Nothing succeeds like Charles Templeton
Since his tortured decision to leave the church he’s been hailed as television’s brightest new find. But he’s been hailed before — as a halfback, sports cartoonist, boy evangelist, playwright, author — and now he’s thinking about politics
At forty-one, an age when most men are
established in or resigned to the pattern created by their jobs and their home lives, Charles Templeton decided, in one tortured month, to give up not only a long and brilliant career as a minister of the Gospel but his marriage as well.
The conflict, far fiercer than any of the prize fights about which Templeton feels the way Ernest Hemingway feels about bullfights, left him exhausted spiritually and physically. He had new and frightening pains across his chest and ulcerous twinges spasmodically seared his stomach. He returned to Canada from the United States, where he had been secretary of evangelism for the Presbyterian Church, and went into a kind of retreat in a cabin he bought in the rugged vacation country of Georgian Bay. When he emerged he was still taut, still a little punch drunk, but still sure he had done what he had to do. This assurance was to give him strength to withstand the blast of vituperation, some of it from people in the church, which assailed him for having left the ministry.
In the brief case he took with him to Toronto, when he returned to the outside world, were three television plays, two of them written during his vigil. They were to provide the beginning of a new career,
as brilliant in its way as the one on which he had just turned his back, for the CBC immediately bought two of the plays.
While he was in Toronto to peddle his plays he appeared as a guest on the television show Tabloid. He caught the eye of the show's producer. Ross McLean, who was in the process of gathering a team of interviewers for a new feature to be called Close-Up. McLean hired Templeton as an interviewer at a hundred and fifty dollars a week to be paid whether or not he appeared in every show. The short-term contract, which Templeton never bothered to sign, was later replaced by another running for a year.
By midsummer of 1958, at the end of his first year in his new job, Templeton had received the Maurice Rosenfeld award as the brightest freshman in Canadian television by a vote of his fellow performers in the industry, he was making twelve and a half thousand dollars annually, and was turning down work because he was cither too busy or because he feared overexposure might blight his swiftly flowering career. Three of his plays—Matter of Principle and Biography of a Crime on the hour-long General Motors Theatre and Absentee Murder on the half-hour On Camera series —had been bought for twenty-five hundred dollars, counting resales to the BBC and the Australian network. He had written and narrated two television documentaries as well as filling in on Tabloid for a month, at two hundred and fifty dollars a week, for Percy Saltzman—the man whose interview gave him his start.
He was heard in place of Lister Sinclair on the radio panel show Court of Opinion and later became one of the show’s regular panel. When he appeared to have won an audition, involving sixty candidates, for a place on a new TV panel show, One of a Kind, he withdrew because McLean warned him against being seen too often.
McLean recalled recently that he was professionally attracted to the former minister by his appearance, his poise before the camera, his articulateness, his personality and his workmanlike manner.
Templeton is six feet tall, dark, and has the wide shoulders and the lithe frame of a halfback, a position he played for Balmy Beach when he was sports cartoonist on the Toronto Globe. His features have been described as a handsome composite of those of Sir Laurence Olivier and Dennis Day. He gives the impression of being impeccably groomed although he protests that he spends little time or thought on his clothes. Most of his nine suits, for which he paid about eighty dollars each, came off the rack. “I’m not the sort of person who spends a lot of time matching ties, socks and handkerchiefs,” he says.
His poise comes from years of experience as a preacher. During his evangelist days he was almost as popular as the Billy Graham of today and spoke night after night to big audiences in all parts of Can-
ada and the U. S.
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“Occasionally he seems insincere, but he is no flatterer or back-thumper,” says one critic
More recently he was master of ceremonies on the CBS television program Look Up and Live, beamed by the National Council of Churches in the United States to teen-agers. The show, which is still running with a different format, was scheduled for ten-thirty Sunday morning, and has featured the jazz of Dave Brubeck, the dancing of Maria Tallchief and the singing of Ethel Waters. When the attention of the young people had presumably been hooked, Templeton gave them a seven-minute inspirational talk designed to sound as little like a formal sermon as possible.
As a young man he used every device except Demosthenes’ trick with the pebbles to make a public speaker of himself. He stood in the pulpits of empty churches and drilled himself by the hour; he set himself exercises in extemporaneous speaking on a variety of theological themes and listened critically to the result on a tape recorder. When he was starting out as a minister people used to turn and look after him on the street as he walked along preaching aloud to himself. The result is a precise speaking style. "He talks like he looks,” says Bob Blackburn, TV critic of the Ottawa Citizen. "He is almost as immaculate in his speech as in his appearance.”
His personality is pleasant but more elusive. “I feel there is a sadness about Chuck Templeton,” said his producer, Ross McLean. "He speaks and thinks as precisely as he dresses,” said Neil Leroy, master ot ceremonies of Court of Opinion. "He's good looking and I think he’s
aware of it but he isn’t vain. People like him instantly, particularly women. I like his kindly humor.”
To others his sense of humor is a little undernourished if not downright naïve. At a party held by the Close-Up staff he twitted a colleague by saying to him, “You haven’t got an inferiority complex; you arc inferior.” He made the well-used remark with the air of a man who was unveiling a mot.
He admits his own sense of fun has been conditioned by years of exposure to clerical humor. Here’s a sample, supplied by Templeton, of the sort of jest that moves across the country from vestry to vestry in the same swift and mysterious way that another kind of joke spreads from one newspaper office to another: Three clergymen were discussing their secret weaknesses. “I must confess that when the going gets tough I take a drink,” said one. “I haven't been able to control the lusts of the flesh completely and I find myself ogling pretty girls,” said the second. "And what is yours?” they asked the third man. “Well,” he said slowly, ‘Tm a terrible gossip and I just can’t wait to get out of here.”
"Templeton is a good enough actor to make you feel he is genuinely interested in what is being told to him. Occasionally he seems insincere but he is no flatterer or back-thumper,” said Gordon Sinclair, Toronto Star critic. “He sometimes displays a reluctance to knock his subjects off balance. I think he’s too sympathetic to his subjects to be search-
ing enough,” said Ron Poulton of the Toronto Telegram.
“I am incapable of being deliberately rude to anyone,” said Templeton. “But someday I would like to get a chance to interview a charlatan and publicly expose him to the world.”
One of his first overseas assignments with Close-Up pitted him against a tenyear-old French girl, Minou Drouet, who had written poetry so mature that some critics had accused her of being a fake and Jean Cocteau had suggested that she was, in reality, an eighty-year-old dwarf. Minou, who had been cleared a short time earlier by a jury of academicians who had locked her up in her room with a pencil and paper and orders to compose, completely charmed Templeton. They walked hand-in-hand through sunny country lanes, picnicked for the camera and ended a filmed idyll with a kiss on the check of such sentimentality that it would make A. A. Milne look like Mickey Spillane.
For weeks after his return Templeton told about the little girl and repeated her parting words, “Bon jour, mon ami du soleil,” complete with translation; “Good-by, my friend of the sun.” When he went to California a short time later to do a clutch of interviews he told the story, together with many more involving the names of celebrities he had met recently, to Aidons Huxley. After monopolizing the conversation for an hour, talking almost incessantly as though spurred by a nervous compulsion, Templeton took time to communicate with his producer, on the sidelines, with a stage whisper. “My gosh, he’s a fascinating talker,” he said of Huxley.
Later in the week the crew paid a call on Oscar Levant and Templeton repeated the performance, which was made remarkable by the fact that Levant, no green hand as a talker himself, is hard to interrupt much less dominate conversationally. As Templeton talked and Levant listened one of the crew observed, “In a minute Chuck’s going to tell us what a hell of a talker this one is.”
The Huxley interview was one of Templeton’s favorites, an enthusiasm McLean does not share. “Something happened there which sometimes happens in one of Chuck’s interviews—there was no real meeting of minds. There didn't seem to be any real comprehension by him of what Huxley was saying.”
Since part of the interviewer’s technique consists of quoting the subject's own earlier and sometimes foolish words back at him, Templeton reads widely, as in the case of the Huxley interview. Four or five, or even more, books, and as many as a dozen magazine articles are culled for background material and provocative or embarrassing quotes for the interviewer to use.
However, all the research at his command could not save another Hollywood assignment from becoming a debacle, although one of the most engaging and revealing debacles in the brief history of television interviewing. The interview, which Templeton recalls with mixed horror and delight, featured Levant; Zsa Zsa Gabor, actress and professional beauty; Pamela Mason, the wife of James the actor; and Hermione Gingold, the cigarsmoking comedienne who delighted London during the war with a succession of revues beginning with Sweet and Low all the way to Sweetest and Lowest.
Mason was supposed to be a member of the kaffeeklatsch but Levant scuppered him. "Use me,” he commanded Templeton. "Mason’s dull as a hoe.” The topic was nominally Maturity in Hollywood, a title which Robert Bench ley might have chosen for a different set of reasons, but
the meeting soon came to disorder and degenerated into a fight between Levant and the women. He enraged Miss Gingold by persistently calling her “Herman,” and complimented her on retaining her “boyishness." He saluted Miss Gabor for having found the secret of “perpetual middle age.” At the end of the telecast Gingold stomped out proclaiming she had never been so insulted in her life, but the gorgeous Gabor fought back and for half an hour she and Levant snarled at each other in the hall.
On another occasion Templeton interviewed a lawyer who was drunk and kept leaving the studio, with the coy excuse that he was going to “powder his nose,” to get even drunker on stolen nips. By air time he could scarcely speak. From his interview with Louis Bercovitz, convicted and freed Montreal gangland killer, Templeton got the idea for his latest one-hour play. “It was his life or mine. There was no time to be a stickler for formality so I shot him,” the ex-gunman told Templeton of the crime that jailed him for eleven years.
On Court of Opinion he has turned out to be less orthodox than moderator Neil Leroy expected a former minister to be. “Our listeners often mention his compassion.” said Leroy.
Here are Templeton's views, in condensed form, on some questions with which the radio court has wrestled:
What is your chief criticism of Canada?
We are too easily satisfied by our achievements. Americans work much harder. The end result of their work is not necessarily better but they have better discipline than we have.
Is there too much gambling? Because it is predicated on the concept of something for nothing it can be harmful. It can become like a narcotic, a manifestation of mental illness.
Do you believe in euthanasia? We show a lack of compassion if we allow people to suffer without hope or without any chance of learning the lessons we can get from pain.
Are private clubs desirable? I see nothing wrong with them. They have to be exclusive to be private but when the rules discriminate on the basis of religion or race I think they are bad indeed.
His departure from the church a year ago was not the first but the second time he had left. Early in his travels along the sawdust trail of evangelism Templeton’s faith was so shaken by a sudden exposure to the writings of such skeptics as Tom Paine, Ingersoll and Voltaire that he left the ministry (few noticed that he was gone) and went back to cartooning. But in a few weeks he returned, his faith restored by prayer and thoughtful reading of his Bible.
The latest break was the result of months of doubt and indecision that struck at the roots of his faith. “I had to decide whether or not I could accept the deity of Jesus Christ,” said Templeton. "This would be a serious matter for any Christian but for a man who is preaching to others it was essential that I resolve my difficulty. To remain in the church with my doubts still plaguing me would have been dishonest.”
"In those rare cases where a minister leaves the church it is usually because he feels he has been a failure. Templeton left at the peak of his career," said the Rev. A. C. Forrest, editor of the semi-monthly United Church Observer. The publication ran an editorial which sympathized with his “personal tragedy.” Templeton had come back to Canada on many occasions to conduct
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evangelistic services for the United Church.
Most clergymen share this sympathy but three quarters of the many letters and phone calls Templeton still gets are critical. Phone calls usually begin with the question, "Is that really Chuck Templeton we just saw on TV—the evangelist?” When his identity is established this kind of caller, often anonymous, reviles him for "selling out.”
When Templeton left Toronto he was a famous young evangelist. He had been chosen by the Youth For Christ group
to lead a team, which included Billy Graham, to Europe to get the movement rolling there. But he was never comfortable as an evangelist. The uncritical emotionalism disturbed him. He also felt the need for more education; his own had not gone beyond second form of Parkdale Collegiate in Toronto. He was admitted to the Princeton Theological Seminary and took the three-year course although he did not receive a degree because he lacked a B.A. Here the old doubts, which were eventually to drive him from the church, returned to
harass him. For a whole year he fasted every Wednesday. He kept his grip on his faith, although at times it was a struggle, but in that year he caught eighteen colds, probably as a result of fasting.
On leaving Princeton he was admitted to the Presbyterian Church, was appointed secretary for evangelism for the National Council of Churches, and later held a similar post with his own church. He got an honorary doctor of divinity from Lafayette College but prefers to be called Chuck rather than Doctor. He
politely declined an earlier degree from another college because he didn't think it was quite top drawer.
At the time he left he was being spoken of as a future candidate for the pulpit of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, which would have paid him eighteen thousand dollars a year and provided him with an apartment in downtown Manhattan.
“If money were my only concern I could make thirty-five thousand dollars a year as an evangelist,” says Templeton in reply to the charge that he had sold out. Nor was the breakup of his marriage the reason for his leaving the church. He and his wife Connie agreed amicably to end their childless marriage after he had decided to leave the church. ‘‘There was no scandal, no bitterness. She is one of the finest people I ever knew. She spoiled me; for eighteen years I had my breakfast in bed every morning. She is married again and a short time ago she and her husband came to see me at the cottage,” he said.
Templeton still worries about the people he brought into the church, for fear they will feel let down by his departure. So far, none of the thirty-six young men who went into the ministry at his urging have reproached him. As for his own faith Templeton refuses to assess and tag it. "I don’t think I'm an agnostic. Anyway, I don’t believe in labels. Let’s just say I’m still a religious man but in a different way than I was,” he said.
He is adjusting quickly to the new life. He will continue to write TV plays and books. Two inspirational books— Evangelism for Tomorrow and Life Looks Up—have both been best sellers in their field. He has written thirty songs and has had one, a semi-religious song called True Happiness, published. He gets small royalties from ASCAP every six months.
He likes living alone with his purebred Siamese cat, Mio, for which he paid fifty dollars. “Watching Mio relax is better than a sermon by Norman Vincent Peale,” said the former minister. He still goes to church, none in particular, although not every Sunday. When he stays home he usually listens to a service on the radio. He has more time to listen to records of classical music than he used to have. He has rediscovered the novel. He once started, but never finished, a novel drawing on Biblical analogy.
Someday he might try his hand at acting. He might even go into politics, but not while he is engaged in the form of visual journalism from which he is now making his living.
“Success has always palled on me quickly,” he said recently. “I like solitude but I have always found myself more or less in the limelight both in my church work and now in TV. I have always yearned for a kind of anonymity.”
It has been in the lonely places of his life that Templeton has known deep sorrow and bitter conflict. Now, more alone than ever, he searches for a solitary place that can help t’o give peace and a kind of contentment to him.
“There is a little cove near St. John’s, in Newfoundland,” he said recently, talking slowly with the air of a man anxious to savor a pleasant recollection, “where there are just a few houses. It’s a beautiful place of sky and sea and green hills. A man could have a fine time there . . .”
"With his cat,” it was suggested.
He nodded. “With his cat. He could write and read and listen to music and go for walks." He shook his head. "What a life that would be.” it