Marjoe Gortner

Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner (born January 14, 1944) is a former evangelist preacher and actor. He first gained public attention during the late 1940s when his parents arranged for him to be ordained as a preacher at age four, due to his extraordinary speaking ability. He was the youngest known in that position. As a young man, he preached on the revival circuit and brought celebrity to the revival movement.[1]

Marjoe Gortner
Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner

(1944-01-14) January 14, 1944
OccupationChristian revivalist, actor
Years active1957–1995
Spouse(s)Agnes Benjamin
(m. 19?71; div. 19??)
Candy Clark
(m. 1978; div. 1979)

He became a celebrity again during the 1970s when he starred in Marjoe (1972), a behind-the-scenes documentary about the lucrative business of Pentecostal preaching. This won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. This documentary now is noted as one of the most vehement criticisms of Pentecostal preaching.[2]

Early life

Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner was born in 1944 in Long Beach, California, into a family with a long evangelical heritage.[2][3] The name "Marjoe" is a portmanteau of the biblical names "Mary" and "Joseph".[4][5][lower-alpha 1] His father, Vernon Robert Gortner, was a third-generation Christian evangelical minister who preached at revivals.[4] His mother Marge, who has been labelled as "exuberant," was the person who introduced him as a preacher, and is notable for his success as a child.[2] Vernon noticed his son's talent for mimicry and his fearlessness of strangers and public settings. His parents claimed that the boy had received a vision from God during a bath, and he started preaching. Marjoe later said this was a fictional story that his parents forced him to repeat. He claimed they compelled him to do this by using mock-drowning episodes; they did not beat him as they did not want to leave bruises that might be noticed during his many public appearances.[7]

They trained him to deliver sermons, complete with dramatic gestures and emphatic lunges. When he was four, his parents arranged for him to perform a marriage ceremony attended by the press, including photographers from Life and Paramount studios.[4][8][lower-alpha 2] Until his teenage years, Gortner and his parents traveled throughout the United States holding revival meetings,[9] and by 1951 his younger brother Vernoe had been incorporated into the act.[10] As well as teaching Marjoe scriptural passages, his parents also taught him several money-raising tactics, including the sale of supposedly "holy" articles at revivals. He would promise that such items could be used to heal the sick and dying.

By the time he was sixteen, his family had amassed what he later estimated to be three million dollars. Shortly after Gortner's sixteenth birthday, his father absconded with the money.[11] Disillusioned, Gortner then left his mother for San Francisco.

In the years that followed, Gortner took a break from preaching. He grew resentful of his parents and bitter over the childhood they had forced upon him. At age 20, Gortner considered suing his parents, but never did so.


Gortner spent the remainder of his teenage years as an itinerant beatnik.[12] Hard pressed for money in his early twenties, he decided to put his old skills to work and re-emerged on the preaching circuit with a charismatic stage show modeled after those of contemporary rock stars, most notably Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. He made enough money to take six months off every year, during which he returned to California and lived off his earnings before returning to the circuit.

In the late 1960s, Gortner experienced a crisis of conscience about his double life. He decided his performing talents might be put to use as an actor or singer. When approached by documentarians Howard Smith and Sarah Kernochan, he agreed to let their film crew follow him throughout 1971 on a final tour of revival meetings in California, Texas, and Michigan.

Unbeknownst to everyone involved  including, at one point, his father  he gave "backstage" interviews to the filmmakers between sermons and revivals, some including other preachers, explaining intimate details of how he and other ministers operated. The filmmakers also shot footage of him while counting the money he had collected during the day, later in his hotel room. The resulting film, Marjoe, won the 1972 Academy Award for best documentary.[13]

Gortner capitalized on the success of the documentary.[4] Oui magazine hired him to cover Millennium '73, a November 1973 festival headlined by the "boy guru" Guru Maharaj Ji.[14] He cut an LP with Chelsea Records entitled Bad, but Not Evil,[15] named after his description of himself in the documentary.[5]

He began his acting career with a featured role in The Marcus-Nelson Murders, the 1973 pilot for the Kojak TV series.[16] In 1974, he made several appearances in film and television. In the disaster film, Earthquake, he was Sgt. Jody Joad,[17] a psychotic grocery manager-turned-National Guardsman, the main antagonist. He starred in the television movies The Gun and the Pulpit and Pray for the Wildcats, and appeared in an episode of Nakia, a 1974 police drama on ABC.

Gortner portrayed the psychopathic, hostage-taking drug dealer in Milton Katselas's 1979 screen adaptation of Mark Medoff's play When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?. He starred in a number of B-movies including The Food of the Gods (1976),[4] Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw (1976),[16] and Starcrash (1978).

In the early 1980s, Gortner hosted the short-lived reality TV series, Speak Up, America.[18] He also appeared frequently in the 1980s Circus of the Stars specials.[19] He also played a terrorist preacher in a second-season episode of Airwolf, and appeared on Falcon Crest as corrupt psychic-cum-medium "Vince Karlotti" (1986–87).[18] His last role was as a preacher in the western Wild Bill (1995).

Personal life

In 1971, Gortner married Agnes Benjamin, who had appeared in his documentary.[20] From 1978 to December 14, 1979, Gortner was married to actress Candy Clark.[21] Until 2009, Gortner produced Celebrity Sports Invitational charity golf tournaments and ski events to raise money for charities such as the Dream Foundation and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s Waterkeeper Alliance, retiring in January 2010.

Stage play and film retrospective

In 2007, the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival commissioned actor and writer Brian Osborne to write a one-man play about Gortner. The play, The Word, premiered at the Festival with Suli Holum as director and main collaborator. In 2010, the play was recreated as The Word: A House Party for Jesus, with director Whit MacLaughlin. The new play opened October 14, 2010, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and has since been performed in New York (the Soho Playhouse), Los Angeles, Philadelphia (the 2011 NET Festival),[22] and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater), with other productions planned for Austin, Chicago, and Minneapolis.

In 2008, the Melbourne Underground Film Festival in Melbourne, Australia held the first retrospective of the cinematic works of Marjoe Gortner as part of their ninth festival.[23]


Year Title Role Notes
1974Pray for the WildcatsTerry MaxonTV movie
1974The Gun and the PulpitErnie ParsonsTV movie
1976Bobbie Jo and the OutlawLyle Wheeler
1976Acapulco GoldRalph Hollio
1976The Food of the GodsMorgan
1976Mayday at 40,000 Feet!GrecoTV movie
1977Viva Knievel!Jessie
1977Sidewinder 1Digger
1979When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?Teddy
1983MausoleumOliver Farrell
1984Jungle WarriorsLarry Schecter
1985Matt HoustonJoseph CannonEpisode: "The Adjuster"
1985HellholeDr. Dane
1987The SurvivalistLt. Youngman
1989American Ninja 3: Blood HuntThe Cobra
1990Fire, Ice and DynamiteDan Selby
1995Wild BillPreacher(final film role)

See also


  1. The formation of his name from combining the names of Mary and Joseph is alluded to in numerous sources; however, some early sources state that he was named for his mother, Marge.[6] cf. His brother's name, Vernoe, father, Vernon; and sister's name, Starloe.
  2. The ceremony was performed on January 2,[8] just 12 days before Gortner's fifth birthday, leading to differing reports as to his age.


  1. Harrell, David (1975). All Things are Possible. Ontario: Indiana University Press. p. 234. ISBN 0253100909.
  2. Cooper, Travis (2013). "Marjoe Gortner, Imposter Revivalist: Toward a Cognitive Theory of Religious Misbehavior". PentecoStudies.
  4. Stowe, David W. (2011). No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism. University of North Carolina Press. pp. 121–122. ISBN 9780807834589.
  5. Crist, Judith (July 24, 1972). "Machine-made 'Man'". New York Magazine: 57. ISSN 0028-7369.
  6. Meyer, Robert (January 7, 1949). "How Can They Condemn Me?". Ottawa Citizen. Retrieved 2015-02-08.
  7. Jason Schafer (February 27, 2015). "'A lot of people do bad things': The bizarre tale of child evangelist turned conman, Marjoe Gortner". Dangerous Minds. Retrieved July 3, 2015.
  8. "Marjoe the Minister". Life. 26 (3). January 17, 1949. Retrieved 2013-02-09.
  9. "Marjoe Continues by Popular Demand (advertisement)". The Tuscaloosa News. March 16, 1951. p. 2. Retrieved 2015-02-07.
  10. "World's Youngest Evangelists (advertisement)". The Tuscaloosa News. September 22, 1951. p. 2. Retrieved 2015-02-07.
  11. Stollznow, Karen (2013). "Kids of the Cloth: Childhood Preacher". Skeptic Magazine. 18 (3). Retrieved 20 August 2015.
  12. Robert Ebert (September 25, 1972). "Interview with Marjoe Gortner". Retrieved July 3, 2015.
  13. "Movies: Marjoe (1972) – Cast, Credits & Awards". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-05-02.
  14. Gortner, Marjoe (May 1974). "Who Was Maharaj Ji?". Oui.
  15. "Album Reviews". Billboard. 84 (47): 24. November 18, 1972. ISSN 0006-2510.
  16. "Marjoe Gortner – About this person". The New York Times. Retrieved 2013-05-10.
  17. Mansour, David (2011). From Abba to Zoom: A Pop Culture Encyclopedia of the Late 20th Century. Andrews McMeel. p. 137. ISBN 978-0-7407-9307-3.
  18. Brooks, Tim; Marsh, Earle F. (2009). The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows (9th ed.). Random House. p. 1281. ISBN 978-0-307-48320-1.
  19. Terrace, Vincent (1985). Encyclopedia of Television Series, Pilots and Specials. II. VNR AG. p. 91. ISBN 978-0-918432-61-2.
  20. Sewall-Ruskin, Yvonne. High on Rebellion: Inside the Underground at Max's Kansas City.
  21. State of California. California Divorce Index, 1966–1984. Microfiche. Center for Health Statistics, California Department of Health Services, Sacramento, California. p. 8613.
  22. "Genre-Defying Work". Network of Ensemble Theaters. Retrieved 2015-02-08.
  23. "MUFF9: Marjoe". Melbourne Underground Film Festival. October 2008. Retrieved 2015-02-08.
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