There are three Marjoe Gortners: the first is "Little Marjoe", a moppet wunderkind born in 1944, who enthralled audiences for ten years from the ages of four to fourteen in the late Forties to the mid-Fifties, as "the world's youngest ordained minister". Working tent-show revivals in the South and West, he amassed three million dollars with his ready smile and precocious talents on several instruments, as well as preaching, before his father ran off with the money. He was also growing up: a fourteen-year-old preaching was less of a draw than a child, and he yearned to see a life that wasn't involved with tent shows, motels and church suppers. In San Diego, he told his mother good-bye, then split for San Francisco, where he found love with "an older, but very kind woman", and became a proto-hippie for a few years. Finally attending public school and a secular college was both calming and eye-opening; upon learning about then-current social issues, he resolved to use his talents to spread awareness, and to try to convert his old audience to a more enlightened way of thinking.
His second career came about when he returned to preaching as an adult as a way to earn easy money. Now a tall, handsome young man, with a leonine mane of red-golden hair, flashing long eyeteeth and haunted eyes, he would charm and inflame audiences, then, still smiling, would ask people for "the largest bill you have right now" for the collection plate. To his great credit, he preached sermons on the Vietnam War, of tolerance for different lifestyles, and civil rights, and even incorporated some of the theatrical style of rock musicians (Mick Jagger was a favorite) into his routine. It's also been noted that the content of his sermons are better-written and more intellectual than you'd expect in such a venue -- it's clear the guy's done his homework. Unfortunately, his new style flopped. "Where is the fire? We want to hear about the Blood of the Lamb!" was a common complaint, and somewhat reluctantly, he went back to his old topics of calling down hellfire for premarital sex, drinking and general carrying-on, preaching old-time Gospel across the South and Midwest half the year, and living off the proceeds as a sophisticated urban bohemian in San Francisco the other half. Although he had no real religious faith of his own, he'd acquired a conscience: the blatant hypocrisy of his situation rankled, and to remedy this, he consented to one last tour, accompanied with a film crew to unveil the seamy underbelly of the Pentecostal Church.
The resulting documentary, "Marjoe", was for many people, a revelation: at nine months old, he'd been taught to say "Hallelujah!" before "Mommy" or "Daddy". At two, he'd been taught how to hold a microphone and speak into it, and by four, his mother thoroughly coached him in the Marriage Ceremony from the Book of Common Prayer, and several sermons. At four and a half, he was filmed performing a wedding. Her discipline was harsh: any sign of rebellion or flubbed lines were met with smothering with a pillow, or holding him under water (in order not to leave marks on him). As time went on, they developed signals to each other, which included, "go faster", "slow up", and "you've gotten them ready, start asking for money". The resulting effect, as documented in the film, is unsettling: less a child than a tiny wind-up doll with a pipingly shrill voice, Shirley Temple cheerily ranting on about subjects that would baffle or horrify most children his age. (On seeing it the first time, all I could think of was the depiction of False Faith in "Tommy", though his adult persona looks the way I'd imagine Michael Valentine Smith.)
Footage of his adult ministry is just as lurid: during his services, people routinely faint, start babbling in tongues, and clutch bandanas marketed as "healing cloths". Not that many of the churches he visits are all that virtuous, either: ministers are shown dividing the money with him, calmly discussing investments in foreign real estate (paid for with "missionary" funds) and flashing expensive jewelry, while only an hour before, they'd been beseeching people to "sacrifice" money that could have been used to pay bills or warm clothing. (The film crew said they had tried to show a balanced sampling of ethical positions, but unfortunately, the one minister who seemed the most honest was jailed stealing cars while the film was in post-production.) Nonetheless, he appears to have a genuine respect for his audience, declaring himself "an entertainer", who'd gladly do his act as a humanist, but was forced by his audience to talk about sin and damnation. Without claiming to be a miracle-worker (in fact, he discusses how he'd paint crosses on his forehead with sweat-activated ink, and other bits of sleight-of-hand), he's candid about how his performances affect people: people actually do have visions, fall into ecstatic trances...and some are genuinely healed. At the end of the movie, he reflected on how he'd like to be a rock star...or an actor. The film won an Academy Award for Best Documentary, despite a near-total ban on its distribution in Southern States. For many years, this film languished in Not-to-VHS Hell, until 2002, when it was rediscovered, cleaned up and ported to DVD. With his blessing (pun intended), you can now see it on a variety of free sites, too.
Unfortunately, his background did not correspond well to an earthly career: although he had acted all his life, the pyrotechnics of the pulpit didn't translate well into the subtleties of film acting, and he acted in a string of mediocre B movies, usually roles in which his tendency to snack on scenery would be considered part of the character. Now a distinguished eminence grise in the Hollywood circuit, he's a well-known organizer of charity and sporting events, sometimes acting as an auctioneer. (He can talk fast. So sue him.) He's still into public speaking, however, lecturing to college audiences on "Rhetoric and Charisma"...he loves to show that even a skeptical audience member can be "slain in the Spirit", and swoon into his arms... simply by touching them. (Hint:hyperventilation.)