March 31st, 2011
01:00 AM ET
By Steve Almasy, CNN
(CNN) - It’s not impossible to be a Christian in Hollywood, Lee Stanley will tell you. What it does take is guts - the same guts it takes to be a Christian anywhere, he says.
Stanley wasn’t a believer when he moved from New England to California in the 1960s. He was in love with a fantasy – not the idea of making it big on the big screen, but being around the water all the time.
The aspiring baseball player had realized he wasn’t going to make it to the major leagues, so he turned to another passion - diving. He had no idea the trek West would lead him on the road to becoming a filmmaker who tells stories of redemption and faith.
Stanley details his life in “Faith in the Land of Make-Believe,” published this month by Zondervan. In a phone interview from his boat, he said he wrote the book to “to encourage people that have wandered away or lost the confidence in the things that have been on their heart for years.”
For years Stanley was lost, he just didn’t know it, he said. He spent his youth caring only about himself. He was raised to never show a weakness. He just wanted to have fun, make a little cash and spend time in the water off Catalina Island. He even thought about taking off on a tramp steamer setting sail for Greece, where he could do some diving.
But a friend of a friend knew people in the movie business, and Stanley - then 19 - got a job as an extra on a Frank Sinatra film. He was intrigued by the industry, so he took other bit parts in film and television and soon signed with MGM. In 1966, he was considered for the part of Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate,” but it went to Dustin Hoffman instead. His last acting role was in 1972’s “The Candidate,” where he appeared alongside Robert Redford.
He was beyond bored, though. Too much sitting around and waiting, he says. So he started making documentaries. His distributor was a kind man named Dave Adams.
Adams invited Stanley over for brunch with his wife but said they were going to church first. Stanley tried to get out of it, saying he had no jacket or tie and wouldn’t be presentable. Adams told him to come as he was. Stanley agreed - to appease the man with the money.
They went to Church on the Way in Van Nuys, where a few hundred eager people were waiting for the first service to let out. He went from blasé to curious. Then the doors opened, and the smiling churchgoers spilled out. Now Stanley really wanted to see what was inside.
He says it hit him right away once inside. He calls it The Voice. It said, “Welcome home. We have a lot of things to do together.”
Stanley embraced making faith-based films and documentaries, but he chose not to make them overly Christian. As an example of what he didn’t want to do, he remembered a film he saw shortly after moving to Hollywood. It was a beautiful work that touched all of his emotions, he said, but the one he felt at the end was anger.
“It became a 10-minute, finger-pointing altar call,” he says. “I felt trapped and betrayed.”
That’s not the way to win over non-believers or people struggling with their faith, he thought, not on screen nor in person.
“I don’t lead with scripture any more than I expect people that have their own faith to constantly try to push me into it,” he said.
On the other hand, when a studio or distributor pushed back on the themes of his movies, he would not compromise. He remained steadfast and worked with the people who accepted his philosophy.
“I’ve been in a lot of good fights,” he says. “Sometimes I was a winner, sometimes I got kicked back where I belonged.”
His commitment led to an award-winning documentary, “Desperate Passage.” After meeting a youth offender at a correctional institution, Stanley found it in his heart to make a documentary about young criminals. In an unusual move, he petitioned the court to release seven juveniles into his custody, so that he could film them during a 10-day sail on his yacht.
It took four years to get permission.
“Everything I was asking for was illegal,” he says. “You weren’t supposed to take pictures of young offenders. I also asked to have my pick of the kids, and there were no guards [on the trip].”
The struggles didn’t end after shooting wrapped. No TV station wanted to air the documentary. Two years later, a Los Angeles station director agreed to show it, and it got tremendous ratings. It won two Emmys and confirmed his mission in life.
“We all have a God-ordained purpose in our life, but I have to add to that because I learned … that before he will lead us into each stage of our purpose, drawing us closer and closer, he has to do things in our life so we when we get to that next stage, we won’t misfire, destroy or lose,” he says.
“That’s the wonderful thing about God.”
Stanley and his third wife, Linda, are sailing these days as he writes the screenplay of his next project. It’s a victory story, he says.
It appears the same can be said for his.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.