Oct 21, 2008
Movie honors life of Billy Graham; students appear in film
by Amanda Sullivan
Many people are familiar with Dr. Billy Graham’s teachings and crusades, but most individuals are unaware of Graham’s difficult start in the ministry. In fact, Graham’s legacy is lost on many college students. Most know enough to recognize him as a significant figure in Christian history, but few understand details beyond the stories told by parents or grandparents.
The 2008 production of “Billy: The Early Years” showcases Graham’s journey from a lackadaisical college kid to a world-renown evangelist. Liberty students were given the opportunity to participate in telling his story.
The movie opens in 2001 in Toronto, Canada, in the hospice room of Graham’s longtime friend Charlie Templeton. He reminisced with a reporter about the early years of Graham’s life, and his own failure of consistent faith. In Templeton’s mind, Graham’s life was the equivalent of a fairy tale.
“All Billy ever wanted was to play baseball,” Templeton’s character said.
Templeton plays a conduit to the past, using his memories as flashes to previous events. He remembers the anticipation the town of Charlotte, N.C., exuded for the upcoming tent revival – Graham was less than enthusiastic about subjects regarding religion.
Through the encouragement of friends and family, Graham attended the tent revival. Dr. Mordecai Fowler Ham’s message convicted Graham, and following the sermon he made a commitment to faith in Christ. He decided to attend Bob Jones University (BJU) in the fall.
Prior to his career as a preacher, Graham believed that he would impact the lives around him. The summer before he left, Graham worked as a door-to-door hairbrush salesman. Graham greeted every customer with, “Hello, my name is Billy Graham, and I am here to change your life.”
Graham’s career as a salesman was not successful, much like his college experience at BJU. Graham’s outspoken discontentment of only being allowed to learn one man’s interpretation of scripture was frowned upon. His forthrightness earned him a sit-down meeting with Dr. Bob Jones. During the meeting, Jones told Graham that he would never amount to anything.
Despite Jones’ harsh comments, Graham’s passion for critically examining the Bible was not swayed. He continued to ask deep questions in class, garnering the attention of one of his professors, who suggested Graham preach in a local church. In reality, the only reason he considered preaching was to impress a girl named Emily. In the end, she preferred classmate and competitor Charles Massey for his eloquent speaking – an ability Graham had yet to develop.
Graham’s historical impact on older generations has not been lost. The film reinvents Graham’s crusades by making his perceived surreal life a reality to the millennial generation. Several Liberty students were given the opportunity to participate in the film-making process, making Graham’s life even more of a reality than a legend.
More than 50 students were involved in the making of the film, several having minor acting roles. Students Josh DeVries and Cody Carwile had roles as supporting actors.
“I played the part of T.W. Wilson, a lifelong friend and partner of Billy Graham throughout his ministry,” DeVries said. “Though (Wilson) wasn’t in the evangelism spotlight, I learned that he was an invaluable member of Billy’s team, as well as a man of remarkable faith and kindness.”
DeVries and Carwile’s acting opportunities came from Producer Lawrence Mortorff’s interest in using talent from various universities. Mortorff’s search led him to Liberty University Theatre Arts Professor Linda Nell Cooper.
“The producers called me in February and asked me to talk with the director, Robby Benson, about what his casting needs were for the film,” Cooper said. “I handpicked five actors from the department and set up a taped screening in the theater. After two weeks, they had narrowed it down to three young men and then finally two (DeVries and Carwile).”
Jerry Falwell Jr. provided the jet to fly the students to Nashville, Tenn. for a filming day trip, according to Cooper. The film allows younger generations to connect with Graham’s life and permit older generations to reminisce about memories they may have concerning his ministry.
“Billy Graham was sort of the standard bearer for conservative Christianity throughout my lifetime,” Falwell said. “Dr. Graham’s life and ministry were always inspiring to both my family and to me. Becki and I have become well acquainted with several of Dr. Graham’s children and grandchildren in recent years and have greatly enjoyed getting to know them as close friends.”
The movie offers a chance for generations to collide and commemorate an evangelical leader’s work and passion. The film accurately portrays the failures and successes of his ministry and reminds viewers to press on, to never give up in times of hardship – a fact to which Graham can attest as he is nearing his 90th birthday on Nov. 7.
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