The child preacher turned movie star tried to pull the rug from under evangelical con-men, but no one wanted to listen.
If anything is going to turn people away from Christianity, then sure being exploited from childhood – and given an insider’s knowledge of the sheer hucksterism and con-artistry involved in the evangelical movement – is a good contender. The story of Marjoe Gortner, child preacher turned atheist dropout and Hollywood movie star, is a cautionary tale of child abuse and flim-flam that Christians have swept under the carpet and is now almost forgotten by everyone except those who have come across Gortner in his eccentric film career – or possibly seen the 1972 documentary that pulled back the curtain on the pentecostal movement and Gortner’s unwilling part in it.
You might think that even the most religiously devoted might raise their eyebrows at the sight of a four-year-old preacher, but apparently, churchgoers in 1948 were totally down with the idea that the good Lord would choose to convey his message through someone who could barely even speak and didn’t know how to dress himself. Marjoe – allegedly named in portmanteau tribute to the Biblical Mary and Joseph, but probably actually given the name as a redneck variation on his mother’s name, Marge (his brother Vernoe was named after father Vernon; only God knows the original of his sister Starloe’s name). Marjoe’s parents were already deep into religion – Vernon was a third-generation evangelical preacher, performing at religious revivals where souls could be saved at a minimal cost. Young Marjoe had a talent for mimicry and an outgoing personality, and for Veron and Marge, his potential was clear. Like any pushy stage parent, they began to groom him for stardom, but not in the movies – Marjoe was going to be an evangelical sensation.
The official story was that Marjoe had received a visitation from God while in the bath. In truth, the bathtime visitations were from his parents, who would hold his head under the water to force him to go along with their claims and learn his on-stage patter. They avoided beating him physically because neither of them wanted visible bruising, but Marjoe was tortured physically and mentally until he could perform memorised sermons, complete with the sort of dramatic flourishes that immediately signal to non-mad people that evangelical preachers are nothing but snake-oil salesmen.
Marjoe’s star rose quickly. Religion is the place where sleazy conmen can flourish, their oozing insincerity and breathless demand for money somehow not looking at all dubious to worshippers who are only too willing to believe in messages from God delivered by the sort of people that Jesus Christ spends much of the New Testament railing against. Of course they would accept a clearly unhappy four-year-old preaching the Bible without question. For normal people, the sight of pre-schooler spouting fire and brimstone and hawking miracle cures would be repulsive and creepy, but for the believers – who are they to question the word of God?
Marjoe’s star rose quickly. At the age of four, he performed his first marriage, covered by the national press, and this made him a sensation. Over the next decade or so, Marjoe would travel the country, preaching, selling tat to the gullible and offering false hope to the suffering. By 1951, he was joined by his younger brother for an even more appealing double act – but Marjoe was the star. At some indistinct point, an LP of the boy’s sermons – ranging from the age of four to eight – was released for sale at his revival meetings. You can enjoy it below.
Marjoe’s career continued until he was sixteen, when his youthful appeal was on the wane – he might still be young for a preacher, but he no longer had that sense of adorability that would get the mums cooing. Perhaps sensing that the jig was up, Vernon Gortner took the money – allegedly around $3 million by this time – and ran. Perhaps sensing that this was not God’s plan, Marjoe then quit his ministry and left his mother, moving to San Francisco where he became a drifter and a beatnik. Running out of cash in his early twenties, he decided to return to what he knew best. You don’t spend your life as a preacher without learning a trick or two, and Gortner was an instant success, combining his fame as a child evangelist with a new swagger inspired by mid-Sixties rock stars. Soon, he was making enough money to only have to work for half the year.
But unlike many of his fellow con-men, Gortner had a conscience. He felt guilty about conning poor and desperate people with lies and misdirection. He wanted out, and the opportunity came in an unexpected way. He was approached by a pair of documentarians, Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan, who wanted to make a film about him. He eagerly agreed, but the film that emerged was probably far more explosive than either director could have expected.
Essentially, Gortner used the film, called Marjoe, to pull back the curtain and show the truth about the revivalist movement. Without telling anyone – including his father, who by now had wormed his way back into the organisation – he gave interviews to the filmmakers that exposed the truth about how the evangelical scams worked. This was like a magician revealing his secrets – unheard of and shocking, exposing as it did a cynical money-making machine that cared little about God or the worshippers. The film would be a sensation in 1972, and Marjoe’s evangelical career was well and truly over.
Not that he cared. No longer even a believer, Gornter would capitalise on his notoriety in the way that criminals of a much worse type have long done in America – celebrity culture cares little for just how someone becomes famous. In 1973, he covered a religious festival featuring ‘boy guru’ Prem pal Singh Rawat for adult magazine Oui and cut another LP, this time of secular (or ironically religious) songs called Bad, But Not Evil – named after his description of himself in the movie Marjoe. These were mere stepping stones though – Gortner had his eyes on an acting career.
Like professional wrestlers, Gortner was a natural for acting because that was what he’d effectively been doing for his whole life. His first role was in the 1973 TV movie The Marcus-Nelson Murders, the pilot movie for what would become Kojak. More TV followed before a role in the big-budget disaster movie Earthquake. But the big leagues proved otherwise elusive, and Gortner’s career was very much a second division one. That said, his movies were an interesting selection – Bobby Jo and the Outlaw, Acapulco Gold, Food of the Gods, Viva Knievel, Starcrash, When You Comin’ Back Red Ryder, Mausoleum, Jungle Warriors and Hell Hole might not be the most respectable of films, but you’d struggle to find a more entertaining weekend’s viewing. He also had a recurring role in the soap opera Falcon Crest, but by the end of the 1990s, his acting career seemed to have fizzled out.
Gortner also took part in one of Hustler‘s celebrity-created photoshoots in 1984, creating a series of images that played on his connection to evangelism. For Christians, this was the final act of his damnation, and it’s notable that the revelations of Marjoe and beyond have been rationalised as the lies of a fallen angel. For them, Gortner is not a whistleblower but a victim of a sinful society, made to stray from the path and spread evil lies. Modern-day Gortners are just as successful and wealthy, their insincere smiles and manipulative blood-and-thunder preaching as successful as ever.
Marjoe Gortner is now 77 and seems to have slipped into a quiet retirement. His story is, surprisingly, not that well known today – the documentary is long overdue a Blu-ray release, given that it remains as timely as ever. You can watch it below.
Incidentally – nothing perhaps shows what an outrageous scam YouTube copyright claims are than the fact that the 1948 – 1952 recording featured earlier has been claimed by – and with all ad revenue going to – WMG Records, because the recording was sampled by MC 900Ft Jesus. Appealing this seems pointless – we don’t make any money from YouTube anyway, and would not even consider doing so on posts like this – but claiming ownership of a sample that was lifted without permission in the first place seems a con job that Poppa Gortner himself would be proud of.
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