Heaven Can't Wait

TIMES STAFF WRITER

If it's true that the Lord works in mysterious ways, then ExhibitA might be inside the CBS commissary in Studio City.

There, dressed in a glittering rhinestone choker, clingy black blouse and indigo slacks, Dyan Cannon stands in the glow of a spotlight, a clutch of bodies lying at her feet. It's almost midnight, and things are winding down at her latest God's Party, a kaleidoscope of gospel and pop music, prayer, dancing, storytelling and Pentecostal-style faith healing.

It's a surreal experience: On the corner of St. Elsewhere Street, across from the soundstage where "Will & Grace" is taped, an actress known for her sex-kitten roles in "Ally McBeal" and "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" is invoking the power of Jesus to literally knock people off their feet.

For Cannon, the ministry caps a personal and spiritual odyssey that began in childhood and covers three Academy Award nominations, a bizarre marriage to Cary Grant and dalliances with nearly every self-help fad known to man--from watermelon diets and hypnosis to LSD and climbing inside an Avis van and pounding its walls.

Now, with her acting career moving forward in two new films and a sitcom role as a retired Playboy bunny, she plans to take her ministry on the road, franchising God's Party to cities across the U.S.

Although it's not the first time a celebrity has stepped into the pulpit, it's certainly one of the most dramatic ventures.

When CNN's Larry King visited one of the parties in April, he came away dumbfounded. "What happened to you?" he blurted when Cannon appeared on his show the next week. "You're a Jewish person."

Maybe so. But something strange is definitely going on.

Perched on a sofa in her high-rise L.A. condo, the sixtysomething actress begins retracing the journey. While she speaks, a pet Chihuahua named Jeepers Creepers ricochets around the room, and candles flicker in every corner.

"This was not my plan," she says of GPDC&U;, her shorthand for God's Party With Dyan Cannon and You. "My plan, since the age of 4 in Tacoma, Washington, was to star in movies and TV." But that dream spun out of control.

Arriving in Hollywood as Samille Diane Friesen, she was renamed Dyan Cannon by a producer and soon caught the eye of Grant. Flipping channels one night, he saw her on TV and asked her to audition for a movie. Instead, they wound up marrying in 1965, and had a child, Jennifer Grant.

Three years later, the romance unraveled amid accusations that Grant was an "apostle of LSD" and spanked her. Cannon descended into a haze of booze and pot, then turned to a series of self-help remedies: Esalen, rolfing, psycho-cybernetics and the tape-recorded sayings of Plato and Einstein.

She also experimented with primal-scream therapy. Her house in Malibu was outfitted with a small room containing padded walls and ceiling. "This is where I come to think, cry, scream [and] curse," she told a writer at the time. At one point, she even rented an Avis van and lined it with pads so she could take scream breaks while rehearsing for a nightclub act in San Francisco.

Her career rebounded with roles in such movies as "Heaven Can Wait," "Revenge of the Pink Panther" and "Deathtrap." She became a fixture at Lakers games. She wrote and directed two films.

Yet something was missing. "The hole got bigger and darker," she says.

Cannon had an eclectic spiritual past. Raised by a Jewish mother and Baptist father, she remembers singing "Jesus Loves Me" on the way to synagogue. As an adult, she wanted nothing to do with God.

But somewhere along the way--she's not sure exactly when--Cannon started flirting with Christianity. In the late 1960s or early '70s, she went to the Shrine Auditorium to hear faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman and remembers being thrown to the ground by a mysterious wind. "What was that ?" she wondered.

Then, in 1976, the same year she hosted an episode of "Saturday Night Live," someone introduced her to Lily Cavell, a British-born poet, painter and self-described spiritual advisor to the stars.

"I was told Dyan needed a little counseling, which was an understatement," recalls Cavell, who markets a line of inspirational cards and gifts based on her homespun Bible interpretations.

Says Cannon: "I wanted to find a love that lasts." After seeking happiness through fame, fortune and men, "I knew my life had hit a dead end."

She and Cavell began meeting five days a week, poring over the Bible and various spiritual precepts. But the transformation took years. "We're still working on it," Cavell says.

On the CBS lot in Studio City, visitors are driving down a fake residential street, hunting for parking. Even though the houses in this neighborhood are just facades, nobody thinks to park in front of a driveway.

Up the block, waiting for tonight's God's Party, a man in cowboy duds sits outside, reading a Bible. Inside, volunteers inflate helium balloons and sprinkle Jolly Rancher candies on the tables while a funk version of "Jesus Is Just Alright" thumps over the loudspeakers.

Cannon has been hosting the parties every other Saturday night for about three years. She even adds a clause to her acting contracts so work won't interfere. The gatherings are open to anyone and usually take place in the commissary. During July and August, the services move outdoors to a New York City street set used in "Seinfeld." Studio president Michael Klausman, a friend of Cannon's, arranged for her to use the space.

Around 7:30 p.m., Cannon arrives with her Chihuahua and a small binder filled with handwritten notes on pink paper--her sermon outline. She has been fasting and praying all day. As the band warms up the crowd with "We Are Family" and "Celebrate," she takes a seat.

But almost immediately, she is on her feet, skipping, jumping and pulling audience members up front to dance. And the party is on. The crowd of about 200 is a mix of races, ages and religious backgrounds, but skews toward white, 30s or 40s and Christian (GPDC&U; is regularly mentioned on KKLA-FM, a Christian station). Occasionally, a celebrity such as Raquel Welch or Judge Reinhold turns up, but not tonight.

After an hour or so of music, prayer and synchronized dancing by a trio of teens, Cannon steps into the spotlight.

Weaving together personal anecdotes, scripture and humor, she presents lessons about God's love. Thomas Aquinas she is not, but her messages are catchy. At a June meeting, for example, she sang a little rap verse: "Don't do dis, do dat, you silly cat."

It was meant to illustrate God's power to heal disappointments, distress, disease and other "dis" words. In the dictionary, she explains, Dis is the lord of the underworld. To get rid of "dis," we need the Bible, Cannon says.

"Her message is very different from a typical church, which can be divisive and focused on doctrine," says Matthew Barnett, a friend who co-pastors the Los Angeles Dream Center, an Assemblies of God church. "She's trying to provide a spark and reach people who've been disenfranchised by traditional churches."

Barnett concedes that Cannon's theology lacks depth but says "that's not her role." Her mission is to "encourage people to have faith and hope," and then allow more traditional churches or mentors to nurture that belief. "She does a great job on an introductory level," he adds. "Sometimes a celebrity can draw people back to God better than a preacher can."

True enough, says Chap Clark, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, but there's a danger: Celebrity preachers can easily veer off course theologically unless they surround themselves with knowledgeable Christians who "aren't afraid to tell them the truth."

"Some people say that's what happened to Bob Dylan [after his conversion to Christianity]," Clark says. "He didn't have enough grounding and solid people around him for it to be sustained and go deeper."

Cannon's board of directors includes Warren Duffy, a former publicist for the Beach Boys who now hosts a talk show on Christian KKLA-FM; Ted Baehr, publisher of Movieguide magazine, which reviews films from a conservative Christian vantage; and Marcia Thompson, formerly on staff at the Pentecostal Church of the Harvest International in Los Angeles.

Cannon also relies on poet Cavell, whom she describes as a mentor. The genesis of the "Don't do dis" sermon, for instance, started with Cavell.

"I'll give her a concept," Cavell says, "and she'll take it and make it her own."

Not everything about Cannon's ministry defies convention. For example, there's still a collection at each God's Party to cover expenses. "I don't take any of this money," she says, "although I would like to." At another service, she jokes to those with checkbooks: "If you need to know how to spell a 'million,' it's M-I-L ..."

After passing the hat, Cannon invites people to line up for personal prayer. "What do you want God to do for you?" she asks when they reach the front. The requests vary: prayers for a relative with cancer, recovery from drug addiction, healing of an emotional hurt or illness.

Cannon places her hands on the person's head and petitions heaven. In some cases, the people swoon backward into the waiting arms of Cannon's burly assistant, who gently lowers them to the ground. (Pentecostal and charismatic Christians refer to this phenomenon as being "slain in the Spirit." Cannon calls it "letting go and letting God.")

As the evening wears on, getting to Cannon sometimes requires stepping over several resting bodies. And when one of the fallen clambers back onto two feet, Cannon sometimes prays again and-- whoosh! --the person collapses back to the ground.

"It's a sensation from head to toe," says Sue Clarke, 49, of the Santa Clarita Valley, who has attended God's Party since December. "You just want more."

Some people claim the prayers cause medical healings.

Cannon admits she is baffled and even spooked by this. "I certainly didn't seek it out," she says. "It just happened. I can't heal a fly, but I'm willing to lend myself to whatever God wants me to do."

Cannon says the first healing happened at her home a few years ago, when she led a series of Bible studies that eventually outgrew her house and evolved into God's Party. A woman undergoing chemotherapy walked in "gray in color and looking like death," Cannon recalls. "I had 10 people there, and we just prayed for her. It was not any big deal ... but then we watched the pink flow into her fingers, and I thought, 'Uh-oh, something's going on here that's bigger than us."'

Similar things started happening after the move to CBS Studio Center. "People just came up and wanted prayer," she says, shrugging. "I didn't expect healings to happen. I would expect God to pick a saint [to do that], and I'm no saint. I look at this and think, 'Are you sure you've got the right girl?"'

It's tough to gauge how effective the cures are.

A 13-year-old girl came to a God's Party on crutches after being bucked from a horse the day before. Cannon closes her eyes and prays that "before the night is over, she will dance out of here--and bless the horse that dropped her."

Taking away the crutches, Cannon forms a conga line and leads the slightly hobbling girl around the room.

"I felt a warmth come over me [during the prayer]," the girl says two days later. "I haven't had to take any Advil since."

Another case involves a man with muscular dystrophy, who requests prayer for a back injury caused by falling down some stairs. After praying intensely, Cannon asks whether the man still feels pain.

"No," he replies.

Cannon raises her hands toward heaven in praise. She then invites the man to dance with her and when they finish, asks: "How's your back?"

"Fantastic!" he shouts, and Cannon begins hopping around, praising God.

But afterward, the man confides to his brother and sister-in-law that his back still aches.

"Was there any improvement?" a reporter asks.

"None," he says. "But I was dancing with Dyan Cannon. I have to please her, right?"

His brother and sister-in-law still insist a miracle has occurred. "We've never seen him dance like that," they say.

When Cannon is later told what happened, she comments, "If this guy wanted to please me, he ripped himself off. This is the first time I've heard of something like that. All I can do is ask people [if they're healed], but I'm not accountable for [what they say]."

She pauses, then adds: "You know something? He's going to be healed. The pain will leave. I have faith."

Perhaps Cannon is on stronger ground when dealing with emotional wounds. Even the most ardent skeptic of physical healings would be hard-pressed to deny her ability to soothe grief, loneliness and anguish.

In an age when most celebrities surround themselves with bodyguards, it's fascinating to watch Cannon interact with strangers. When one woman tells her, "My father died, and the pain is so bad I can't stand it," Cannon simply embraces her, then finally prays: "Take away this spirit of mourning."

She also hugs a retarded man and a wheelchair-bound woman, kissing both on the forehead. Cannon's prayers sometimes get so intense she stumbles away afterward or even falls to the ground.

Barnett, the pastor, says Cannon is "more than just a person who shows up at charity events. I've seen her sit down and talk with street kids for long periods of time. She could just be a celebrity and [avoid] that

Clearly, people are moved by her ministry. "It's powerful, beautiful, down to earth and a very happy experience for me," says Pericles Eley, a 53-year-old naturopath from Long Beach who has attended for two months.

Among celebrity converts, Cannon is an anomaly. Although plenty of actors, musicians and athletes proclaim some sort of religious alliance, only a handful ever go into ministry.

Little Richard has bounced back and forth between rock 'n' roll and Seventh-day Adventist preaching for years. Della Reese runs a metaphysical church and stars in "Touched by an Angel." Singers Al Green and Richie Furay now pastor their own churches, occasionally doing secular concerts. And rapper MC Hammer reportedly received a visitation from Jesus in 1997, became ordained and started preaching regularly at a San Jose church.

For a time, Cannon considered quitting acting to focus solely on ministry. But after prayer, she decided God wanted her to stay put. So far, she's finding plenty of work. She just finished shooting a film in Australia and another in Canada.

But she admits that Christianity and Hollywood don't always mix. In her new sitcom, "Three Sisters," she plays a former Playboy bunny. And on "Ally McBeal," she portrayed a sex pot judge. "I've had struggles with some roles," she says. "But it's acting, not Dyan."

Nevertheless, she now turns down "98% of the parts people send me," some of which involve nudity. "Either they don't have glasses," she says, "or they don't realize that my time has passed."

Would she accept her wife-swapping role in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" if it were offered now? "Yes, because there's redemption at the end."

Cannon says colleagues don't seem bothered by her faith, partly because she's not preachy. Friends also support the change. Longtime pal Jacqueline Kanawati says Cannon seems happier than ever.

Now, the actress hopes to spread her discovery. "God has given me a vision," she says. "I'm going to take God's Party to every capital city in the U.S." Early next year, she hopes to travel with a group of musicians, teen dancers and how-to kits to help others establish God's Party franchises in their cities.

Cavell, Cannon's mentor, never imagined the troubled soul she met 25 years ago would get this fervent.

Neither did Cannon. "But I found a love that loves me even when I don't have makeup on."

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