When deciding what my next contribution to the site was going to be, I had been watching the Mark Robson disaster picture EARTHQUAKE (1974). One of my favorite actors in this film is Marjoe Gortner. I’ve always enjoyed his offbeat characters and his role in EARTHQUAKE has always intrigued me. I’ll be honest, I had no idea he was a religious evangelist at an early age. I discovered this fact when doing my research, raising the intrigue level further. I’ll try to keep this piece light in regards to his religious background and focus on his career as an actor.
Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner (Marjoe Gortner) was born on January 14, 1944 in Long Beach, CA. At the early age of 4 he was ordained as a preacher due to having an extensive vocabulary for such a young child. His parents, who had a long evangelical heritage, surely influenced this decision. His name, Marjoe, comes from a combination of both “Mary” and “Joseph” underscoring the bible-influenced intentions of his parents. Gortner was put on the path of the righteous by both his mother and father. He quickly learned the art of scamming people out of their money by supplying false promises drawn from his religious upbringing. This presented ample opportunity for Gortner to hone his talent for charismatic performances. At the age of 16, his father emptied the family’s 3 million dollar bank account and departed, leaving Gortner disillusioned.
Gortner first put his acting skills to work in a feature length documentary entitled MARJO (1972). The resulting film won the 1972 Academy Award for best documentary. In MARJO, Gortner played himself while a film crew followed him around documenting his daily routines. This led to Gortner exposing other ministers taking advantage of their followers by cheating them out of their hard earned money. Soon after this, Gortner went on to make his first TV appearance in the pilot of a new TV series called Kojak (1973 – 1978).
The rest is history and I’m not here to outline Gortner’s entire career. You can Google him if you want to learn additional background about the man. The remainder of this article will detail why I enjoy watching Gortner and three films I can easily revisit because of his presence.
In this Mark Robson directed film, Gortner plays a simple grocery clerk named Jody. While working the counter one day, he sees that Angela Davis can’t pay for her groceries (played by a super sexy Victoria Principal). He steps up and helps out in an all too creepy manner.
Shortly after the BIG one rends California’s landscape into debris and rubble, Jody hears a radio announcement that the National Guard is in need of support to deal with the recent disaster. Jody heads home to change into a makeshift guardsmen uniform in order to lend a hand. While patrolling on duty (mind you, he’s not an enlisted guardsman, he’s just a creepy nutjob), Jody sees Angela is in need of assistance once again, convincing the other guardsmen to hand her over to his custody since “She’s a friend.” At this point, things get even weirder as Jody becomes rapey and aggressive, using his rifle to keep others at bay and Angela by his side.
Despite two dozen A-List performers in this 70s disaster movie, Gortner’s turn as Jody is why you’ll remember this film. He’s as creepy as they come and will convince you to stick with people you know, love and trust if you ever find yourself in a similar catastrophic situation.
BOBBIE JOE AND THE OUTLAW (1976)
It’s been years since I’ve seen this movie, but Gortner’s role as Lyle Wheeler is memorable – so much so that I had to include it in the article.
The story is a western set in modern times (the 1970s) with plenty of exploitative moments. Our main protagonist Lyle Wheeler meets Bobbie Jo Baker (played by a young Lynda Carter). The two hit the road in a stolen car seeking adventure. They proceed to go on an incredible crime-spree channeling Bonnie and Clyde and, oddly enough, become famous for it.
This is one of those GREAT lesser seen drive-in pictures from the 70s. Gortner is incredible as the film’s anchor. Carter and the supporting cast are also fantastic despite the dumb cops who pursue them. Lynda Carter would go on to play the title role in the TV series Wonder Woman (1975 – 1979) after getting nude in this picture. That’s right fellas, you get to see how wonderful this Wonder Woman really is.
That’s it – we’ll be covering this one on the podcast. Stay tuned . . .
VIVA KNIEVEL! (1977)
The podcast covered this film way back in EP139, but it’s one of those films that’s so ridiculous that I’m compelled to include it here – that and the fact that Gortner appears in a pivotal supporting role.
At the height of his career, Evel Knievel finds himself in a major motion picture that maybe he shouldn’t have attempted. The plot is simple. There are drugs involved and Knievel needs to thwart the drug dealers. There are sexy ladies who need wooing and Knievel is happy to oblige. Then, there’s a broken-down father/son relationship that Knievel needs to mend (not his own, of course). Last, but not least, there’s Jessie (played by Gortner), Knievel’s trusty former protégé with mysterious backers lurking behind the scenes.
Did I mention that Gortner – I mean Jessie – is a former friend of Knievel who is competing against him in the overcrowded “jump the car” profession? Yup, he is. I may have forgotten to tell you that Jessie is manipulated into transporting drugs using Knievel’s tractor-trailer by sports broadcaster Stanley Millard (played by funnyman Leslie Nielsen). Oh, yeah, I almost forgot, Red Buttons and Gene Kelly (you heard me, that Gene Kelly of SINGING IN THE RAIN fame) are also part of this silly and crazy film . . . and it’s got Marjoe Gortner. The single best reason to watch a film that shouldn’t even exist, VIVA KNIEVEL!
There you have it. Three must see Marjoe Gortner pictures. Each one underrated for their own reasons and each one with Marjoe Gortner, an underrated and interesting character actor.
What’s your favorite Marjoe Gortner film? Is it one not mentioned here? If so, use the space provided below to tell us what it is.
Contributed by: Mike Murphy