April 29, 2013

Robert Powell and His Portrayal of Jesus

By John Sanidopoulos

One of the most pivotal points in my complete conversion to Christianity happened in 1990 during Holy Week. This happened to be a year in which both Eastern and Western Christians celebrated Easter together. Being only 14 years old at the time, this was rare and the first in my memory, and it finally offered me the opportunity to celebrate Holy Week and Easter with the majority of the American people.

It was during this time that I first saw Franco Zeffirellis' 6-hour miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977) on television. It absolutely captivated me. I would watch it before and after going to church with my family over the three days it aired, and though by this time I was somewhat familiar with biblical prophecies, it was through this miniseries that I began to study the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus. Whenever a prophecy was mentioned, I would write it down and enthusiastically search through my Bible to find the references (this was before the days of the internet). What also stood out to me in this film was the rare reverential and dignified tone to the film and the absolutely superb acting of Robert Powell, the actor who played Jesus.

It is not a perfect film, but it has the most gems of any movie about Jesus, my favorite being when Jesus recounts the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It is said that Robert Powell trained himself to never blink when filming his scenes as Jesus for added effect, yet this is the only scene in which he can be observed to blink, since it is the longest continual shot of him in the entire film. One of my favorite acting scenes of all time is Gregory Peck's closing courtroom statement in To Kill A Mockingbird, which he performed completely in the first take. Robert Powell's performance in this scene is right up there for me as well.

My favorite recent interview with Robert Powell was in 2011, in which he mentions being in Cyprus for Orthodox Easter relatively recently and was bombarded by the Greeks who admired him for his role as Jesus. Here is the video clip:

Seeing how important this film is to me on my own personal Christian journey, I wanted to offer here some things Robert Powell, my favorite of all the Jesus' on film, has shared about playing Jesus and how this role played an impact on his own life.

Here is Robert Powell, in his own words, in an article by James Barclay in the May 1977 issue of Movie Stars magazine. Robert Powell reflects on his portrayal of Jesus in this interview that was conducted on the set as the movie was being filmed.

"Before I began this film, I had no particular interest in religion and absolutely no opinion of Christ. Now I do believe in Christ and His divinity, though I do not necessarily go to church. Prior to being cast in the part, my knowledge of Christ was limited to Sunday school teachings and religious stories, all on a rather immature level. I knew this would never be enough for me as an actor to work with in developing a character. So I read the Bible through thoroughly, which I’d never done before, taking it apart and analyzing it. I also consulted works of reference and commentaries on the Bible because I wanted to obtain other people’s ideas as well. An actor has to be objective when interpreting a part. Nonetheless, after playing Christ for all these months, it would be difficult not to really believe in him….

Several scenes have particularly moved me, such as the filming of the Sermon on the Mount. Franco shot it just as the sun hit the groves of cypress and olive trees and came across the fields. But generally, it was fairly dark and the hundreds of extras descending in groups, illuminated by the fires they made to keep themselves warm, made a stunning sight. Halfway through the scene, I was so affected by its beauty that I began to cry. Franco decided to keep that in the movie, just as it was.

My interpretation of Christ doesn’t bear a relationship to any other actor’s handling of the part in previous movies about Him. I hadn’t seen any of these other films, like The Greatest Story Ever Told and King of Kings, and thought it better, actually, that I hadn’t.

I see Christ as a combination of man and God. He is a man who went against the political winds of the time. He is not an angry Christ, though he is capable of extreme indignation. Nor is he a cozy man. He never does anything by degrees and expects the same from others. His followers must give away not a few thing, but everything, before they come with Him.

The one moment when God does leave Christ is when He is nailed to the cross. It is, of course, God’s master stroke, having Christ die in the same manner as any human being. There’s nothing to it because he knows Christ will go on, that he is immortal.

Theoretically, the Crucifixion was not supposed to be a difficult scene for me. But I was slightly nervous, nevertheless, perhaps due to the fact I’d literally starved myself on a diet of cheese for 12 days before the shooting, in order to look worn.

I was bound to a horizontal bar, which I carried on my back through a section of the street. It was terribly heavy, because Franco insisted that the tremendous weight would put the right feeling of sufferance into me. It did. At the spot of the Crucifixion I was lifted, by means of ropes and trained stuntmen, to the vertical bar which formed the cross.

Unfortunately, on the first take the horizontal bar began to slip down. I could have had my back broken if someone had not caught the rope controlling the bar and pulled it back up. As it was, my arms were lacerated. We did it on a pretty cold day, too, since it had to be shot against a rainy sky. I was fortunate not to have come down with the flu….

I have been asked if I thought Christ had a sex life. My feelings are that he did not….Christ’s energies were devoted 100 percent to his mission.

Sex, I feel, is not necessary for everybody. For example, I’ve been in work situations where all one’s drives are channeled into the job, and I was only using about two percent of my potential energy as compared to Christ. Also, one might remember that Christ was not just an ordinary man.

Sometimes I’m concentrating so hard on the part that I’m oblivious to people and objects about me on the set. For example, the other afternoon I walked into a grating and cut myself. I was lucky: I could have hurt myself badly.

Not only is the role taxing, but so are the elements which we’ve been up against. We’ve had sand blown in our faces by a wind machine and incense filling our lungs on numerous occasions. Franco wants to give the picture a feeling of age, like the old Italian paintings, which is why he has done all this.

I wouldn’t have known how to manage here without Babs (my wife). She’s kept me in tow so I could concentrate on the script. Babs has supplied me with coffee when I needed it and kept an eye, with only minor success, on my cigarette consumption!

Every day I feel very privileged to be playing this part, to be sharing the experience. Living this story, it is impossible not to be affected by it. I think that I am a much humbler person already. At the beginning, I thought of this project merely in terms of a script and visual images. But having to say the words of this man, who changed the course of life and history, the character has come alive for me and his ideas have become real."

Read also this linked article from the March 25th, 1977 issue of The Catholic Herald, titled "Actor says Jesus part 'hardest I've ever done".

Here is another article which offers more insights into his role as Jesus. Among the more interesting comments is this about the impact the film had on his brother:

"My brother is an atheist and he watched it with my parents and they said as the closing credits came up, after the crucifixion, he was very quiet and muttered, 'makes you think doesn't it'. So if I can turn an atheist to thinking, I count him as my biggest achievement."

Below also is Ernest Borgnine speaking a bit on the impact Jesus of Nazareth, in which he played a Roman centurion, had on him while on the set.