Like millions of people I’ll bet, I first knew Marjoe Gortner (b. 1944) from his key role in the 1974 blockbuster Earthquake. There are many remarkable, memorable things about this landmark disaster film: the special effects, naturally; the sub-plot with a black Evel-Knievel style daredevil; a plunging elevator with drawn-on blood splatter; Lorne Greene being dangled by a fire hose; a kid trapped in one of those concrete L.A. aqueducts. But Gortner’s sub-plot is usually what I remember about the film first. It is one of those intriguingly unique things, an element that’s weirder and more individual than it needs to be. His character is a meek grocery store assistant manager with a double life. Menaced by bullies, there are intimations that he may be gay, back when many in the audience would have considered that to be a perversion (the film presents it that way). His room is decorated with pictures of body builders, and is full of free weights and S/M gear. But after the disaster hits, we learn that he has fantasies of a different sort. He wants power and revenge. He turns out to be a wig-wearing national guardsman, a kidnapper, rapist, and martinet who shoots looters (anyone he pleases, really) on sight. In the seventies, this was a way-out thing. Today, of course it’s a whole political movement.
Anyway, Gortner’s 22 year acting career is of a piece with Earthquake. It all hangs together nicely. It practically constitutes a subgenre. I would gladly attend a Marjoe Gortner film festival. (Don’t laugh! Or actually go ahead and laugh, but there actually was one — at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival in 2008). The Gortner oeuvre is a rather astounding collection of glorious junk: disaster movies, horror, sci-fi, soap opera, grade z westerns, and the like. He’s from that era when casting directors worked a surreal alchemy, cooking up ensembles that mixed the finest thespians in the world with non-actor celebrities, sports figures, writers, Dr. Joyce Brothers, whoever. And, as I’ve mentioned many times in numerous, the context was never explicit. This makes the existence of certain people in films and television programs increasingly inexplicable with every passing year. It was always understood, wrongly more often than not, that you knew who these people were. But as a kid at the time, I had no idea, and if you’re a kid now you really have no idea. Thus, Gortner’s screen career, already jaw-dropping, becomes even more so once you learn who he was. And so we must begin with that.
Starting at age four, Gortner was a child preacher in the charismatic evangelical movement. He was kind of the Michael Jackson of Pentecostal preachers. Terrifyingly talented at a disarmingly young age, he learned all the histrionics of the grown-up preachers he saw (both his parents “testified”; Gortner was a fourth generation evangelist preacher). His Christian name is a smash-up of Mary and Joseph. So he was coached to be this little performing wunderkind. He did faith healing and preached hellfire and spoke in tongues and quoted the Bible, chapter and verse. Naturally, the collection plate was passed, and large sums were raised. When he was very young, he garnered lots of press attention on that account (Life magazine, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, etc). As with all child stars, as he grew older, his existence became less remarkable.
When he was 16 years old, his dad absconded with the funds (which was in the millions) and skedaddled. Naturally, this caused a crisis of faith for Marjoe. But he got his revenge. First, there was a brief period of sinning. He traveled with a rock band. In additional to his remarkable preaching skills, Marjoe played drums, sax, organ, piano, guitar, and accordion from childhood. Then, he returned to preaching: with a film crew in tow. The resulting film Marjoe (1972) was an expose on all the tricks of the evangelist trade, including the unprincipled fleecing of their congregations. It won the 1972 Oscar for Best Documentary. ‘
To put it mildly, Marjoe‘s baldly demonstrated truths didn’t make a dent in faux Christian swindle culture. Something like half the country appears caught in the grip of it as we write this. Instead, the movie’s principal consequence was the launching of Marjoe’s career in show business. He released a rock album Bad, But Not Evil (1973). And then he became an actor. And during the ’70s there was a lot of call for his type — he frequently played psychotic villains, often all-American types who had gone horribly wrong in some way. Not always, but some of his best roles, as in Earthquake, were in that vein. In 1973 was cast in an episode of Police Story and the pilot for Kojak, entitled The Marcus-Nelson Murders. The following year he was on Barnaby Jones, but began appearing in films as well. It’s just a delightful hodgepodge. He was stunt cast as a wanted gunslinger masquerading as a minister in the TV movie The Gun and the Pulpit (1974). In ABC’s Pray for the Wild Cats, that same year, Andy Griffith plays a psychopathic executive who chases after his victims (Gortner, William Shatner, Robert Reed) through the desert on dirtbikes. Earthquake was also that year. Gortner then co-starred with Wonder Woman’s Lynda Carter in Bobby Jo and the Outlaw (1976), as the title character. That same year he also appeared in Bert I. Gordon’s Food of the Gods (about giant animals terrorizing people on an island); and the Airport 1975 rip-off Mayday at 40,000 Feet! This was followed by the priceless Viva Knievel (1977) in which the hubris-consumed daredevil portrayed himself. Sidewinder 1 (1977) was also about a custom designed motorcycle. This was followed by the low-budget Italian Star Wars ripoff Starcrash (1978).
In 1978 Gortner married Candy Clark from American Graffiti. The pair co-starred the following year in When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?, a sort of mash-up of Coming Home and The Petrified Forest. Gortner plays a psycho Vietnam War vet who terrorizes people at a diner. Gortner and Clark divorced in 1979, around the time the film came out. In the late ’70s and early ’80s Gortner was in numerous installments of Circus of the Stars, and two episodes of Fantasy Island. In 1980 he co-hosted an NBC reality tv show called Speak Up, America with Jayne Kennedy. The headline of the Washington Post review read “Keep Quiet, America”. The show did not last long.
In 1982, he began directing a movie called Glory Road featuring Gary Bussey, Dabney Coleman, and Mary Crosby, but ran out of money, forced to shutter after one week of filming.
As an actor, Gortner’s cinematic output in the ’80s was not distinguished, consisting of things like Mausoleum (1983), Hell Hole (1985), and American Ninja III: Blood Hunt (1989). But he did okay on TV. He was a regular on Falcon Crest (1986-87) in the role of a faux psychic con man, and guested on shows like The A-Team, Matt Houston, Airwolf, TJ Hooker, and Hotel. After five years away from the screen he was stuntcast in a cameo as a preacher in the 1995 western Wild Bill, in which Jeff Bridges played Wild Bill Hickok. The role has a nice echo of his early outing in The Gun and the Pulpit.
After this, Gortner worked primarily producing celebrity golf and ski tournaments for charity, before retiring in 2010.
For years, I used to kid my good friend Lynn Berg about wanting to star him in The Marjoe Gortner Story, modeled on George Hamilton’s 1971 Evel Knievel bio-pic. (Berg had earlier starred in his own self-penned opera about Knievel, but I got my brainstorm when he rocked a ’70s porn ‘stache in a short film of mine). Naturally there have been plays and docs about Gortner, but mine would be more in the Scott Alexander–Larry Karaszewski vein. All interested backers, please send large checks to my mega-church! When you see my movie, I guarantee you will cry, “Jesus!”