Michael Landon, directing an episode of his television series “Highway to Heaven,” stood at the church altar and explained the upcoming scene to his congregation of extras, well-dressed and well-groomed, and neatly aligned in pews for a staged day of worship.
Actor Dennis Lipscomb, playing the role of the Rev. Tobias Bennett, was to give a sermon on religious tolerance. “I want you to be silent and attentive,” Landon told the extras. “After he leaves, I want you to wait a beat and then talk among yourselves.”
It was a routine location shot at the small Christ Community Church on Winnetka Avenue in Canoga Park. But the story that was unfolding in front of the cameras was far from routine. It was based on an incident that happened only 8 miles away and four months ago.
On May 28, the First Presbyterian Church in Sherman Oaks announced that it would require all teachers at the church nursery school to profess faith in Jesus Christ or quit by September, 1989.
The decree, initiated by the church’s board of elders (the Session), provoked anger from many parents and resignations from the entire teaching staff, some of whom had worked at the nursery school for 14 years. Nearly half of the school’s 85 pupils and five of the 14 staff members were Jewish.
In making the announcement, the Revs. John and Pamela Power said in a prepared statement: “Christian teaching is not simply an academic matter but a matter of an entire world view. . . . Those who teach Christian teaching should subscribe to those teachings themselves.”
But the teachers, including Christians like Cheryl Short, were indignant. “There is no way I could stay at a school where they ask someone to leave because of their religious beliefs,” Short said. “To me, this is the way all bigotry starts.”
All 14 staff members and many of the parents of nursery students have since opened their own Sherman Oaks Nursery School at a summer camp in Van Nuys. Eighty students are enrolled. The old Sherman Oaks Presbyterian Nursery School, now with 44 students, reopened two weeks ago for a new term with a new staff and a new emphasis on Christian teaching.
Landon said he was struck by news reports of the controversy and felt it was worth exploring as an episode of “Highway to Heaven.” Landon, who produces the series, also stars in it as an angel who roams the Earth, spreading a message of humanity and hope.
“I sat down with the staff, and we ran over the story and discussed what we really wished would have happened in a situation like that,” Landon said. “Instead of all the divisiveness and anger and frustration, someone could have stood up and said, ‘Hey, this isn’t right. If we are going to live together in our neighborhoods and love each other--as we should--as brothers, then we have to respect each other’s religions.’ ”
Landon’s series, in its fifth year, has yet to find a regular slot on the NBC schedule. One episode will air on Wednesday, and another two-hour special will run during Christmas week. Landon expects that the remaining shows, including “The Silent Bell,” based on the Sherman Oaks incident, will not be seen before January.
“The Silent Bell,” written by Parke Perine, closely mirrors the Sherman Oaks incident. In the script, a decree by a church’s governing council requires that a church-run nursery school abandon its nondenominational approach toward education and adopt one that emphasizes Christianity. Jews on the faculty are forced to quit. The Christian faculty resigns in protest.
The major difference between the actual incident and the televised one is the pastor. Rather than embrace the decree, the fictional Rev. Tobias Bennett is troubled. He wants to fight the decree but fears for his job.
Encouraged by Landon’s character to pray for guidance, Bennett does so and comes up with a solution that is eventually accepted by the parish. Yes, he will have religion taught in the nursery school, but all religions will be taught, not just Christianity.
This approach, Bennett tells his congregation, will increase the children’s understanding of other people. “The only chance to have peace among the people of the world is for them to come together and know and respect the beliefs of all men,” Tobias says.
In between takes at the Christ Community Church, Landon, 52, a tan and fit Malibu resident and the father of nine, relaxed in one of the church pews to tell how his own background inspired this twist on actual events.
Born in Forest Hills, N.Y., and raised in Collingswood, N.J., Landon said he grew up in an atmosphere of intolerance.
“There was incredible religious prejudice between my mother’s side of the family and my father’s side. My mother was Catholic; my father was Jewish. I was raised Jewish. To punish me for studying for my bar mitzvah, my mother forced me to miss track practice and a track meet that she knew meant a great deal to me.” (Landon was an All-American track and field athlete in high school and won a scholarship to USC.)
“After it was over, after I was bar mitzvahed, she took me into the bedroom to tell me that I wasn’t even Jewish, that she had me secretly baptized a Catholic when I was a child. There was that kind of religious anger in the family. I don’t have any resentment toward my parents; I feel sorry for them for having to go through life that way.
“The reason I felt something should be done (with the Sherman Oaks incident) is that I just think if more places, more churches, would teach the beauty of other religions rather than be so terrified that they’re going to lose a few members, we could do something about the awful religious intolerance around us.”
By adapting the Sherman Oaks incident for a television episode, Landon said, he did not intend to “bash” anyone. He said he has already received 25 to 30 letters from people concerned that he was “Christian-bashing” with this particular script.
“But this has really nothing to do with that. It just has to do with people loving and understanding the faiths of other people, and seeing what beauty there is in other faiths.”
John Powell said he was aware that Landon was filming the episode. He said he learned about it after reading a brief mention in TV Guide, “and from his (Landon’s quotes), it doesn’t appear that the TV episode will reflect the facts.”
Roman Silberfeld, legal adviser for the new Sherman Oaks Nursery School in Van Nuys, said the “Highway to Heaven” series is tasteful and sensitive and he had no doubt that Landon would bring those qualities to “The Silent Bell” episode.
As for the solution offered by the fictional Bennett to teach all religions at the nursery, Silberfeld said the proposal might have been a fitting way to resolve the Sherman Oaks incident, but he doubted that the Powells or the Session would have embraced it.
Silberfeld noted that many supporters of the new school in Van Nuys are still members of the First Presbyterian Church of Sherman Oaks. “I think the basic sentiment here is, let bygones be bygones; let’s plan for the future and be hopeful and excited about what’s ahead and not dwell on the past,” he said.
Back at the altar at Christ Community Church, Landon watched as actor Dennis Lipscomb delivered the climactic sermon on religious tolerance to the cameras and extras. The extras did as they were told--they listened quietly and attentively. Lipscomb concluded with, “May God bless us all.”
As Landon yelled, “Cut!” the congregation shed its decorum and broke into boisterous applause and cheers. Asked if they were applauding the performance or the sermon, several extras shouted, “Both!”