Lois Armstrong

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Marjoe Gortner was a California-born charismatic child preacher with an overflowing collection plate who grew out of religion and revealed secrets about evangelistic crowd manipulation. Excerpts from two 1970s People articles by Lois Armstrong about Marjoe’s life after he threw off the cloak and pulled back the curtain.

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From 1976’s “Ex-Kid Gospeler Marjoe Is Hollywood’s New Gun for Hire“:

It seems fitting that the movie Food of the Gods should star Marjoe Gortner, once a child preacher on the revivalist circuit. As a sermonizer he dwelt on the terrors of hellfire. In Food he is still dealing in fear, but considerably diluted—it’s just a cheapjack monster film. Born again, Marjoe no longer makes his jack in the pulpit. He put his evangelistic soul on ice four years ago with Marjoe, the Oscar-winning documentary that detailed how he preached his first sermon at 4 and by 12 had fleeced his flock of an estimated $3 million. 

But at 32, the show goes on for Marjoe. In his view, he’s just shifted his stage from sweaty tents in Appalachia to sweaty sound stages in Hollywood. ‘My whole religious show was just live theater,’ he reflects. To be sure, nowadays he collects not only cash on his plate but starlets. Yet, if anything, Gortner feels purer at heart. It was ‘dangerous,’ he says, ‘telling people they were going to burn in hell.’

At the same time, he isn’t conscience-stricken about his original act. ‘I didn’t feel like a con man,’ he says, ‘because those people were getting a very good show for their money, and I worked very hard.’ When he had the faithful rolling in the aisles, he claims, it was like primal therapy. ‘Those people have more emotions bottled up,’ he says. ‘They lead very uptight lives. For that moment on the floor, they’re in ecstasy.’ So good was young Marjoe, in fact, that in the early 1950s Warner Bros, dangled a deal which was rejected, he concludes, because ‘religion was more lucrative than movies.’

Now that he has made it to the big screen, it seems strange that Gortner is expending his magic on drive-in dreadfuls like Food, a current shoot-’em-up, Bobby Joe and the Outlaws, and the recently completed Viva Knievel, in which Marjoe plays Evel’s lago-like sidekick. Gortner’s response is that he is merely serving his old constituency once more. For example? ‘The guy who works in a Delco factory at a job he hates,’ Marjoe explains, ‘with a wife as fat as hell and a bunch of kids. He’s got to have his fantasies. The people who are going to those movies are the same type who came to the revival meetings, and for the same reason. That’s where they get their entertainment, like other people go to the ballet or a Bob Dylan concert. You can’t blame them for never having been exposed to another culture.’

In his own life Marjoe has embraced that fantasy culture: he lives with a svelte ex-Playmate, tools around in a Porsche or on a hot motorcycle and collects expensive guns and exquisite American Indian jewelry. Without guilt. ‘I came to a basic philosophy,’ he says. ‘I believe in myself. The trouble with most religions is they tell you how to like yourself through God or a guru. It’s harder to deal just with yourself and much more rewarding—you don’t have to report in.’

That wasn’t always true for him.”

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From 1978’s “In Texas, Marjoe Gortner Wraps His First Film and His Second Wife, Candy Clark“:

“They had been dating off and on since last October, Marjoe’s companion of nearly two years, model Lynnda Kimball, having recently moved out. The relationship picked up at Christmas and then he cast the actress in When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder? A successful off-Broadway play, it is Gortner’s first film-producing effort. 

Clark admits to having had a mild crush on her new husband since 1972, when she saw the documentary Marjoe. One night she and a friend, cruising near a Malibu drugstore, spotted him in a purple Rolls-Royce with a license plate that read ‘GREED.’

‘We screamed and yelled and waved,’ she recalls. ‘He waved back and drove off real fast. That probably happened to him every day.’ By then Gortner’s attention had shifted from souls to bodies, especially the voluptuous ones he bumped into at pal Hugh Hefner’s mansion. Three years later he and Clark met at an L.A. restaurant, had an interesting conversation but saw each other only in passing for the next two years. Then one night last July he encountered Candy again in the same restaurant and asked for her phone number. 

‘We just gradually grew really close, closer than I’d ever gotten to any other girl,’ he says. ‘Candy’s extremely bright, brighter than this town thinks. She knows how to handle people, and I respect that, possessing those qualities myself.’

Marjoe’s ability to handle—some would say manipulate—people dates back to his 15 years touring the Bible Belt. He was 12 when his dad, the Rev. Vernon Gortner, left home, leaving unaccounted for the $3 million Marjoe’s evangelism had reaped. At 16, Marjoe married and became the father of a daughter, Gigi, now 17. That marriage floundered in the ’60s; so did Marjoe. Then in 1971 he edged into showbiz, playing himself in his screen autobiography before landing the lead in a TV movie, The Gun and the Pulpit, followed by a string of B film roles and TV guest shots.”

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Marjoe counts the money in 1972:

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In this post, I used some 1971 photos of Anjelica Huston and Jack Nicholson playing LPs at his Mulholland Drive house, which were taken by the legendary Los Angeles photojournalist Julian Wasser, who is the Weegee of the West, sure, but also a thing all his own, ably adapting to shifting scenes, from street to crime to Hollywood. Wasser just published a book of his work, The Way We Were. Three more of his images follow.

Roman Polanski.

Roman Polanski, 1969

From “Photo Ops,” Dana Goodyear’s excellent W piece:

Wasser’s first real camera was a Contax, which his father gave him when he was a junior in high school in the 1950s. He got himself a scanning radio and tuned in to the frequency used by the police. The first pictures he sold, while still a student at Sidwell Friends, a private Quaker school in Washington, D.C., were of crime scenes. “Crime’s exciting, and it sells,” he says. He got a gig at the Associated Press and met Arthur Fellig, the legendary photographer known as Weegee. “He came in plugging some film,” Wasser continues. “He was my hero.” From Weegee, he learned to use a Speed Graphic. “He was this real gruff, tough, down-to-earth guy, the epitome of a hard-nosed photographer, a street guy on the level of the cops he worked with. He used to beat them to the crime scene.”

That sensibility—an instinct for drama and the decisive moment, the dab of beauty with a smear of grit—put Wasser in the way of news. He was at the Ambassador Hotel the night Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, and was with the crowd watching as Richard Ramirez, the infamous Night Stalker, was taken into custody by police. In 1969, three days after the actress Sharon Tate was murdered, Wasser, on assignment from Life, went to the crime scene on Cielo Drive with Tate’s husband, Roman Polanski, a pair of detectives, and a celebrity psychic searching for vibrational clues. (The Manson family hadn’t yet been named as suspects.) Wasser took a picture of Polanski, crouched and grim-faced beside a door smudged with fingerprint dust, where the word pig had been written in Tate’s blood. “I felt so bad for Polanski and for being there photographing it,” Wasser remembers. “He was just shattered.” The psychic, meanwhile, stole Wasser’s Polaroids and sold them to the tabs. Later, during the case brought against Polanski for having sex with a minor at Nicholson’s house on Mulholland, Wasser photographed the judge.•

Bernard Cornfeld, mutual-fund manager, and friends, 1974.

From Cornfield’s 1995 New York Times obituary by Diana B. Henriques:

Born in Istanbul in August 1927, Bernard Cornfeld was the son of a Romanian actor who moved his family to the United States in the early 1930’s. He graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn and Brooklyn College. By 1954, he had become a mutual fund salesman, entering the industry just as mutual funds were experiencing their first strong surge of growth since the stock market crash of 1929.

In 1956, he moved to Paris, planning to sell shares of popular American mutual funds, chiefly the Dreyfus Fund, to Americans living abroad. Using his trademark recruiting challenge — “Do you sincerely want to be rich?” — he built Investors Overseas Services. At its peak, it was a far-flung organization that included a vast and intensely loyal sales force, a secretive Swiss bank, an insurance unit, real estate interests and a stable of offshore investment funds operating beyond the reach of any single country’s securities laws.

By 1970, his company had pumped millions of overseas dollars into the American mutual fund industry, initially through its aggressive sales force and then through Mr. Cornfeld’s trailblazing Fund of Funds, an offshore fund that invested in other mutual funds’ shares.

Mr. Cornfeld gave now-famous money managers like Fred Alger their start by selecting them to run funds owned by the Fund of Funds, which at its peak had more than $450 million invested in American mutual funds.

He also acquired enough financial power over American mutual funds and skirted close enough to the edges of Federal securities laws to attract the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which in 1965 accused him and his company of violating American securities laws.

In 1967, the company settled the commission’s complaint by agreeing to wind up or sell all its American operations. The Fund of Funds also agreed to buy no more than 3 percent of any American mutual fund, the limit imposed by Federal mutual fund law.

After leaving the American market, Mr. Cornfeld continued to live lavishly, and his financial empire appeared strong until early 1970, when it suddenly disclosed that it was short of cash and had substantially overestimated its 1969 profits.•

Farrah Fawcett, 1976.

Farrah Fawcett, 1976.

The opening of “Super-Powered Love,” Lois Armstrong’s 1976 People article:

It would take a network in a ratings crisis to create a six million dollar man, with one telescopic-zoom eye and three nuclear-powered prosthetic limbs—the role Lee Majors plays so stoically on ABC every Sunday night. But, still mercifully, only God can make a Farrah Fawcett-Majors, as Lee’s offscreen wife calls herself. “She’s so gorgeous,” Majors glows, “she’s like a little girl. So cute, so beautiful inside, you wanna…” His natural reticence stifles further elaboration. The whole preposterousness of his series and its success (it shot from the Nielsen cellar last season to No. 5) may also have gotten to his brain and consciousness—which never were exactly “bionic.”

Farrah’s looks are indeed breath-stopping, and her own career is rocketing in commercials (Noxzema, Wella Balsam, Ultra-Brite); TV (as David Janssen’s girl next door on Harry O plus a starring part in a pilot); and film (playing with Michael York in the upcoming Logan’s Run). So, when queried about having children, Farrah replies, yes, but not for a couple of years, and Lee quips, “We already have bids from people who would like to have pick of the litter.”

In the meantime, Majors has begat, if nothing else, a spin-off series premiering Jan. 14 that he calls The Bionic Rip-Off—the official ABC title is The Bionic Woman. Lee’s dubiousness owes to the fear that the new show could dilute the Six Million Dollar Man ratings already perhaps in jeopardy. Part of Majors’ rise can be attributed to this fall’s plop from favor of his CBS competition, Cher, but she is almost certain to make at least a one-week Nielsen rebound next month among viewers curious to see the return of ex-husband Sonny, not to mention the TV premiere of her now gravid midriff. Lee may also begrudge the sweeter contract the bionic female, actress Lindsay Wagner, has chivied out of Universal. She, unlike Majors, negotiated a sizable share of any merchandising royalties—Six Million Dollar Man dolls were supposedly the hottest item in toy biz at Christmas, and he barely collected a pittance. Lindsay was also guaranteed five feature films—which could rankle Lee, because he blames his TV stereotyping for thwarting his own movie career.

Majors, 36, professes to be less threatened by his wife’s sudden stardom at 28—as long as it doesn’t interfere with her cooking his nightly supper.•

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