MOVIE - The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry
"Love Boat" Captain Steers Moviegoers to Christian Mentorships
Interviews with Gavin MacLeod and Director, Rich Christiano
By Beth Patch
CBN.com - As Captain Stubing on The Love Boat and Murray on The Mary Tyler Moore Show TV series, Gavin MacLeod enjoys a well-respected acting career. However, it is his recent title role in The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry that MacLeod claims to be the most meaningful project he’s ever done.
“I’ve been blessed as a believer to be able to do the The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry that’s bringing people to Jesus like you can’t believe. I think that’s what my whole mission in life - that’s what it’s all about.” MacLeod says. “The previous movie I did for the same group of people, Time Changers, has brought people to Jesus; but not like this one. This one brings children as well as adults.”
In the film, Jonathan Sperry begins a small neighborhood Bible study quite by accident. Initially, he begins a friendship with Dustin, one of the 12-year-old boys he’s seen at church, by asking him to mow his lawn. As their friendship builds, Jonathan Sperry sees the need for Dustin and his two close friends to learn biblical principles they can apply to their lives. He invites them to have a snack and bring their Bibles on more than one occasion. For each gathering, Sperry devises a clever way to interact with the boys on their level to teach a Christ-like quality. Eventually, Sperry’s mentorship of the trio catches on with other neighborhood children and regular Bible studies in Sperry’s home become the norm.
Teamwork - Church and Filmmakers
The film debuted in September 2009 in partnership with churches who came on board to sponsor the movie in theaters. Director Rich Christiano remembers the excitement, “We provided them with the Jonathan Sperry Gospel of John edition. We handed out close to 30,000 Gospel of Johns just at the theaters. Obviously, in theaters, you can’t give invitations and things like that; although one guy did. One theater let a guy do it; and he had 200 decisions over the three-week period.”
The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry DVD released in May 2010. “The churches are renting the movie and there’s where we get terrific follow-up,” Christiano said. “Right after the movie, the pastor’s getting up, speaking and sharing the Lord. We’ve gotten word of some little Bible study groups that have started up, kind of like Jonathan Sperry with the kids; where some of the older people in the congregation reached out to their youth and started some groups. I just got a letter from a guy who showed the movie, and he said a 13-year-old girl came to Christ.”
Clearly, American theaters lack a choice of wholesome, Christian films. The industry presents several challenges for Christian filmmakers, one of the largest being demand.
“We both realize how powerful the media is, and this is where the churches need to use Christian film to fight back. Entertainment to me is the god of this country. People are going to get their entertainment, and we need to provide the alternative,” Christiano says.
The benefit of having churches support Christian filmmaking cannot be understated. God’s people provide the grassroots effort to drive the demand for such films. Christian films have the extra benefit of the Holy Spirit to provide ideas like passing out thousands of copies of the Gospel of John, starting mentorship programs for seniors and young people in churches, and other benefits that spring out of the film’s messages.
“It’s been a real win-win situation, and we’re trying to just get some more support and promotion behind it to make people more aware of this film and [Christian] films in general,” Christiano says.
MacLeod related to the apostle Paul in his passion for the film, "In the Bible, Paul says when you become born again, you become an ambassador for Christ. When I read that, that really touched my heart and made me really think about me and my life, and why did God give me a second and third and fourth chance. I could have been dead four times with the things that have happened to me in my life, with my heart and the last operation. If I had waited two more days, I would have been crippled for the rest of my life and I would be in a wheelchair. But God has had his hands on me and He has forgiven and given me a new beginning. So I’ve become an ambassador for Christ; and to me it’s the greatest honor I have ever had. What does an ambassador do? I said, ‘Well, an ambassador serves and an ambassador brings people and tells people about this person he’s serving. So I’ve become this ambassador for Christ like all of us have. I’m able to use film to do it. And so to me it’s the ultimate.”
Gavin MacLeod’s Testimony
Why would Gavin MacLeod say this movie is the most meaningful project he's ever done? You'd have to know his life's story. In his own words:
The Love Boat Years
Patti and I were married. We were doing The Love Boat, and we had just come off The Mary Tyler Moore Show. All of a sudden, on The Love Boat, I had more responsibility than I had ever had before. Because instead of being the number three guy, I was the number one guy. I was working with a lot of young people and I felt a responsibility for the hours. We did an hour show and most hour shows shot ten days. We shot ours in seven days; which obviously means you have to spend longer hours doing it.
We had 48 extras, and we had big stars coming in from all over the world. If I didn't have a big part one week, then they’d have me out on the road doing public relations. So it was very, very time consuming. At that time, we were in a New Age teaching - it's all very self-oriented: you're supposed to be happy not unhappy, there's no such thing as sin; you make your choices. The whole groove of the thing is you’re number one.
I'd go to work - it was dark out in the morning. When I'd come home it was dark out; because we were doing those shows in seven days instead of ten. My wife wanted to talk to me to see what happened for the day. I’d say, “I can't do it, I have to learn lines for tomorrow.” It just became a conflict for me, and I just put myself first. I was just doing that because of the teaching. So I put myself first, and I said, “Look, I can't handle you and the job at the same time. I just can't do that.” Oh, it's just terrible to say this now, but it's true. So I said, "I want a divorce. I have this job. I can't lose it.” Selfishly, that's what I did. We were separated for three years. We divorced, and she went to shrinks on both coasts, because we had a place in New York, too.
Everybody she went to for help said, “Look, the guy doesn't want to be married so stop, don't torment yourself.” Then one day, Jerry Lewis's first wife, Patti, called my Patti and said, “I want you to come with me.” She took her to a house in Beverly Hills. It was a women's prayer meeting. My Patti had never experienced anything like that before. One of the ladies said, “Can we pray for you? Is there anything you want?" She says, “I want my husband back.” And she says, “Well you can have him back.” They started to pray for me right away.
We timed this out in our research - that same day that she went there, that evening I was going down to Santa Monica to see a play with the actor who played the doctor on our show and his wife. After the play was over, I started to think about Patti. I said, “I wonder how she’s doing?" I had not done much of that thinking prior to this; and I drove around where we used to live, where she still lived. I didn't see her and so that was that.
Then something happened to my mom. My mom had been a widow since she was 38-years-old, and here she was like 77. She had developed a cyst inside her brain the size of a baseball. Her whole personality, everything had changed. The doctor said, “If we operate, I can't promise what she'll be like. She may be like a vegetable, she may be better, but I don't know.” So my brother and I decided that we would have that operation for my mother. Now that morning, I was in the big house in Beverly Hills. (I came from a very poor background, and I always felt the bigger the house the happier the people were. Can you imagine?) Anyway, that morning of the operation, I just prayed to Jesus. It was September 15, 1984. I said, “If you give my mother more time, I will turn my life over to you. I don't care if I act any more, I'll just serve you.” And she survived! After I prayed that, something told me to call Patti - so I did.
I said, “Can I see you?" I don't even know why I'm saying these things. I said, “But can I see you?" She said, “Well, I have to go on the road with a group of women, but I'll be back.” So we set up a date for the following Monday.
The Power of a Praying Wife
After work, I got out of work early, which is very fortuitous I think. I got down there where she lived, where I used to live, and she finally opened the door when I got there. We hugged and she said, “I'm sorry, your dinner's cold, it's been waiting for three years.” Well, I knew she still had her humor in a way. She said, “I have something for you.” She went into the bedroom and came out with a Bible with my name on it. She said, “This is for you.” And she said, “Look, I wear my wedding ring.”
Then she says, “Whenever I come in the condo, I always say, ‘Hi honey, I'm home.’ And look over there, I've always set a place for you. I've been doing this.”
I said, “Well why?”
She said, “Well, Pat and Shirley Boone (our very good friends) knew of a ministry called Born Again Marriages. They've introduced me to these people, and that's what I do - and look, you're standing here right now.”
And I said, “I know.” So she told me she was “born again,” and I said, “Explain that to me.” She told me.
A New Life and A New Show
“Well that's what I want. That's what I want,” I said. So I went to a meeting, and I gave my life to Jesus officially. I did it in the bed when I was praying to Him that morning for my mom; but I did it officially. We started courting again; and June 30, 1985, the next year, we got married. Pat and Shirley were my best man and matron of honor.
They came to Omaha, Nebraska. There was a huge conference of Born Again Marriages - a conference of people who were standing for their marriages. That's people who had been “dumped,” Patti says. People who had been walked out on, but were still believing for the partner to come home. There were a thousand people there. The Lord had us get married in front of all of them.
Before you know it, maybe the next year, we were on TBN. The couple that had a program on marriage at that time had gotten divorced. So Paul Crouch said, “I think you two should have a program on marriage.” That's how we started doing Back on Course. That's what we called our book, but that's what the program was called. That show was on for 20-something years. We interviewed people who had all kinds of different crisis in their lives and conflicts in their lives, and how they overcame through the word of Jesus. Pastor Jack Hayford and Anna were our first guests. That was an honor. We actually went out on the ship and everybody wanted to do the show then, because they would get a ride on the boat. It was just a wonderful experience. They’re still showing those. We don't make them anymore. We haven't made them in about four years. But they still show them all over the world. I represent Princess Cruises, and when I travel in Europe you would be surprised how many people come up and know us from the Back on Course program.
The 21st Century
So here we are; that’s what happened. We’ve been walking with the Lord ever since, and I’ve been blessed as a believer to be able to do the The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry, this last movie I did, that’s bringing people to Jesus like you can’t believe. I think that’s what my whole mission in life, that’s what it’s all about. But I’m able to use film to do it. And so to me it’s the ultimate. It just doesn’t get any better; this is what my life is all about. This is why He saves me; so I could be doing this at the age of 77 when I made this movie. So, my middle name is grateful. You know, I’m just really grateful to the Lord for doing what he’s done for Patty and I, and me and my work. You know, if He gave me any kind of a talent as an actor to be able to use it for Him, it’s the ultimate.
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Beth Patch serves as the Global Ministries and Spiritual Life Devotions producer for CBN.com. For more articles and info, visit Beth's bio page.
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