Billy Graham — the biopic?

Billy Graham has appeared in many movies, most of them produced by his own company — I wrote an article on the subject three years ago — but as far as I can tell, no one has ever played him before, except in parodies long and short like Tricia’s Wedding (1971) and White House Madness (1975). That will soon change, however, since a movie called Billy: The Early Years is set to start shooting in Nashville later this month.

The funny thing is, no casting announcements have been made yet, save one — and it’s a head-scratcher. Hal Holbrook, who was recently nominated for an Oscar for his effective supporting role in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, has been cast in the film, and in a story posted by The Tennessean on February 22, it is said that the film “focuses on the early years of Billy’s life and career, and especially on his relationship with his mentor, Charles Templeton, who will be played by Hal.”

There’s one slight problem with this. Charles Templeton was 29 years old when he and Billy Graham, who was then 26, co-founded Youth for Christ in 1944. And Templeton was 42 years old when he proclaimed himself an agnostic in 1957. Hal Holbrook, meanwhile, is currently 83 years old.

Is Holbrook playing the old Templeton, who died in 2001 at the age of 86, only six years after writing a book reportedly critical of Graham called Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith? He certainly can’t be playing the young Templeton. If Holbrook is playing the old Templeton, then who knows, this could be a more interesting film than anyone might have expected — told from the point of view of a spiritual doubter and former colleague of Graham’s as he looks back on their early years together.

The alternative is that the original Tennessean story was wrong. And it may be worth noting that a follow-up story posted by The Tennessean on February 27 simply says that Holbrook is playing “the famed preacher’s mentor,” without saying who that mentor is, exactly. (The story also quotes director Robby Benson to the effect that the film is “a period piece that takes place between the late 1930s and goes into the 1950s.”) Likewise, a report on the TV station WKRN that is also dated February 27 simply says that Holbrook is playing “the role of Graham’s mentor.”

As ever, I guess we’ll find out in the weeks and months to come, as more casting details are announced and the film goes into production.

(Hat tip to CT Movies. The photo above, taken from this website, depicts Charles Templeton, J. Stratton Shufelt and Billy Graham boarding a plane for England in 1946. This was apparently the first-ever trip to Europe for all three men.)

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  • Kristoffer Polaha plays Charles Templeton. Hal Holbrook is not in the movie.