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FIRST-PERSON: An interview with Ted Turner

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–The press junket for “Gods & Generals” was a surreal experience. The screening was held in Washington, D.C., and this reporter found himself seated in front of one of the actors, who also happens to head the company that produced the film: Ted Turner.

The sweeping Civil War epic begins early in 1861, ending just prior to the battle of Gettysburg. The story examines in detail the strategies, sacrifices and religious nature of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and the North’s Col. Lawrence Chamberlain.

The screening lasted 3 hours and 49 minutes, and by film’s end, I was ready for a walk. As I got up to leave, Mr. Turner — never shy about giving or asking for an opinion — blurted out, “So, what’d ya think?” As I realized he was addressing me, I blurted back, “That’s a dangerous question to ask a critic.”

I really wasn’t trying for urbane sophistication. The truth is, my mind had shut down. (Looking into the face of a jillion dollars is intimidating.) Immediately, I knew the remark would be less than satisfactory for a man who was essentially hosting the screening and the next day’s interviews. But before I could muster a simple declarative sentence, he’d moved on. He wanted praise, not an Algonquin witticism. Fine, I thought. He won’t remember me tomorrow morning. And I would be prepared.

The next day, the Christian press held a roundtable series of interviews with Jeff Daniels, Robert Duvall, Stephen Lang, the film’s writer/director Ron Maxwell and Mr. Mogul himself, Ted Turner. We had no idea what to expect from Ted Turner. Our only encounters with the impious entrepreneur were a series of hostile snippets read or heard in the secular media over the years. Turner has frequently made his anger against God well known. The tortuous death of his beloved sister from lupus ended his thoughts of entering the ministry.

Occasionally, Turner would get himself in hot water with such sentiments as “Christianity is for losers.” But being the greatest hustler since P.T. Barnum, he quickly cast us under his spell. He was there to sell his movie. And because of the Christian themes so prominent in the film, he wanted Christian moviegoers to be aware that this was a film they could embrace. Therefore, he was determined to buddy it up with those who reach that audience.

Not that he was disingenuous. Although a sharp businessman, my impression has always been that Ted Turner is an honest man. Nothing he said at the junket altered my opinion.

“When I started this movie, it was 1 percent of my assets,” he said, not boastful, just matter-of-factly. “It was going to cost about $30 to $40 million and I was worth about five or six billion.”

“Five or six, it must be hard to keep straight,” I thought to myself.
“And now I’m worth less than one billion with liquid assets,” he continued.

Mr. Turner did make some important observations about the movie, including the fact that there is no objectionable language, the married couples are devoted and passionate, and the film is reverential. “There isn’t a movie that I can remember in the last 10 years that depicts religion with such respect,” he rightly stated.

Then suddenly, as if wanting to find a confirmation from this group that there was a place for him in heaven, Turner began discussing his philanthropies.

“Look at my philanthropy. The Bible says it’s more blessed to give than to receive …. I sponsored that religious conference at the United Nations. $600,000 it cost me …. I accepted Christ several times …. And look at my philanthropy. My gigantic philanthropy. That’s something that every religion, particularly Christianity puts as a top priority for everybody. So, I’m living like a Christian. I guarantee you, I’ll see you there …. I’ll be like the guy who’s got the last two tickets in the stadium. I’m not going to have boxes on the 50-yard line. But I’ll be there. You watch and see.”

Then a bonehead quipped, “Look, if it were up to me, you’d be up there.” Don’t you wish that interviewer would have said, “Mr. Turner, if you’ve accepted Christ as your Savior as you have said, and made him Lord of your life, you’ll be there. And you won’t be in the worst seats. You’ll be embraced by our heavenly Father, just like anyone else in this room. You’ll be there. And so will your sister.”

Alas, this bonehead went for the jest, not the witness. Missed opportunity. Blown opportunity. I now pray that the Holy Spirit somehow cements that truth in Ted Turner’s heart. But perhaps that witticism was not completely in vain. For now, Ted Turner is in my daily prayer. He will be for the rest of my life. And you know what? I expect to see him up there. And not in the worst seats.
Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective. For more information about his service, go to www.moviereporter.com.

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  • Phil Boatwright