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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, May 1, 2010

Billy Graham biopic may find its audience on DVD

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By Tim Funk
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

President Obama visited Billy Graham, 91, Sunday at the evangelist's mountainside home in Montreat, N.C. It was Obama's first meeting with Graham, who has counseled commanders in chief since Dwight Eisenhower.

PETE SOUZA | White House via AP

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Billy Graham

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The Billy Graham biopic that divided the Charlotte-born evangelist's grown children is now available on DVD.

"Billy: The Early Years," filmed in Tennessee and released in theaters in 2008, chronicles his formative years. It's a period that starts with a 1934 revival in Charlotte featuring fire-and-brimstone preacher Mordecai Ham that Graham said changed his life and ends with the 1949 crusade in Los Angeles that landed the young Graham on magazine covers.

Graham's son, Franklin, who heads the Charlotte-based Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, gave the movie a thumbs-down. In a statement before it came out, he said the movie includes a few scenes that never happened and that others were "greatly embellished." He also made it clear on the BGEA's website that the ministry founded by his father had not authorized the movie.

But Graham's oldest daughter, Gigi Graham, was hired as a consultant by the filmmakers and arranged for one of its producers, Larry Mortorff, to meet with the now-elderly Billy Graham at his Montreat home in 2008.

"Franklin called me and said he thought the movie was dorky. But I think it's good and positive, and I think it honors the Lord and my mother and daddy," Gigi Graham told Christianity Today. "I don't know why Franklin felt like he had to make a public statement. I wish he'd just left it alone."

The 96-minute film, rated PG, stars Armie Hammer as the young Billy Graham and Stephanie Butler as wife Ruth Graham. The cast includes a few famous names: Lindsay Wagner as Graham's mother, Oscar-winner Martin Landau as a dying man who was Graham's friend when they were young, and Jennifer O'Neill as a reporter.

The film's soundtrack features several country music stars, including Josh Turner, who also acts in the film. He plays George Beverly Shea, the bass-baritone soloist who sang at Graham crusades for decades.

The movie did poor business during its brief run in theaters, but its producers have hopes that churches and fans of Graham's preaching will want it. Among the DVD extras: a behind-the-scenes documentary and what a press release calls "an exclusive 2009 sermon recorded by Billy Graham."

A spokesman for Graham, now 91, said after the film's release that the retired evangelist had not seen the film and had no plans to.