Some might look at Ken Wales and say he’s a fish out of water. That’s because the committed Christian has worked for decades in numerous capacities in a Hollywood film industry not usually noted for its affinity with the Christian faith. Yet Wales has not just survived in that milieu, he has thrived.
Wales was in southern Ontario recently, and spoke with The Interim during a break in engagements.
Wales might best be known for serving as the executive producer of the enormously popular television series Christy, which attracted 44 million viewers to its premiere on Easter Sunday, 1994. “I think (reaching) 44 million people on Easter Sunday night has to be one of the real joys of life,” he said. “We received just overwhelming numbers. Christy beat 60 Minutes. We had the number five show in the country that week …. We had a short season, only about six episodes, but received more cards, letters, and phone calls than any show in CBS history.”
The series capped a long and distinguished career for Wales, who first entered the media world at the age of eight by performing radio spots on a Kokomo, Indiana station. “I knew right then, when I started doing those juvenile parts on radio, that I was hooked.”
Glenn Ford Award
After his family moved to California when he was nine, Wales started performing in theatre productions in high school and eventually earned the distinction of receiving the Glenn Ford Award, which allowed him to study under the famous actor.
Wales also received the first Walt Disney Scholarship, which covered his fees for study at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema.
“I had a triple major in cinema, telecommunications, and electronic engineering,” said Wales. “And while at USC, I was under contract to MGM as an actor for feature films and television programs.”
After graduation, Wales began working as an associate director, associate producer and producer with acclaimed director Blake Edwards. The pair produced such films as The Tamarind Seed, with Julie Andrews and Omar Sharif; Wild Rovers, starring William Holden and Ryan O’Neal; The Great Race, with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis; and Revenge of the Pink Panther, starring Peter Sellers.
After 15 years, Wales and Edwards parted. “It was time for me to get out and do my own films individually,” said Wales. “Around 1975, I became aware of Christy, a planned feature film at MGM in 1969.” Production of Christy never got off the ground at MGM, however.
“I always wondered what had happened to Christy,” said Wales. “I ran, got the book, and read all 500 pages in two days. I knew the book was very, very special. The book has sold eight million copies and been read by 35 million people. I knew when I first read it that it would be my obsession. I just had to see it done. I was committed.”
Wales called MGM about securing the rights to the story, but the studio would hear none of it. “I knew (the story) was made of good stuff: love, honour, humour, compassion, and—one that too often gets left out—sacrifice.”
When Wales contacted author Catherine Marshall, he was surprised to hear that Marshall had been praying that very morning for someone to do something positive with her story. “She saw this as a very direct answer to prayer,” he said.
The story was based on the experiences of Marshall’s mother as a young, struggling school teacher in 1912 amid the grinding poverty of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.
Wales continued trying for 10 more years, mortgaging his house and spending $300,000 to secure the rights to Christy from MGM, to no avail. Finally, a chance encounter at a church with MGM’s senior vice-president gave Wales a window of opportunity. He was advised that Ted Turner was poised to buy MGM, and that for a period of a few days during the commotion, little attention was going to be paid to rights-related questions. That was the break Wales needed.
MGM laid out terms that would allow Wales to hold a production option on Christy. Wales would have to come up with a great deal of production money every year while looking for a studio to produce the film, but he was willing to take the risk.
The situation worsened following the 1987 stock market crash, when investors in the project backed out. But by 1993, CBS Entertainment contacted him about Christy.
Wales wanted to run Christy as a television series, but the network was more interested in it as a feature film. When Wales resisted, CBS came up with a series with a similar premise—Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman—instead. A year later, Wales gave in, and agreed to run Christy as a feature film.
“This time, the answer was clear. I decided more people would be able to see Christy if it was a feature film. We went on the air Easter Sunday, April 3, 1994. It was extraordinary …. It had the highest rating of any CBS show that week.”
And so almost 20 years of effort had come to fruition.
Wales said his professional work has always been informed by his religious faith. “I was raised in a Christian home, my father was a minister for 53 years, and my mother was a teacher in the classroom and at Sunday school. I’ve been a Christian all my life. I’m still an elder in my church, and continue to feel that all the work I’m doing is a certain kind of ministry.”
He added his approach to evangelizing the Hollywood environment is based not on confrontation, but a more subtle and gentle approach. “We have to love even those who create what we don’t agree with. We must love people where they are,” he said. “A good, moral film most often doesn’t come from a person whose life is a mess. Their creation becomes a reflection of what’s going on in their life.”
Wales said there are reasons for optimism about the role of religion in Hollywood. “I think it’s improving. There is a lot of Christian groups right now.
“The important thing, though, is to not preach to each other in the choir. Christy was significant because it was the first prime-time series on network television where the hero or heroine did what they did because of their faith. Jesus Christ was at the very centre of that faith. We had hymns and prayers that were authentic. That was what made Christy very special.”
Wales noted that subsequent series with a religious theme, such as Touched by an Angel, would not have been developed and brought to air had Christy not been a ratings success.
‘Be sure to commend’
On the subject of Hollywood and the media in general, Wales advised concerned citizens not to put their hopes in boycotts when offensive programming is aired. “Boycotts are not as effective as we imagine them to be, because they’re not specific enough. If you’re going to condemn, you have to be sure to commend. Nothing is all bad or all good. We need to acknowledge both areas.”
Nonetheless, Wales had critical words for the cancelled series Nothing Sacred, which offended traditional Roman Catholics. “I understand Nothing Sacred and its attempt to be dramatic, but the attitude showed more shortcomings (among the clergy) than victories … I think the Catholic League that protested was probably right. (The show) just was not balanced.”
Wales doesn’t intend to rest on his laurels. He is planning to produce a sequel to the film Chariots of Fire, and bring to the screen the true Second World War story of the sinking of the ship Dorchester. In that incident, four chaplains gave up their lifejackets to the last four men on the ship, and prayed together before they drowned. “It’s one of the great incidents that came out of World War II,” said Wales.