Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner was born on January 14, 1944 in Long Beach, California. The name "Marjoe" is a combination of the names "Mary" and "Joseph".
When Marjoe was three, his father, a second generation evangelical minister, noticed his son's talent for mimicry and overall fearlessness of strangers and public settings. His parents claimed Marjoe had received a vision from God during a bath and began training him to deliver sermons, complete with dramatic gestures and emphatic lunges. By the time Marjoe was four, his parents arranged for him to perform a marriage ceremony for a film crew from Paramount studios, referring to him as "the youngest ordained minister in history." Like much in Marjoe's early life it is hard to say for sure who exactly ordained him, if his father ordained him, or if he was even ordained at all.
Until the time he was a teenager, Marjoe and his parents traveled the rural United States, holding revival meetings. As well as teaching him scriptural passages, Marjoe's parents also taught him several money-making tactics, involving the sale of supposedly "holy" articles at revivals which promised to heal the sick and dying. By the time Marjoe was sixteen, he later estimated, his family had amassed maybe three million dollars; shortly after his sixteenth birthday, Marjoe's father absconded with the money, and a disillusioned Marjoe left his mother for San Francisco, where he was taken in by and became the lover of an older woman. Marjoe spent the remainder of his teenage years as an itinerant hippie until his early twenties, when, hard pressed for money, he decided to put his old skills to work and re-emerged on the evangelical circuit with a charismatic stage-show modeled after those of contemporary rockers, most notably Mick Jagger. Marjoe made enough to take six months off every year, during which he returned to California, surviving on the previous six months' earnings.
In the late 1960s, Marjoe suffered a crisis of conscience -- in particular about the threats of damnation he felt compelled to weave into his sermons -- and resolved to make one final tour, this time on film. Under the pretense of making a documentary on the evangelical and non-denominational faiths, Marjoe assembled a documentary film crew to follow him around the Southern United States during 1971; unknown to everyone else involved -- including, at one point, his father -- Marjoe gave "backstage" interviews to the filmmakers in between sermons and revivals, explaining intimate details of how he and other ministers operated. After sermons, the filmmakers were invited back to Marjoe's hotel room to tape him counting the money he collected during the day. The resulting film, Marjoe
, won the 1972 Academy Award for best documentary.
After leaving the revival circuit, Gortner then attempted to break into both Hollywood and the recording industry. He cut an LP with Columbia Records, entitled "Bad, But Not Evil" (Gortner's description of himself in the documentary), which met with poor sales and reviews. Gortner began his acting career with a featured role in "The Marcus-Nelson Murders", the 1973 pilot for the Kojak
TV-series. The following year saw him featured in the disaster film Earthquake
as a psychotic National Guardsman, and in the television movie Pray For The Wildcats
During the late 1970s, Marjoe attempted to self-finance another film, this time a pseudo-fictional drama about an evangelist con-man and based in part on his real-life experiences. The film began shooting in New Orleans, Louisiana, but went bankrupt less than 6-weeks into production. The film was never completed.
Gortner was married briefly to Candy Clark, from 1978-1979.
Gortner's most memorable film performance was as the psychopathic, hostage-taking drug dealer in Milton Katselas's 1979 screen adaptation of Mark Medoff's play When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?, also starring Peter Firth, Lee Grant, and Hal Linden.
Gortner reappeared a few years later, starring in several B-movies such as Starcrash and hosting an early-1980's reality TV series called Speak Up America before ending his movie career in 1995. Today he sponsors charity golf tournaments and other events.
His most recent film appearance was in the 1995 feature Wild Bill, where he played, appropriately enough, a preacher.
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