Evangelist and actor Marjoe Gortner. July 6, 1973.
When Gortner was three his father, Vernon, a third generation minister, noticed his son’s talent for mimicry and overall fearlessness of strangers and public settings. His parents claimed he had received a vision from God during a bath, but this was later conceded by Marjoe to be a lie his parents forced him to repeat. He claimed they enforced this by mock-drowning him because they could not beat him which would leave bruises which might be noticed during his many public appearances. They began training him to deliver sermons, complete with dramatic gestures and emphatic lunges. By the time he was four his parents arranged for him to perform a marriage ceremony for a film crew from Paramount studios, referring to him as “the youngest ordained minister in history.” Like much in Gortner’s early life it is hard to say for sure who exactly ordained him, if his father ordained him, or if he was even ordained at all.
Until the time he was a teenager Gortner and his parents traveled the United States holding revival meetings. As well as teaching him scriptural passages his parents also taught him several money-making tactics involving the sale of supposedly “holy” articles at revivals which promised to heal the sick and dying. By the time he was 16 his family had amassed what he later estimated to be three million dollars. Shortly after Gortner’s sixteenth birthday his father absconded with the money and a disillusioned Marjoe Gortner left his mother for San Francisco where he was taken in by, and became the lover of, an older woman. He spent the remainder of his teenage years as an itinerant hippie until his early twenties when, hard pressed for money, he decided to put his old skills to work and re-emerged on the circuit with a charismatic stage-show modeled after those of contemporary rockers, most notably Mick Jagger. He made enough to take six months off every year, during which he returned to California, surviving on the previous six months’ earnings.
In the late 1960s Marjoe Gortner suffered a crisis of conscience about leading a double life and felt his performing talents might be put to better use as an actor or singer. When approached by documentarians Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan he agreed to let their film crew follow him on a final tour around revival meetings in California, Texas, and Michigan during 1971. Unbeknownst to everyone else involved — including, at one point, his father — he gave “backstage” interviews to the filmmakers in between sermons and revivals explaining intimate details of how he and other ministers operated. After these sermons the filmmakers were invited back to his hotel room to tape him counting the money he had collected during the day. The resulting film, Marjoe, won the 1972 Academy Award for best documentary.