Once Jesus signed on, it was easy to enlist King Solomon and Moses.
Jim Caviezel (Jesus), Malcolm McDowell (King Solomon) and Richard Dreyfuss (Moses) were among hundreds of actors who lined up to create “The Word of Promise Audio Bible,” all 98 hours and 79 CDs of it.
The nearly four-year project, released last month,was the inspiration of Carl Amari, a Chicago-area producer behind “Twilight Zone Radio Dramas,” “Mystery Theater” and other radio programs.
“I always thought it would be cool to do a radio drama of the Bible,” said Amari, who grew up “not real religious” in the Catholic Church. “You’re dramatizing the greatest story ever told. It’s God’s word. How can you make God’s word lift off the page? With great actors, great sound effects and music.”
Amari pitched the concept in early 2006 to Thomas Nelson Inc., a Nashville-based publisher of Christian books, software and videos. He was an admirer of the company’s 1982 modern translation of the King James Bible.
When Amari projected that the venture would cost $4 million, the entire Thomas Nelson board of directors “looked at me,” he recalled. It would be a leap of faith, given that the company’s previous audio Bibles had cost at most $17,000 to produce. Then again, just 20,000 copies constituted a bestseller.
Amari assured the directors they could sell millions of his audio Bibles if he had the resources to hire household-name actors and back them up with an original score and feature-film quality sound effects.
(Plague of frogs? Just imagine the sound of raw chicken breasts being smacked on the ground.)
Performing the Bible verbatim from Genesis to Revelation was a huge undertaking, involving more than 1,000 actors, technicians and musicians.
JoBe Cerny, a voice-over and character actor perhaps best known as the voice of the Pillsbury Doughboy, directed 175,000 takes over four years, Amari said. Stefano Mainetti, an Italian film and TV composer, wrote the music and conducted a 150-piece orchestra.
Stars included Max von Sydow (Noah), who portrayed Jesus in the 1965 epic “The Greatest Story Ever Told"; Gary Sinise (David), Louis Gossett Jr. (John), Marisa Tomei (Mary Magdalene), Jason Alexander (Joseph), Luke Perry (Judas) and Marcia Gay Harden (Esther).
And what can Martin Jarvis, a British voice-over actor, possibly do for an encore after playing God?
As narrator of testaments old and new, stage and screen veteran Michael York logged more than 500 hours of recording time -- much of it in Hollywood’s Margarita Mix studio.
Although York had never studied the Bible, he said anyone who has performed Shakespeare, as he has, knows that the Bard’s work is rife with biblical references.
“In his day, everyone knew” the Bible, York said. “We live in less faithful times. So it was wonderful to come across these stories that underpin so much of Western literature and thought.”
The first portion of the project, the New Testament, was released in 2007 and honored as the Christian Book of the Year for 2008 by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Assn. It was the first audio Bible to receive the award and has sold more than 700,000 copies. Producing the Old Testament proved far more arduous.
With its vivid language and dramatic happenings -- rocks splitting, tremors quaking, weeping and gnashing of teeth -- the Good Book lends itself to audio treatment, which allows listeners to use their imaginations.
“It’s verbal Cinerama,” York said.
That was something Caviezel, who had worked with Amari on a film years ago, understood when he agreed to reprise the role of Jesus he had played in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ.”
Stacy Keach straddled both texts, reading the parts of Job in the Old Testament and Paul in the New Testament. As Job, he said, “I was constantly wrestling with the notion of how a merciful God could give Satan license to do these terrible things to Job. He was left with absolutely nothing.” Job’s enduring devotion was a lesson, Keach said. He added that he had long been fascinated by the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who became a missionary after experiencing a vision of Jesus while on his way to Damascus to stamp out budding Christians.
John Heard (Matthew) had the tongue-twisting task of reciting the “begots,” the genealogy of Jesus Christ. An excerpt: “Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel begot Abiud, Abiud begot Eliakim, and Eliakim begot Azor.”
“Zerubbabel” was a bugbear, said co-producer Brenda Noel, who spent hours on the telephone each day coaching actors and foley artists on pronunciation, theology and customs. (“What does a sacrifice sound like?” one asked. “Have you ever been to a slaughterhouse?” she replied.) Noel coached York by speaking into his ear as he read. “I think he heard me in his sleep for a while,” she said.
At one point, York quipped that he was having “troubleble with Zerubbabel.” “Philistines” was another issue. While recording the New Testament, Noel said, York and others pronounced the word as it is typically heard, with the accent on the first syllable.
For the Old Testament recordings, Noel used “That’s Easy for You to Say,” a popular guide that emphasized the second syllable, as in Phil-IS-tines. So the word is pronounced one way in the New Testament and another in the Old, she said.
In the beginning, York said, he fretted over whether he and the other performers could do justice to the Bible. “For some people,” he said, “this is the word of God, not metaphorically but literally.”
The audio Bible, sold in a box about the size of a child’s jack-in-the-box toy, is available at Christian bookstores and online through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other outlets. Information is available at https://thewordofpromise.thomasnelson.com and www.wordofpromisebible.com.