say I'm not going to do 'Will and Grace,' I get fired, and now I'm not an influence at all," Klausman says. "People have asked me if I'm ashamed. I'm not ashamed. God will tell me if I should be ashamed."

Being moral doesn't mean creating bad art, though. Klausman tells people who want to influence Hollywood to work harder. "I have people who approach me with Christian poodle acts and play 'Jesus Loves Me' on the piano and don't understand why we can't make a series out of that," he says. "I've got a cassette of exorcisms they feel could be the next great reality program. I don't think so."

On the other hand, if the work isn't supported by Christians outside the industry, it will fail. Winter says more than 100 wealthy evangelicals turned him down not long ago when he sought funding for a film version of "Left Behind," the wildly popular Christian best-seller.

And there are frustrations when good work goes unrecognized by the public. "The Straight Story," which Nicolosi considers one of the most powerful stories of redemption to emerge from Hollywood in years, flopped last year at the box office. Mary Sweeney, who wrote this story of an elderly man's lawnmower-propelled journey to see a dying brother, still bristles at how little attention the film received, despite an Oscar nomination this year for Best Actor. "I was very, very disappointed," says Sweeney. "Of all the people criticizing Hollywood, not a single one of them championed the film."

Of course, this isn't the first time Christians in Hollywood have tried to exert some influence on American pop culture. Back at the "Praise Breakfast" in Beverly Hills, Pat Boone gets a round of applause after his introduction as a pioneer among Christian entertainers. Planting his shiny white zip-up ankle boots on the ballroom carpet, Boone rose and waved. The gesture was simple, but unmistakable: The pater familias was blessing the next generation.

Later, when asked if he believed Christians were gaining a new voice in Hollywood, Boone was wary. He said he had a pretty good idea who would win the battle for Hollywood's soul, and it's not the folks talking to Jesus with Dyan Cannon on Saturday nights.

"The Bible does say God's way is narrow, straight, and for the few," Boone said gently. "I'm not a pessimist, but I believe what the Bible says, that the vast majority are headed to destruction."

It's not easy hearing a man in a buttercup yellow blazer talk about Armageddon. He swept an arm outward, taking in the crowd still lingering in the ballroom, Christian soldiers in a heathen land. It was as if he were saying it may be too late for Hollywood, but there are still souls to be saved. "What we have to do is what we are doing here, to try to make a difference in whatever our circle of influence is."