Keeping the Faith
The spiritual message of "It's a Wonderful Life" wasn't lost on its star, who had a real-life epiphany during the filming of the Christmas classic. Here, to mark the beginning of December—which has been designated Spiritual Literacy Month—is more on James Stewart and 44 other celebrities who've expressed varied but deeply held religious beliefs,
James Stewart: Presbyterian
"Dear Father in heaven ... show me the way," a desperate George Bailey prays in 1946's "It's a Wonderful Life." James Stewart later recalled performing that scene: "As I said those words, I felt the loneliness and hopelessness of people who had nowhere to turn, and my eyes filled with tears. I broke down sobbing. This was not planned at all, but the power of that prayer. The realization that our Father in heaven is there to help the hopeless had reduced me to tears."
Goldie Hawn: Jewish Buddhist
Her father was Presbyterian and her mother was Jewish, but Goldie has found her own spiritual path. Although she doesn't like to be pigeonholed, she has identified herself as a "Jewish Buddhist"—and a bit of a "Jesus freak."
Spencer Tracy: Catholic
He played an Irish-born priest in 1938's "Boys Town," and offscreen, too, Spencer Tracy was an avowed Roman Catholic. Despite his reported 26-year relationship with Katharine Hepburn, Tracy stayed married to his wife Louise until his death in 1967 (though he had left the family home many years earlier). When a friend asked Louise why they didn't divorce, she replied, "Well, he's a Catholic."
Michael Douglas: Jewish
Although his mother had an Anglican upbringing, Michael Douglas always identified as a secular Jew, like his famous dad, Kirk Douglas. But last year Michael won the Genesis Prize—aka the "Jewish Nobel"—and, in an L.A. Times op-ed piece, wrote that he had "developed a deep connection to Judaism" through his son Dylan. "[W]hen he started going to Hebrew school and studying for his bar mitzvah, I began to reconnect with the religion of my father."
Prince: Jehovah's Witness
Raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist, Prince claimed that an angel had cured him of epilepsy when he was a child. Then, in 2001, he became a Jehovah's Witness. He even went door to door proselytizing for the religion. In 2003, a Jewish couple living near Minneapolis reported that the rock star knocked on their door one Sunday. Holding a Bible, he introduced himself as Prince Nelson and, with his bass player Larry Graham in tow, came inside. Just imagine the rest ("Dearly beloved ...").
Jane Russell: Christian Fundamentalist
"I gave my heart to the Lord when I was five," said Jane Russell, who formed the Hollywood Christian Group and hosted bible study gatherings in her home in the 1950s, when the star of "The Outlaw" and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" was a leading sex symbol. Her group included Rhonda Fleming, the actress known as the "Queen of Technicolor," and later Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.
Julia Roberts: Hindu
Raised Catholic, Julia Roberts underwent a religious conversion in 2009 while shooting "Eat, Pray, Love" in India. She now goes to temple with her family to "chant and pray and celebrate," she says, "I'm definitely a practicing Hindu." Roberts' production company, Red Om Films, is named after the sound and symbol considered sacred in a number of Indian religions.
Leonard Cohen: Zen Buddhist
In the 1990s, the singer-songwriter spent five years in seclusion at the Mount Baldy Zen Center outside Los Angeles, where in 1996 he was ordained a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk. Cohen said that "Hallelujah," one of his best-known songs, was about "the struggle between having human desire and searching for spiritual wisdom."
Ellen Burstyn: Sufi
The star of "The Exorcist" and "The Last Picture Show" first embraced this mystical approach to Islam at a Sufi camp in the Alps. What appealed to her was the notion that "we didn't have to say, 'I am a Christian' or 'I am a Buddhist' or "I am a Muslim," but 'I am a spirit opening to the truth that lives in all of these religions,'" Burstyn said in 2006. While drawn to many religions, she views Sufism as "a doorway into spirit."
Steven Hill: Orthodox Jewish
His parents were Russian Jewish immigrants, but Steven Hill (born Solomon Krakovsky) didn't begin to explore his faith until he was nearly 40. After that, the actor now known for "Law & Order" adhered to a strict kosher diet and prayed three times a day until his death in 2016. His strict observance of Shabbat meant he never performed after sunset on Friday or at all on Saturday, which excluded him from many stage and film roles.
Alice Cooper: Born Again
His father was an evangelist pastor and Alice Cooper would refer to himself as the Prodigal Son—until the late '80s, when he returned to his fundamentalist Christian roots. "I stopped drinking and I started going back to church," he recalled in 2014. In his heyday as the Godfather of Shock, Cooper said, "the Lord led me through everything, maybe allowed it but then started reeling me back in, saying, 'OK, you've seen enough, now let's bring you back to where you belong.'"
Muhammad Ali: Sunni Muslim
Americans were stunned in 1964 when Cassius Clay, the new heavyweight champ, publicly aligned himself with the Nation of Islam and took the name Muhammad Ali. He later refused to fight in Vietnam on religious grounds. ("How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.") Ali made his first pilgrimage to Mecca in 1972, became a Sunni Muslim in 1975 and, near the end of his life, embraced Sufism, a mystical take on Islam.
Ingrid Bergman: Lutheran
She played a nun in 1945's "The Bells of St. Mary's" and a saint in 1948's "Joan of Arc," but not long after that Ingrid Bergman was condemned by the Catholic Church—and denounced as a "free-love cultist" on the floor of the U.S. Senate—for having a child out of wedlock with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. And she wasn't even Catholic. Bergman was a member of the Swedish Lutheran Church.
Bob Marley: Rastafarian
Bob Marley was committed to Rastafarianism, a religion that began in Jamaican slums in the 1920s and is based on the belief that the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. The reggae star proclaimed his faith in Jesus when the archbishop of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church baptized him in 1980, a year before his death from cancer. According to Marley's mother, his final words were, "Jesus, take me."
Glen Campbell: Messianic Jewish
For two decades before he was stricken with Alzheimer's disease, the cause of his death last summer, Glen Campbell and his wife Kim went to their local synagogue every Saturday. They celebrated Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah—and Christmas. The Baptist-bred country star described his religion this way: "It's Jews who believe that Christ is the risen savior." The biggest challenge: He and Kim had to learn to sing songs in Hebrew.
Martin Sheen: Catholic
He borrowed his stage name from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, but Ramón Estévez (still the actor's legal name) left the church in his 20s. Then, while shooting "Apocalypse Now" in the Philippines in 1976, Martin Sheen had a heart attack. He remembers asking God for help. A helicopter—a movie prop—flew him to Manilla, where a priest performed last rites. "I have never forgotten," says Sheen, "that even though I turned my back on God, in my time of greatest need, he came to find me."
Elizabeth Taylor: Jewish
Raised as a Christian Scientist, Elizabeth Taylor turned to Judaism in 1959, between her marriages to Mike Todd and Eddie Fisher, both Jewish. But that wasn't the reason for her conversion. "I feel as if I have been a Jew all my life," she said. Although Taylor didn't attend a synagogue regularly, she relied heavily on her faith. "I pray to God all the time," she said. "We have a conversational relationship and those conversations calm my fears."
Iman—the name means "faith" in Arabic—is a follower of Islam, though not a strict traditionalist. In 1992, she agreed to marry David Bowie in an Episcopal church in Florence, Italy, but that had little bearing on her religious views ("Getting married did not convert me from a Muslim into a Christian"). After Bowie's death earlier this year, Iman posted a tribute to him on Instagram, with these words: "The struggle is real, but so is God."
Richard Gere: Buddhist
"My first encounter with Buddhist dharma would be in my early 20s," he recalls. "Like most young men, I was not particularly happy." After studying Zen for at least five years, Richard Gere traveled to Nepal and hung with Tibetan monks. In India, he met the Dalai Lama, who "looked very deeply into my eyes and just started laughing. Hysterically. He was laughing at the idea that I would believe emotions are real." Gere has been practicing Buddhism Dharma almost daily since the '70s.
Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers: Episcopalian; Christian Scientist
Fred Astaire, who belonged to the Episcopal Actors' Guild, said he found "great comfort" at church after his first wife died in 1954: "I come out spiritually refreshed. It often helps me to go on." His dance partner was a devout member of the Church of Christ, Scientist. Her autobiography, "Ginger: My Story," opens with an epigraph from the Bible: "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God."
Mark Wahlberg: Catholic
As a teenager, Mark Wahlberg spent time in prison for assault. Last year the "Boogie Nights" star met with Pope Francis and had his personal rosary blessed by the pontiff. "I don't go to Mass necessarily every day, but I definitely go to the church every day," Wahlberg said in 2012. "That's how I start my day. I like to get in there for about 15 to 20 minutes, say my prayers."
Bettie Page: Evangelical Christian
In 1959, the Queen of Pinups became an evangelical Christian and began working for Billy Graham, but her religious conversion didn't make life easy. Two decades later, she spent 20 months in a psychiatric hospital. Still, Bettie Page remained devoted to Christ until her death in 2008. Televangelist Robert Schuller conducted her memorial service.
Tina Turner: Buddhist-Baptist
She attended Baptist services every Sunday when she was growing up, but later switched from the Lord's Prayer to Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Still, Tina Turner has identified herself as a Buddhist-Baptist, maintaining that the essential message of both religions is the same and love has a lot to do with it. "Buddhism, though, was a new dimension in my spiritual life," she says. "It touched a different spot inside, the subconscious."
Walter Matthau: Jewish
Although it's easier to picture Walter Matthau with a deck of cards, Rabbi Jerry Cutler remembers the "Odd Couple" star as "an incredibly proud Jew" who attended Shabbat and High Holy Day services at the Synagogue for the Performing Arts.
Sophia Loren: Catholic
In 1971, she referred to herself as a "casual Catholic." But Sophia Loren seemed far from casual in 2009 when she lobbied for the beatification—a step toward canonization—of Pope John Paul II. "I went to the tomb of John Paul II in the Vatican to pay homage to him and pray ...." Loren said. "I also turned to him to get his benediction for my entire family."
George Harrison: Hindu
The quiet Beatle converted to Hinduism in the mid-'60s after making a pilgrimage to India. Not that he rejected other spiritual teachings. "All religions are branches of one big tree," Harrison said. "It doesn't matter what you call Him, just as long as you call." After he died in 2001, his ashes were scattered in India's Ganges and Yamuna rivers.
Steve Carell: Catholic
Although he describes himself as a Roman Catholic "born and bred," Steve Carell doesn't dismiss other religions. "I hope that God gives me guidance and that he directs me to make good choices, and that he helps me with my family," Carell once said. "But that is such a personal thing and I think everyone has a different idea of what God is and what he represents."
Johnny Cash: Christian
"I'm a Christian. Don't put me in another box."
Nicole Kidman: Catholic
Nicole Kidman married Tom Cruise in the Church of Scientology, though she admitted then that "a big part of me is still a Catholic girl." That part re-emerged in 2006, when the Catholic Church annulled her 10-year union with Cruise, enabling the Australian actress to marry country singer Keith Urban in the church she grew up in. "Catholicism guides me," Kidman says. "I certainly have a strong belief. I try to go to church regularly, and I try to go to confession."
Sammy Davis Jr.: Jewish
Sammy Davis Jr. began reading a history of the Jews while he was recovering from the nearly fatal car accident that cost him his left eye in 1954. As he wrote in his autobiography, one passage got to him: "The Jews would not die. Three centuries of prophetic teaching had given them an unwavering spirit of resignation and had created in them a will to live which no disaster could crush." Davis said he wanted that strength and formally converted to Judaism in 1961.
Cat Stevens: Muslim
"Man is created to be God's deputy on earth," said the former Cat Stevens, who became a Muslim and changed his name to Yusuf Islam to fulfill a promise to God that he made when he nearly drowned off the coast of Malibu in 1976. After that, Yusuf abandoned his music career for almost three decades and, in 1989, expressed support for the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie (so much for "Peace Train"). He later returned to music, though not to the Top 10.
Grace Kelly: Catholic
She seldom spoke publicly about her religion, but it played a significant role in her life. Grace Kelly went to Catholic schools, married Prince Rainier of Monaco in the most famous Catholic wedding of the 20th century (watched on live TV by 30 million viewers) and accompanied her husband on two visits to the Vatican. Before her death, Princess Grace made a pilgrimage to Lourdes, the French village where Saint Bernadette is believed to have seen the Virgin Mary.
Stephen Baldwin: Born Again
His religious background in a nutshell: "Raised Roman Catholic up until 11 or 12, didn't stick." Then came the shock of 9/11 and within weeks he "became born again." At one point the youngest Baldwin brother told Christian Broadcasting, "Praise the Lord, but do me a favor, don't ever say 'Stephen Baldwin' and 'ministry' in the same sentence ... in Hollywood that's career suicide." But these days he doesn't hold back: "if I got to shake it up a little bit, as long as it is led by the Holy Spirit, amen."
George Burns & Gracie Allen: Jewish; Catholic
Though devoted to each other, they seldom talked about religion. Burns was raised as an Orthodox Jew but didn't believe in an afterlife. Allen attended Mass regularly and would make the sign of the cross before the couple went onstage. They once had an audience with the Pope, which Burn described in his 1988 book "Gracie: A Love Story": "She looked like a little girl, just innocence and love. She adored the Pope. I know how she felt; I'd felt the same way the first time I met Al Jolson."
Gary Busey: Born Again
"I saw angels," Gary Busey told Larry King in 2005, referring to his near-death experience on an operating table after his 1988 motorcycle accident. "And they don't look like what they look like on Christmas cards," he added. "They're big balls of light that float and carry nothing but love and warmth." That led to his 1996 announcement: "I am proud to tell Hollywood I am a Christian. For the first time, I am now free to be myself."
Mel Gibson: Catholic
Mel Gibson grew up in the Sedevacantist sect, a group of Catholics so conservative they refuse to recognize any pontiff since Pope Pius XII, who died in 1958, before Pope John XXII took steps to modernize the church. Despite his notorious anti-Semetic and homophobic rants, Gibson presents himself as deeply religious. Referring to his 2004 movie "The Passion of the Christ," he said, "The Holy Ghost was working through me on this film, and I was just directing traffic."
Kabbalah, a mystical tradition rooted in Judaism, was pretty esoteric before Madonna took it up and gave it a hard sell, describing the school of thought as "earth-shattering and yet so simple." The Material Girl has apparently come a long way since 1985, when she said, "I won't be happy until I'm as famous as God."
Liam Neeson: Catholic
Liam Neeson was a lapsed Catholic when his film career took off in the 1980s. "I was at a crossroads in my life ... getting drunk at night and getting laid as much as I could," he recalls. Then, while researching his role as a Jesuit priest in 1986's "The Mission," he had a spiritual reawakening: "The Irish Catholic side was married to the life of an actor and I found out acting could be a form of prayer."
Joan Crawford: Christian Scientist
Raised Catholic, Joan Crawford converted to Christian Science early in her career and devoted herself to the religion after the release of her last movie, a 1970 sci-fi turkey called "Trog," Crawford said, "If I weren't a Christian Scientist and I saw 'Trog' advertised on a marquee across the street, I think I'd contemplate suicide."
Denzel Washington: Pentecostal Christian
"I read from the Bible every day, and I read my Daily Word," says Denzel Washington, whose father was a Pentecostal minister for 50 years. The Oscar winner attends L.A.'s West Angeles Church of God in Christ, to which he donated $2.5 million to help fund the building of a new facility. "If you don't practice love, you're missing the point," says Washington. "I believe in 'love thy neighbor.'"
Faith Hill: Baptist
For Faith Hill, who was raised as a Baptist and sang in an African-American church when she was a teenager, music and religion have always been closely linked. "Having a backbone of spirituality makes me a little stronger," she says. "I pray a lot, and when I first moved to Nashville, that's what kept me alive. I believed I was being taken care of."
Mickey Rourke: Catholic
"I'm no Holy Joe, but I have a strong belief. ... If I wasn't Catholic, I probably would have blown my brains out."
Rick Derringer: Evangelical Christian
His band the McCoys had a No. 1 hit with "Hang on Sloopy" in 1965 when he was just 18, and Rick Derringer went on to collaborate with artists like Johnny Winter and Steely Dan. But that didn't sustain him during a personal struggle in the 1990s. So he prayed. "The Lord really answered my prayers—quickly, so quickly it surprised me," he recalls. Soon the guitarist was baptized in a river, and in 2014 he released "Read the Word, Live It Too," a Christian adaptation of his '70s hit "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo."
Dolly Parton: Christian
"God is in everything I do and all my work glorifies Him," says Parton, who grew up in a one-room cabin in Tennessee and attended the Church of God, where her grandfather was a pastor. Today she puts great stock in the Biblical phrase "Judge not, lest ye be judged." As Dolly sees it, "We're all God's children. No matter how we try to get to heaven, we all wanna go there. We just have our own routes to take."
Leonard Nimoy: Jewish
At 71, Nimoy published a book of photos exploring Jewish divinity. In between, as Mr. Spock on "Star Trek," he introduced the Vulcan salute, based on a prayer gesture he'd seen at an Orthodox Jewish synagogue when he was a child. "People don't realize," he said in 2013, "they're blessing each other with this!"
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