The touch of Martha Williamson

By Steve Beard

For nine seasons, “Touched By An Angel” ruled Sunday night television. For CBS, it was the touch of Martha Williamson that took a disaster-waiting-to-happen idea and turned it into top ten hit. Known around CBS as the “Jesus Girl” because she went to church, Williamson was brought in to discuss a pilot about angels that was so bad she originally turned it down. Later, however, she came to realize that this was the opportunity that she had been praying for.

“I know how to make this show,” she told the network executives, “but I am not going to do this. If you want a show about angels, you have to do a show about God, and if you do a show about God, you have to realize that you are messing with 24 million people’s individual opinions of who God is. There is only one way that we can do this successfully and that is to use the Bible as our source.”

Writers don’t usually have the opportunity to speak to network brass with such bravado, but Williamson concluded she had nothing to lose. “They were desperate,” she recalls with a laugh.

Martha Williamson spoke to me about the release of the first complete season of “Touched By An Angel” on DVD. Raised a United Methodist in Denver, Williamson humorously confessed that she caused a stir early on as president of her church’s Methodist Youth Fellowship by using a gambling casino as a fund-raising tool. If you watch closely, however, you will notice that the church in a number of the episodes is named Washington Park – a grateful nod to the congregation of her childhood. What follows is a excerpt of the conversation.

What is it that 22 million Americans saw in “Touched by Angel” that TV critics didn’t?
For one thing, there are a whole lot of people who live between New York and Los Angeles. And a lot of them – and I would venture to say that most of them – are, in fact, people of faith. There were a lot of people who were getting tired of what they were seeing on television – not unlike today, I might add. Ten years ago, there were a lot of people who had literally stopped watching television or who were watching cable or buying videos, particularly families with children. They were just disgusted with what they were seeing..

There are far more people of faith out there than network television ever wanted to acknowledge. Those people were getting very tired of always seeing themselves depicted only in the negative. If you ever saw someone who believed in God or was a “Christian,” they were the fanatic, the lunatic, the mass murder, the abusive parent, and usually an idiot. I was tired of it.

What was the first season like?
I look at that particular first season as sort of a map-watching a show find its way through. They only gave us six episodes to do. They did not think the show would survive. Then it sort of hung on and they said, “Ok, here is a seventh. Now you can do eight and nine – you can do two more.” We were just scrambling. Sometimes the shows that you will see on these DVDs were written in a week because that was all the time that the network would give us.

Is it fair to say that CBS was more startled by the success than you were?
Absolutely. I knew we would survive if they would give us a chance. I think CBS was so busy, so preoccupied and distracted with other problems  that they did not pay too much attention to us. One day they turned around and said, “Good heavens, the show is still there.”

Did they ever send anyone to the set to rein you in?
No.

You did not speak of Jesus Christ explicitly. I have heard Christians complain about that. But it seemed to me that once a week you got a shot to say, “God loves you and you are not alone.”
That’s right. I can tell you that there were a lot of letters that said you should use the name of Jesus on the show. My answer was this: We use the words of Jesus, we used the heart of Jesus, and you can see Jesus there if you look really carefully. But I wasn’t hired to do a show about Jesus. They hired me to do a show about angels. And they wanted these angels to fly and have wings. We are darn lucky that we were able to put any of this in there at all.

Had you gone in and tried to plug these things in a belligerent way, I assume you would have been fired.

You put your finger on the challenge that any Christian in entertainment has always had. If any Christian writer or producer walked into a network and said, “I want to do a Christian television show. I want to do a show about God’s love and a show about Jesus,” they would have laughed you out. You probably would not have even gotten the appointment in the first place. The secret to influencing the content of network television is to be prepared when the opportunity comes..

Jesus changed the world with love. He didn’t beat people over the head. I just knew that I had to be good at what I did, remain faithful and trust that when the opportunity came that I would be ready. And I would be blessed to recognize it. That is a story in itself because I originally turned down “Touched By An Angel.” The original show that they had in mind was so horrible I thought, “I can’t do this.” That is when God said, “Hello, opportunity knocking. Knock, knock, knock. Hello, wake up!”

The network had the notion that people die and become angels, correct?
I had to tell them angels are not recycled dead people. Angels are created beings by God. They said, “Well did you just make that up?” They literally thought that I had made that up. I said, “No, that is in the Bible.” They said, “Well, what else is in the Bible?”

You have to remember that they didn’t care if I used the Bible as my source material or if used “I Dream of Jeannie” as my source material. What they cared about was money. They wanted to know how much it was going to cost to retool this show. And I said it will cost more if I have to go away and make up a brand new series than if we just look at the Bible, which is already here and tells us what angels are.

What was the reaction at CBS?
What was really interesting to me was how many network executives would take me aside privately and tell me that they have tried to keep a professional distance from the show but personally they were deeply moved by the content of the show.

Did you always believe the show would be a success?
I always knew the audience was there. I always knew that there were good people with good hearts who wanted to explore difficult issues through a different lens. They didn’t want to see it always through the eye of a cynical Hollywood television writer who maybe was doing his fifth or sixth or seventh television series and had pretty much lost hope in not only the process, but in life itself. I have seen those people and I know those people and they are just cranking it out. I just knew that there were people who wanted to see themselves reflected as they were-which was hopeful people of faith who wanted to explore new answers to old familiar questions.

What have you been doing since the show ended last year?
We adopted two little girls from China. They are just the joy of our lives..We ended up adopting our second baby, literally a month after the show was over. We went to China, right in the middle of the SARS epidemic. We just decided to take a year off and take it easy..

We are taking a lot of meetings. We are sorting through it. To be honest, we are praying about it all the time. God knows what we are going to do next.

Steve Beard is the creator of Thunderstruck. This appeared in Good News in 2004.

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