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Casting God

Special to The Times

IN “Clean and Sober,” Glenn Gordon Caron’s 1988 rehab drama, Morgan Freeman plays a drug counselor who returns to his office to find Michael Keaton’s high-strung coke addict on his phone.

“You want to hang up the phone, please?” he says in his sonorous baritone. When Keaton ignores him, he calmly unplugs the phone. “You know what the addict’s least favorite word is?” he asks. “ ‘No.’ Ask me if you can use my phone.”

“May I use your phone?” Keaton says, dripping with sarcasm.

“No,” says Freeman, and smiles.

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It is that quiet dignity, implicit power and leavening humor that has made Freeman the definitive principal (“Lean on Me”), president (“Deep Impact”) and now God in motion pictures, transferring his power to Jim Carrey in “Bruce Almighty” and exhorting Steve Carell to become a modern-day Noah in the sequel, “Evan Almighty.” It was Freeman who lent gravitas to the boxing drama “Million Dollar Baby,” taking home an Oscar for his trouble, and Freeman they called to come on the “Today” show after Hurricane Katrina.

So it is with professional regret that we learn Freeman does not do print interviews, and that even if he did, he wouldn’t do one on this particular subject. Perhaps we can take solace in the presumption that He works in mysterious ways.

“Don’t take it personally,” says “Evan Almighty” director Tom Shadyac. “When he signed on to do the role, he said, ‘I’m not going to do any publicity on this. I just don’t know how to answer the questions.’ ”

In his current turn as God, Freeman displays a fashionably New Testament demeanor, eschewing a white suit and tie for beige sweaters and breathable fabrics, in keeping with the film’s benignly ecological message. (God apparently shops at Banana Republic.) Shadyac says it’s the actor’s confidence and rich vein of humor that make him a casting agent’s, well, godsend, and allow him to embody “the full rainbow spectrum of humanity.” This God is part Zen master, part Yoda (and so far he’s been unable to work box-office miracles for “Evan”).

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For as much as Freeman in the role of God may seem like typecasting, he is actually the culmination of a couple of long-standing traditions of how the Almighty has been depicted on-screen. In the beginning, there was the all-powerful God, usually manifested as a deep, resonant, disembodied voice. As religion gave way to a less rigorous spirituality, God returned as a more irreverent, comical figure, often cast for maximum irony -- in this case, the notion of a Black God, which dates at least as far back as “The Green Pastures” in 1936 and its character of “De Lawd.” The modern turning point was George Burns in “Oh, God!” in 1977, which recast the ancient God of Jehovah as a vaudeville wiseacre.

“I wanted to do it with Mel Brooks and Woody Allen,” says Larry Gelbart, who adapted the screenplay from Avery Corman’s novel. “Woody said no, he had his own take on God he was doing in a movie. And Mel, for the role of God -- I guess he just didn’t want the demotion. I did suggest George Burns. Little did I know it would go on and on and on.”

But go on it did. And among the unlikely purveyors of divinity we have seen in the last two decades are female rock stars (Marianne Faithfull in “Absolutely Fabulous,” Alanis Morissette in “Dogma” and its sequel, “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”), God as a homeless man (“God Has a Rap Sheet”), an angry Scottish pub crawler (Irvine Welsh’s adaptation of his “The Acid House”), onetime Howard Stern regular Hank the Angry, Drunken Dwarf Henry Nasiff (“Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV”) -- even porno luminaries (“Deep Throat” director Gerard Damiano in “Just for the Hell of It,” Annie Sprinkle in “Bubbles Galore”).

Running a distant third

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COMPARED with those in his inner circle -- Jesus, the devil, Charlton Heston -- the Judeo-Christian God traditionally has been underrepresented in American film. Of course, he is not quite as scarce as the Prophet Mohammed, whose depiction in sound or image is punishable by death, according to certain interpretations of the Koran. (In Moustapha Akkad’s “The Message,” an epic history of the origins of Islam starring Anthony Quinn as Mohammed’s uncle, characters speak into the camera when addressing the Prophet.)

But while the historical figure of Jesus is the subject of countless biopics (and even more allegories), and Old Scratch is invariably revealed by his horns, cape or the whiff of sulfur, God is far more likely to show up in voice-over or in the form of a deus ex machina -- literally, “god from a machine” -- the convention of lowering gods onstage in 5th century BC Greek drama via a system of elaborate pulleys, and now expanded to mean the angels, prophets, messengers and unlikely agents sent to do his bidding.

“The earliest feature-length pictures in the 1890s and early 20th century consisted of two genres: prizefight film recordings and Passion plays, the latter produced both in Europe and the United States,” says NYU film historian Dan Streible, founder of the Orphan Film Symposium. “Christ appears at the end of ‘Birth of a Nation’ and ‘Intolerance’ contains a traditional ‘life of Christ’ story.”

Enterprisers such as Episcopalian lay minister’s son Cecil B. DeMille (the original “King of Kings” in 1927) quickly realized that the Bible was the perfect source of public domain (i.e., free) sex, sin and spectacle, even as its selective adaptation helped allay criticisms that the burgeoning medium of film was “the devil’s incubator.” That changed when the Production Code, enacted in 1930 (and fully enforced by 1934), gave ultimate oversight of motion picture content to staunch Catholic right-wing Inspector General Joseph Breen, doing the bidding of Republican Postmaster General and Presbyterian elder Will Hays. “Protestant art since the beginning has always devalued iconography and visual representation [of God],” says Streible. “That was for Catholics. And it was that Protestant worldview that Jews like Louis B. Mayer felt was their duty to bring the public.”

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“The formula for the biblical epic was eight reels of Roman orgy and one reel of Christian Redemption,” says humorist John Bloom, who often masquerades as redneck movie critic Joe Bob Briggs and hosted a segment on the early “Daily Show” called “God Stuff” that he describes as “Talk Soup” with televangelists. “And so you have a movie like ‘Sign of the Cross’ that comes out in 1932, and all we remember about it is Claudette Colbert naked in the milk bath. But you probably could not have made that movie in 1934, after the Production Code clampdown.”

Disembodied boom from above

IN response, Hollywood adopted the oblique strategy of substituting quirky angels (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Angels in the Outfield,” “Here Comes Mr. Jordan,” “The Bishop’s Wife”) or alien emissaries (“The Day the Earth Stood Still”) as metaphysical go-betweens.

When religious spectacle returned in the ‘50s as a natural complement to the widescreen process (“The first Cinemascope movie was ‘The Robe,’ ” says Streible), Jesus was at first largely peripheral to the action -- viewed in shadow in “Ben-Hur,” a cameo in “Barabbas,” replaced by his clothing in “The Robe” and his cup in “The Silver Chalice.” And God was no more than a celestial voice with sonic echo in John Huston’s “The Bible” and DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments” (in both instances, voiced by the director).

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Even with the return of the full-bodied Christ in Nicholas Ray’s “King of Kings” in 1961, notes AFI senior lecturer James Hosney, “They had to shave Jeffrey Hunter’s armpits for the scene on the cross. So if they were that squeamish about Jesus having armpit hair, imagine how they’d feel about portraying God.”

This tradition of God discarnate as a Mr. Microphone in the sky is residually still with us. When comedian Eddie Izzard featured God in his stand-up act, he settled on the voice of James Mason, which Judy Garland once described as “enough to ride home on.” Actors as diverse as John Gielgud, Graham Chapman, Tim Curry, Bill Cosby and Jack Black have appeared as the voice of God, and animated comedies are a frequent venue for divine cameos: Leslie Nielsen in “Herman’s Head,” James Garner channeling Jerry Garcia in the eponymous “God, the Devil and Bob” and recurring callbacks on “Family Guy,” “South Park” and “The Simpsons.”

Bill Oakley was a “Simpsons” show runner during the 1997 season when he cast a coyote “spirit guide” in a Carlos Castaneda parody with Johnny Cash. “In terms of casting God,” he says, “I suspect that the one thing that binds every person who’s ever played God together is that they always have a really deep voice. Morgan Freeman, James Earl Jones, I bet. Johnny Cash. On ‘The Simpsons,’ the person who actually did play God a couple of times was Harry Shearer, doing his deepest basso profundo.”

The devil you say

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DESPITE the counterculture Jesus on display in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell” and their offshoots (a biker in “J.C.,” a zoot-suited dandy in “Greaser’s Palace”), the ‘70s were undoubtedly the devil’s decade in cinema, the door having been opened with “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968 and going on to include “The Exorcist” and “The Omen” and their many sequels and derivatives. When he did appear, God was the implicit force behind the black monolith in “2001" or the aging classical patriarch with flowing robes and white beard who is assassinated in the animated “Heavy Traffic.” Says AFI’s Hosney: “Certainly in ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ when she’s in the gynecologist’s office and she picks up the Time magazine that says ‘Is God Dead?’ -- something like ‘Oh, God!’ at decade’s end is in a way a response to the late ‘60s and ‘70s and the whole idea of the death of God.”

Bruce Jay Friedman’s “Steambath,” a stage play filmed for PBS in 1973, featured Jose Perez as a Puerto Rican janitor named Morty (like “death,” in Latin) who moonlights as a custodial God in a tiled purgatory and tries to demonstrate his all-encompassing power with card tricks. And the syndicated half-hour religious series “Insight,” produced by the Catholic order the Paulists, featured Flip Wilson, Bob Newhart and many others as a comical deity throughout the ‘70s.

But it was George Burns in “Oh, God” and its two sequels -- “Oh, God! Book II” and “Oh, God! You Devil” -- who ushered in the era of the Alternative God that prevails: Stunt casting that is often counterintuitive and good-naturedly borders on blasphemy, and is as much a measure of showbiz primacy as theological ordination.

Choosing a hapless supermarket manager played by John Denver as his reluctant messiah, Burns sets the template for future religious comedies, including “Evan Almighty”: “I’m tired of all the talk that I may be dead, that I never was at all, or that God is just particles of cosmos and gas,” he says. “I’m not gas. I found that very insulting.”

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Barbara Hall executive produced “Joan of Arcadia” for its two seasons on CBS, which starred Amber Tamblyn as basically Joan of Arc in high school. As such, Hall dealt with this issue weekly, as the protagonist routinely received supernatural communiques from Skateboarder God, Nigerian Doctor God, Arbus Twins God and scores of others.

“The whole conceit of the show was you couldn’t put a personification on God,” says Hall, a Catholic who writes a religious blog, TheHallMonitor.com. “What people get hung up on, in terms of their inability to make the leap, is that it’s so hard for us not to think of God as a human person with human emotions. How can you shake up people’s image they have of God -- this old guy in the sky -- if that’s the big stumbling block? So God was different every time.”

However perfect the casting, Freeman is not the only supreme being of color on display of late. As it happens, Tucker Smallwood, another veteran actor of color, recently appeared as Black God in what was to have been the pilot of “The Sarah Silverman Program” on Comedy Central, but which was ultimately broadcast as its season finale in March. In the episode, Smallwood appears to Silverman in a white suit and tie in an immaculate white heaven, ultimately sleeps with her and gets to deliver the line, “Who made you, monkey?”

In an essay on his website (www.tuckersmallwood.com) titled “God and Sarah,” Smallwood struggles with such theological questions as why does God wear boxers and whether he will suffer the same fate as Salman Rushdie. “He’s really anthropomorphized, I think,” says Smallwood of his character and his justifications for taking the role. “We’re living in a time of religious extremism. We are very partisan; there’s not very much listening to the other side. I guess maybe it would be more intimidating to a mere mortal.”

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