Catching Jesus for Johnny Cash. My true story.

This story took place forty-four years ago. You could ask, as I’m a writer, why it took so long to write about this. I have to say, I don’t know, but here it is.

How I ended up in Israel in Johnny Cash’s movie ,Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus (1973), is a longer story than this blog will allow. Let’s just say a series of events led me, an 18 year old kid with all of 50 dollars in his pocket to Jerusalem in November of 1971.

I was desperately in need of work. I remember walking into the hovel that was my Arab hotel and finding this guy giving a pitch how Johnny Cash was looking for actors. Extra’s he called them, for crowd scenes and background, and some to be Apostles and Romans.

The promise of food and money propelled all of us, hippie backpacking travelers, to the King David Hotel where we sat in groups while Johnny Cash and the director, Bob Elsfstrom looked us over.

If you ever want to know what a piece of meat feels like as it’s being considered by the  buyer, go to a casting call for extras. Not that Johnny and Bob were disrespectful. It was in the manner that they discussed our looks and if we’d fit the part.

I was mulled over several times by them. Bob thought I was perfect for Andrew the Apostle. Johnny didn’t see it. He thought a French kid was better. He thought I was suited for John. Then after he mused a bit, he didn’t think I was right for anything.

After what seemed an eternity, they chose me to be an Apostle, but they weren’t sure whether I’d be Andrew or John. I felt like all my years in junior league baseball, when I was the last pick, and then the captain tried to figure out where I could do the least damage to the team.

It turned out I was to be Andrew the Apostle after all. I was given some nice robes by the costume department on the set a few days later and informed, that none of us would have speaking parts. We would walk behind Jesus for the 12 days of shooting. Jesus we’d learn, was Bob. The director Bob. Bob was tall, blonde, blue-eyed and extremely white.

I have no idea why Johnny Cash chose Bob Elfstrom to play Jesus. It could be because Bob directed a documentary on Johnny a few years back, or the film had a small budget. We did have one Actor. Paul Smith. He played Peter. He’d go on to be Captain Bluto in Popeye with Robin Williams, and in the 1994 remake of Maverick, a western.

Other than Paul Smith, there was this rag-tag group of hippies that were recruited from the streets of Jerusalem. We were from America, England, France, Holland, Ireland, Israel, and me, the Canadian. I was the youngest of them all.

We climbed into the back of a truck every morning at 6am in front of the King David Hotel, and drove in a caravan of vans and cars towards Jericho for shooting. Jericho was empty. The six-day war of 1967 had cleared it out. Arabs had fled from the advancing Israelis army.

All that was left were empty streets, a few mangy dogs, and a great backdrop for a movie about Jesus. A western was being shot there in the spring.

I had no idea until we got on the set, that nothing in a movie is shot in sequence. The first day of shooting was to be where Jesus turned water into wine in front of the guests at a wedding. We were to sit on mats tapping our hands and feet to music while drinking wine and eating.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this. I thought, I’m getting paid, no it wasn’t much back then – it was 12 US dollars a day, but we were getting fed, and to just sit and listen to music with a camera filming us. How bad could that be?

We did it for hours. A camera man is never happy, because the light is never right, and somehow, even the bright sun in the noon day sky doesn’t appease a camera man. And of course, then the director will never be happy, and so it goes.

That one scene took all day, and unbeknownst to me, the wine was not fake wine. The prop guy was supposed to get a red color to blend with water to make pretend wine – he couldn’t find it. He’d bought real wine.

No one told me, the dumb eighteen year old from Canada, and when half way through shooting someone said, “hey, I think Andrew’s drunk.” I remembered looking around with a dreamy look on my face wondering, “who’s  Andrew?”

I  realized  Andrew was me, and managed to pretend drinking the wine for the rest of the shoot. Johnny only smiled and chuckled at the sight of his drunk Apostle.

The next few days we walked behind our Jesus. He was a kind Jesus, our Bob. He was more interested in how the shots worked, where the light was coming from and camera angles. Johnny was there giving us guidance over every scene.

If you can imagine that tall man, dressed in black, standing there before us. That is how I remember him. He’d rise up even taller with that big black bible in his hands and give us a lesson about the scene we were about to recreate.

The idea for this movie had come to Johnny in a dream. He claimed that God had spoken to him, and told him to make a movie about the life of Jesus. He’d told his wife, June Carter, about the dream. She told him to go ahead and make the movie. Here we were, living this dream with him.

On day three of shooting, we were told we were going up in the hills above Jericho to do the Crucifixion scene. I don’t know why, but I was taken aback. I thought this scene would be at the end of our second week of shooting. It was happening sooner than I expected.

The convoy wended its way up a dusty, rocky slope and came to a stop on a large hill above Jericho. We scrambled out and helped to unload two pieces of  brown plastic that were then bolted together to form the cross.

The prop man dug a hole as good as he could in the hard rocky soil and after several attempts judged the apparatus solid enough to hold Bob, our Jesus.

Bob walked from behind a truck. He was dressed in a white loin cloth, his arms and legs covered in a makeup of blood and dirt. On his head were the crown of thorns. The entire set went quiet.

Bob laid down on the cross, and the prop man wound some plastic cords around his wrists then pasted some spikes to his hands. The make up person slathered his hands in red gore.

We all helped to raise Bob up on the cross, and several people worked with shovels to secure the cross in the ground. When the prop man was happy it was secure, he gave the thumbs up sign and we sprinted back to our positions.

I was off camera for the scene. A few Apostles with some Roman Soldiers clad in their plastic armor and June Carter in robes of Mary Magdalene were in the foreground.

The camera man shouted, “rolling,” and Johnny Cash began to give his sermon about the agony of Jesus on the cross to set the scene.

We all stood motionless as this incredible scene unfolded before us. Then we saw the cross move. It jerked slightly. Then it began to lurch violently forward.

Bob was heading for the ground. Face first.

“Catch Jesus,” Johnny yelled.

Almost as one, the Apostles, the Romans, and anyone not holding a camera ran forward and grabbed Bob on the cross before his body met with the rocky earth.

We flipped him over, and laid him gently on the ground. Johnny and Bob conferred with the props man, the hole was dug deeper, and we hoisted Bob up again.

This time, Johnny was barely getting into his sermon, when the cross lurched violently and began plunging to the ground with Bob.

“Catch Jesus!” Johnny commanded.

“Oh, yes, catch Jesus!” June Carter repeated.

This time our catch team was faster. We made it the thirty to forty feet over that rocky ground in our flimsy Apostle sandals in record time. We cradled Bob, and turned him over to lay him on the ground again.

Serious discussions now took place with Bob and Johnny. They were losing their precious  daylight. The clouds and the sun were doing these speculator things over head. Bob had to on be on the cross to take advantage of this.

They needed to try it again. The had to get the shot. They raised Bob up on the cross again and the prop guy got busy with the shovel.

This time I asked if I could help. I explained to the prop guy that I’d just spent three months doing nothing but shoveling gravel on the railway in Canada’s far North. I could see his shovel technique was wrong.

I’d learned to make railway ties as firm as concrete by shoveling from the outside in. I took his shovel, and in my thin Apostle sandals I made a base for the cross that held. To this day, I think all I added to Johnny Cash’s movie was my shovel technique. My acting was lousy.

The cross held. We were getting the shot. The skies were doing all manner of wonderful things in the background and our cameraman and Johnny was ecstatic. Then we heard the jeeps.

A steady drone could be heard that got louder and louder until we all turned to see two Israeli Army Jeeps with large machine guns racing up the hill.

They braked a few feet from us. The dust blew over us like a cold chill. All I could think of was, “what now?”

Johnny Cash walked over and talked to the soldiers with his interpreter. The soldiers had been sent to investigate a report by tourists that someone was being crucified on a hill. They’d come to check out if we were terrorists. After Johnny’s explanation, they smiled and waved at us, then turned their jeeps around and headed back down the hill

The light cooperated for another half hour while we watched Bob, as Jesus, die on the plastic cross above Jericho. Johnny Cash’s thick southern voice blanketed the set as he spoke the words from the bible, and his heart about the death of his beloved saviour.

We shot more of that movie over the next week, and I watched Johnny Cash as he conferred with Bob over every scene, as he directed us and guided us.

His movie would be released a few years later. The critics didn’t like the movie, and were especially critical of Bob as Jesus. Some said he was the worst person to every portray Jesus. The film they claim, went from movie theater’s to church basements in a matter of weeks.

But what can you say of the passion of Johnny Cash. He wanted to make a movie about Jesus, and he did. His movie, Gospel Road, is in revival. I picked up my own copy on Amazon several years ago. Yes, it’s bad acting. I should know, I was one of the actors.

There’s great cinematography, and a wonderful country music soundtrack, and the melodious narration of Johnny Cash. His passion comes through in the narration, no matter what you think of the motley crew that were his cast.

After all, not once when we were on that hill, and the cross was falling…not once did Johnny tell us to “catch Bob.” Such was the passion and the immersion in the film by Johnny Cash.