Closoup / Books

An Act of Templeton

For his next miracle, an international best seller

Barbara Amiel October 3 1977
Closoup / Books

An Act of Templeton

For his next miracle, an international best seller

Barbara Amiel October 3 1977

An Act of Templeton

Closoup / Books

For his next miracle, an international best seller

Barbara Amiel

Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Now, in the spotless midtown Toronto apartment of author-broadcaster Charles Templeton, where Pearl the cleaning lady is wiping fingerprints off the fridge door and Charles himself is boyishly seated on the rust colored wall-to-wall broadloom talking animatedly about his next project and then tomorrow’s work schedule and, as an afterthought, the goals in his life, all the school maxims are remembered. God helps those who help themselves. Thirtyeight floors below, Templeton’s Thunderbird rests in the garage. Tomorrow he will drive it out to his four(or is it five-) bedroom cottage on Georgian Bay. His tax lawyers have just left calculating, calculating, and meanwhile all of this—the patterned down-stuffed furniture, the dizzying spread-out view of Toronto, the scented soaps with little matching embroidered hand towels in the guest bathrooms—is his.

In front of Templeton, just a casual stretch away from where he is sitting in velour trousers, zippered top (“I hate wearing ties”) and leather mules, is a copy of today’s Toronto Star. The multi-prismed decorator mirror on the wall, a holdover from the white-onwhite chrome and glass decor of his second marriage, reflects the newsprint in a hopeless jumble and when Templeton holds up the item to read, it’s a blur to him. He doesn’t have his glasses handy but anyway he practically knows the item by heart. It’s the gossip column, and in between a paragraph on the late Elvis Presley and one on singer Brenda Lee is a little hometown cheer.

a 1ILL1.~ 1I~JLIL~L~JVVI1 "A local cynic," writes the Star colum nist, "flipping through Charles Temple ton's much ballyhooed new novel Act Of God, said `Tis pleasant, sure, to see one's name in print; a book's a book although there's nothing in't.'" Templeton looks bewildered. "What's the point of that?" he asks ingenuously. The point is that at 61, Charles Temple ton has chalked up yet another success, rankling in the spleens of all would-be

doers or wishful thinkers. Evangelist journalist, broadcaster and now writer, Templeton’s/let Of CoJ(his second novel—the first was The Kidnapping Of The President) has already earned him a $200,000 advance for paperback rights from the American publisher Bantam, while his Cana-

dian publisher Jack McClelland is blithely predicting worldwide sales of 10 million copies. Almost everything Templeton touches turns to gold, or at least vermeil. His is the quintessential success story of the 20th century pop communicator: men with copious amounts of energy, ready and willing to pronounce on any and all aspects of human affairs, unhampered by self-doubts or a surfeit of knowledge. If their careers

are ever seriously threatened, it is only when they make the fatal mistake—which Templeton has done only once—of taking time out of their breathless schedules to actually stop, reflect and think. It is unlikely Templeton will make that mistake again.

If wishes were horses beggars would ride. Their numbers are legion—all the people who could have written a book if they’d only had time, or would have been better than so-and-so on TV if they’d ever tried; men and women who could edit a newspaper if only they knew the right people to get in. The difference between them and Charles Templeton is that, whenever he thought so, he went ahead and did it. And it began, appropriately enough, with a leap of faith. The important thing to understand about Templeton’s life is that nothing, absolutely nothing happens through the ordinary, plodding laying of plans. His path is charted by thunderbolts and burning bushes. This has the advantage of sending a man off to a more enthusiastic start at a new job than simply passing his personnel interview in a human resources department. The first portent came at his bedside, age 19. By then, in spite of dropping out of grade 10, the difficulty of finding work during the Depression to help support his mother and family (his father had deserted the home) and only a year’s vocational training, Templeton had established a budding career as an $18-aweek cartoonist at the Toronto Globe. Not satisfied with all this, his mother, who had converted to evangelicism a few months earlier, urged her son to get down on his knees and pray to God to come to him. Charles did and God obliged.

“I felt as though a lamp had been lit inside my chest,” he says, “and when I rose from the bed I felt somehow lighter.” But Templeton could never do things by halves. He had been converted, now he had to convert. His career as an evangelist began in the little Toronto sect of the

Church of the Nazarene and quickly moved onto the big-time American revival circuit. It also brought him almost exclusively into the company of like-minded people: fundamentalist Christians who lived, breathed, studied and sang the Bible.

“You’ve got to understand,” explains Pierre Berton, today a good friend of Templeton’s, “that during his twenties when most of us were listening to Benny Goodman or making out in the back of cars and simply having good times, Chuck was sitting around literally believing that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and that Noah put all the animals in the ark two by two.” Berton pauses as if coping with the enormity of human beings swallowing such claptrap. “Now none of this would have happened if he’d had a university education. You can’t take three or four years of science, biology and history and come up with Eve being created out of Adam’s rib.”

By the early Forties Templeton had met up with a small-time minister from the Baptist Church in Western Springs, Illinois. His name was Billy Graham and together he and Templeton founded the Youth For Christ movement. It was a phenomenal success.

“There was nothing we couldn’t do,” says Templeton today. “We filled the Rose Bowl and the next day we filled the hockey arena at Chicago with seats on the ice and no standing room left. So I telephoned Massey Hall in Toronto and reserved it for

every Saturday night and filled it. They were lining up outside. I just never realized there were things in life you weren’t supposed to be able to do.”

By the end of the Forties Templeton was known all across North America and Europe. He had married an exquisite Mexican singer, Maria Constancia Saldivar y Orozco, who sang at his meetings, her pres-

ence still caught in the faded photographs of the period, a beautiful woman with jet black hair and tremulously low necklines, a corsage often pinned on one shoulder and her elegant neck thrown back to reveal a necklace of rhinestones glittering palely in the spotlights, sending out thin moonbeams around her face. “I was what you would call a natty dresser too,” remembers Templeton, wistful, a little competitive: “I never wore clericals and sometimes I favored a white suit, a double-breasted with

a handkerchief in the pocket and matching white shoes.” His oratorical gestures in those early days were said to be exaggerated (“a little bit precious” remembers one friend) but their impact was undeniable. In Toronto, where he took over the 1,200-seat Avenue Road Church and began with tin pie plates painted brown and lined with felt for collections and a Sunday attendance of 12, he was soon doing double services on Saturdays and Sundays and still turning away customers. At the back of the church, a fellow Christian and good friend, Donald Sims, currently chairman of the Ontario Board of Theatre Censors and then a CBC announcer, would sit with a CBC Style Handbook and his own grade 12 education to correct Templeton’s numerous malapropisms. (“Tonight, I will just make a few prefactory remarks.”)

By the early Fifties Templeton had made it to the other side of the tracks, religiously speaking. His three years at Princeton Theological Seminary from 1948 were to have dire consequences on his faith, but for the Church aristocracy they gave Templeton the allure and vocabulary necessary to enter the world of linen napkins, silver chalices and plea bargaining with God, dear to the more refined congregations of formal Christianity. Dr. Templeton (Princeton had wangled a degree for him from a smaller college since their own rules precluded hanging divinity degrees on failed grade 10 students) accepted an appointment with the blue ribbon National Council of Churches in 1951, and three years later he was secretary for evangelicism for the Presbyterian Church of America. It was Billy Graham who was the first to see the danger signals.

“I’m worried about Chuck,” he told Donald Sims. “He’s beginning to get interested in Reinhold Niebuhr and Karl Barth.” (Billy himself had taken steps to ensure that his own faith could not be so assaulted. When Templeton decided to go to Princeton he asked Billy to go with him. “But Chuck,” said Graham worriedly to Templeton, “I’m head of the ministry here. I just couldn’t go back to school in America. Now if you’ll go over to England—Oxford or Cambridge—I’ll go with you.” He held out his hand to shake on the deal. But Chuck couldn’t afford the high fees of Oxbridge and America was saved from an intellectually enlightened Billy Graham.)

A little learning is a dangerous thing. In spite of thunderbolts on the greens of Princeton (“I lost consciousness and woke up wet, exhausted and filled with an overwhelming sense of some revelation”) Templeton was beginning to lose his faith. “For the first time in my life I stopped to consider the intellectual basis of my beliefs.” He was at the pinnacle of both his professional competence and public credibility. His refusal to take the “love offerings” commonly donated by the faithful for the support of evangelical ministers had prompted Time to run a picture of Billy Graham carrying off his booty-filled

mail bag next to a sober-suited and salaried ($150 per week) Charles Templeton. In the works was an offer to give Templeton the senior ministry at Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church at 53rd Street, just a wafer’s throw from St. Patrick’s Cathederal. Such a posting would have been the summit of Presbyterian accomplishment—the New World’s and New Faith’s rock of St. Peter.

But religion is generally the preserve of the little educated or the supremely erudite. It is the in-betweens who end up as dropouts. Templeton’s learning—or enthusiasm for learning—never became sufficient for him to pursue, à la Cardinal Newman or Thomas Aquinas, the great ontological questions facing him. He gave up. He believed in something but he knew not what, and all he could say was “Look at the beauty and the design of the universe,” and then leave the church. He ached to do something more fulfilling, something he could believe in once more, and so, after a brief period at Don Sims’ cottage on Georgian Bay, he began writing scripts for radio and television and working as an interviewer on producer Ross McLean’s CBC show Closeup. He had found a new posture from which to comment on the human condition. He would not again make the mistake of researching too deeply.

The more things change the more they stay the same. In the billiard room of his Georgian Bay cottage the 1977 Charles Templeton is screening (at Maclean’s request) one of the weekly television shows he did back in the early Fifties for CBS. The show is called Look Up And Live and right now Templeton’s speakers are distorting the sound, but the picture is reasonably clear and the young man in his late twenties fills the screen with his real enthusiasm and clean-cut good looks. The manner is easy. His right hand does most of the gesturing, his suit is dark, well cut with precisely the right amount of cuff and a triangle of handkerchief showing: by now a neat more than a natty dresser.

“Heaven knows,” explains a persuasive young Templeton on the screen, “how many people have planned for their future and then some terrible crippling illness or some world cataclysm over which they had no control came and threw their plans out of the window. You just can’t buy security ... You see, you young people listening to me are the most important people in the world, first because you’re young and the future is in your hand, and secondly because you’re American and God has put America at the heart of the world. Then, seeking God’s will, bring your life to him and live for him, daringly, adventurously, and change the course of history.”

The screen fades slowly to black and the sound of Onward Christian Soldiers comes on sung by the show’s quartet The Foursome. “They were the first integrated group on television,” says Templeton proudly, “it was quite a breakthrough.”

If it is the timbre of his voice and that

dusting of charisma—the real thing possessed only by the very few who can still a crowd of 70,000 with a raised hand—it is also the puppy-dog sincerity of his convictions that makes Templeton so compelling. Dare to be great. It is his optimistic vision firmly focused on the sunnier aspects of theology. “I never preached about hell because I didn’t see the point.” And when at 44 ex-minister Templeton came back to Canada to start again, he began to live what he had preached. “You can’t buy security,” he had said and it was soon clear that he had no intention of even windowshopping for it. After co-hosting the CBC show Closeup with Pierre Berton for two

years, in a matter of months he had made it up the treacherous slopes of The Toronto Star’s precipice to the post of executive managing editor. He left for a brief fling at Liberal politics, where in the space of 10 days managed to lose both a Toronto byelection and the Ontario Liberal Party leadership. But they were honorable defeats. Stephen Lewis of the NDP, it was said, had thrown everything into the by-election campaign against Templeton because Lewis’ shrewd political eye had quickly spotted Templeton as the one man that just might knock Ontario Premier John Robarts and his Tory Blues out of the placid Ontario waters.

The leadership convention itself remains one of those murky tales that will no doubt be revealed in the torturous memoirs of some senior Liberal before he passes on to the Great Liberal Caucus in the sky. Insiders claim that the federal Liberals wanted nothing to do with the unpredictable Templeton. A federal team headed by Walter Gordon and Keith Davey rallied behind the less-than-charismatic figure of Andy Thompson and managed to keep the Ontario Liberal Party grazing comfortably on the grasses of oblivion. (Andy resigned the leadership shortly after.) Still, Templeton came within 57 votes of winning. Said Keith Davey: “He made the best political speech I have ever heard.” Said another Liberal heavyweight: “They were too afraid of Templeton’s instability, his independence and conspicuous lack of political debts. They couldn’t afford him.”

But others could—if only briefly. Maclean’s got Templeton as its editor for five months until he submitted his resignation on grounds of “frequent interference” by then Maclean-Hunter vice-president R. A. McEachern. “I have never failed in any job I have taken,” wrote Templeton modestly in his four-page letter of resignation. He moved quickly into a burgeoning broadcasting career. Oh, it was a sweet, sweet visible career all documented in newspaper clippings and news announcements, the logical secular extension of his evangelicism. Out there, within radio audio frequency or the band of a television set, were the people who had lined up to hear him preach, waiting now for the messages he could bring them again. Capsulized sermons, just like the seven minutes he had been allotted every Sunday morning at the end of his CBS program Look Up A nd Live. Very soon Templeton had close to eight minutes on his daily morning Dialogue radio show with Pierre Berton. And sometimes as much as half an hour on the various television programs he hosted for private and public stations. And maybe, if he put his mind to it, now that he had “done” television and newspapers and religion, he could move into literature. Charles Templeton was very, very happy.

A good day ’s pay for an honest day ’s work. In the studio at Hamilton’s CHCH television

station, Charles Templeton has abandoned his usual job as host of the weekly panel show What Is Truth? and is sitting in the guest spot. At 61 he is handsomer than in the films of his salad days. Silvered hair waves thickly back; the clear blue eyes of the evangelist burn brightly in their secular incarnation, and the dark suit is better cut, the patterned tie and quietly striped shirt more tasteful. Charles Templeton is now an elegant dresser. Divorced after his second marriage, it is evident, watching him settle confidently in front of the cameras, what it is that attracts women to him. If there is any flaw it is the vague feeling that neatness has somehow permeated the soul: that before Aphrodite takes over, shoes would always be placed under the bed, side by side; that the kiss of the Muse would have to wait for a fresh typewriter ribbon.

The subject of the show is Templeton’s new novel Act Of God and the panel of Paul Hellyer, television personality Lorraine Thompson, Father Brad Massman of the Roman Catholic Press Office and the Reverend AÍ Forrest of the United Church are sipping water waiting for the tape to roll. It turns out to be a good show. Paul Hellyer becomes a little too insistent pushing his point that the novel is autobiographical and Lorraine Thompson is somewhat vague about it all, understandably, since she has not read the book. But Templeton is in top form. His eyes narrow and focus on the questioner, and then relax and allow his face to open up in the warmth of a smile. The panel seems fascinated by the story of his book Act Of Goa which revolves around the discovery of the bones of Christ by an archaeologist, and the dilemma of a Roman Catholic cardinal on considering the consequences to the Church if this becomes public knowledge. The book is suspenseful, highly readable and shows Templeton’s increasing skill as a popular writer. In plot it also bears more than a little resemblance to Robert Ludlum’s best-selling The Gemini Contenders, although Templeton’s book is written in a simpler style and may sell even better.

After two shows are taped, Templeton gets into his car and drives back into Toronto. “My life is really quite simple now,” he explains. “I don’t work as hard as I used to. I tape the Dialogue shows with Pierre three times a week. That takes about half an hour each session. I do the television shows on a Sunday morning every couple of weeks. I stopped doing the CKEY newscasts. I’m only doing one television special this season for Ontario Educational Television. The rest of the time is mine—for writing and pleasure.” Time to supplement what is estimated at a broadcasting income of $150,000 or so a year. He sees people when he wants to. As often as not he doesn’t, and retreats north to the calm and beauty of his Penetang cottage. He’s finally got an unlisted phone number (“I thought I owed it to the public to be accessible but you know some of the nuts in this world and one guy had a refrigerator sent to me . .. ”) and he’s thinking of moving three floors down to another apartment in the same building. He’ll just sell the contents of his present apartment outright ($25,000 for everything) and take his clothes and run. He’s a self-contained man and that may make some people uncomfortable who like their companions to give away more of themselves or gather some moss, but the portable life is just fine by Charles Templeton. He’s a survivor: the kind of man who may suffer (as he did) great emotional distress over marital breakups, but who fits his psychoanalysis appointments around his broadcasting schedule or who makes the stuff of his agony the topic of his next talk show. There are no books to speak of around his apartment or his cottage (except foreign language translations of his own work), and his second wife claims that, although Charles told her he read, she never actually saw him reading. But that may be the secret of his success.

Whether as a writer, evangelist, or broadcaster, Templeton is in the media of mass communications. If he is plastic, he lives in an age where plastic is exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art. In the name of democracy, we have long substituted accessibility and self-expression for excellence, and Templeton is merely supplying the demand. His task is to address the masses and, ethics, mores, or social philosophy, they’re likely to think about them in Templeton’s terms. Besides, not only for pop communicators but even for great artists, it seems necessary to have creative faculties greater than self-critical abilities. The brilliant French poet Rimbaud could never write a line after he was 20 because he could not meet his own expectations. Charles Templeton who told an interviewer he would die fighting against National Socialism but not against Communism “because it’s more humane” later confessed that he had actually never read

the works of Karl Marx—but would as soon as he had time. If Charles Templeton really began to consider all the ideas about which he pontificates via radio and television—the great issues of civil liberties, constitutional law, aboriginal rights— metaphysical and ethical questions that have defeated the greatest minds—he’d never have the courage or maybe even the time to write and to speak on them. Which would be a shame. Because Charles Templeton gives the reader and the listener value for their money. His presence on television charms. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians enjoy his work. Only a few belittle it.

It would be a mistake to believe that Templeton’s detractors have minds and hearts of greater depth. Serious philosophers, statesmen, lawyers, writers, those few whose minds are truly superior to Charles Templeton’s, hardly know he exists. They are unlikely to read him or listen to him except, while flipping channels, by accident. They are certainly never critical of his books or his views.

It is the gossip columnists and pundits in the media who know of Templeton’s existence. We know because we are in the same business and generally move on the same level of thought as Templeton, with one exception: we are less successful/;//