Wednesday, December 16, 2009


It's a measure of how little religious upbringing I had that when I heard that TV evangelist extraordinaire Oral Roberts died at the age of 91, all I could think of was The California Kid.

As a kid, I had no concept of Roberts, what he did, what he stood for. I had no concept of organized religion whatsoever, and though I knew vaguely of God, I'd never even heard of Jesus Christ until I half-watched a TV showing of Ben-Hur with my brother. (During the crucifixion scene, I muttered something like, "Who's this guy?" and my brother said, "He's the reason we have Christmas." Look, I was six or so, and we never went to church. How was I supposed to know these things?)

So even though the local ABC affiliate would broadcast an Oral Roberts crusade every week, it wasn't like we ever watched the things. The problem was, they'd show them in prime time, bumping whatever was on the network, which was usually The ABC Movie Of The Week, original films made for TV, usually starring the likes of Karen Valentine or Robert Reed in dull-sounding comedies or lightweight dramas.

But whatever the movie was, it was always heralded by full-page ads in TV Guide, which inevitably gave even the dopiest picture (Anyone remember Paul Sorvino in It Couldn't Happen To A Nicer Guy?) a certain cachet--these weren't just lame TV movies, these were Events! Mostly I didn't care when the Pentecostal stylings of Oral Roberts filled in for these things, but once in awhile ABC would show something I simply had to see. Something like The California Kid, with Martin Sheen as a greaser drag racer squaring off against redneck lawman Vic Morrow. Or so I surmised from the print ad, which made it look like the coolest thing in the world.

I wish I could say something really dramatic happened at this point, like I watched a Roberts crusade for the first time during what I was certain would be the one-and-only airing of The California Kid, and that either I found God or cursed Him, thus dooming myself to a lifetime of Job-like misery. Instead, all that happened was...nothing. Since I couldn't watch the movie, I went outside and played, then did my homework and went to bed.

Not a terribly interesting memory, perhaps, but one I've retained for over thirty years, and my only concrete relationship to anything Oral Roberts ever did.