He’s best known as an actor whose career has spanned more than six decades and countless film and TV credits. But Lew Ayres--who had his most popular role as the title character in the “Dr. Kildare” movies of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s--has another identity.
It was as Lew Ayres, filmmaker and student of religion, that he addressed about 200 people at Thursday night’s showing of his 2 1/2-hour documentary, “Altars of the World: The Great Religions of Man.” The film, presented at the Brea-Olinda High School Theater by North Orange County Community College District Community Services, represents more than 20 years of travel, study, editing and other production tasks.
“Altars of the World"--which was first shown to audiences in the late ‘70s (and went on to have a PBS airing)--also represents what Ayres, 82, calls “the bigger part of my life, today.”
Indeed, Ayres--who presents the film to high school and college audiences “a few times or so a year"--is completing work on a massive thesis titled “The God of Evolution.” Moreover, he says that if he were given “the opportunity to choose again,” he’d opt not for motion pictures, but rather a career in the area of comparative religion.
Essentially a study of religion, “Altars of the World” details religious cultures by showing their ceremonies, rites and sacraments, as well as their holy men, mystics, saints and religious leaders.
The film had its beginnings in the ‘50s when Ayres and a single technician embarked on a yearlong quest to record the world’s religions. The initial result was a 5 1/2-hour documentary that was shown in special screenings over three nights.
Speaking during an intermission in his documentary, and earlier this week by phone from his home in Brentwood, Ayres says he realized that “three nights of a movie was much too long.” So, he went to work “eliminating and revising.”
“My approach is to try to be impartial--completely objective,” explains Ayres, whose unbiased but analytical narration focuses on how each culture is essentially linked by a common tenet: the Golden Rule (though the wording varies from culture to culture, the meaning is the same).
As for his own religious beliefs, Ayres says, “I’m religious--but not of any specific religious group.
“I am convinced there is a cosmic mind in the universe. And I pray every day.
“I also love all religions.”
He says his religious odyssey is the result of “a fantastic sort of experience,” which he politely declines to detail. (“My dear, that would take forever.”)
But in fact, Ayres has long been guided by religious convictions, most famously when he requested exemption from service in the Army in 1942 (he had been classed 1-A by the Selective Service Board) on the basis of being a conscientious objector.
The ensuing scandal was eventually defused by Ayres’ decision to serve as an Army medic--"to do constructive work in the face of destruction,” recalls Ayres, whose service found him assisting a chaplain at the front. He later considered heading for the pulpit himself.
But instead, he went back to the movies, appearing in a spate of titles ranging from the weepy drama “Johnny Belinda” (1948) to the science-fiction tale “Donovan’s Brain” (1953) to the horror saga “Damien--Omen II” (1978). Then came frequent guest-star work in TV.
Acknowledging that “the movies have opened a lot of doors for me,” Ayres says he finds it somewhat ironic that he had his best role in his first major film. That was 1930’s “All Quiet on the Western Front,” in which he played a young German soldier who discovers the futility of war. The film, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, climaxes with a famed sequence in which Ayres’ character crawls out of a trench to reach for a butterfly, only to be killed by a sniper’s bullet.
“It’s kind of amusing,” Ayres said, “to find yourself saying, ‘Gee, I never topped what I did when I hardly knew what I was doing.’ ”