“Don’t cry for me,” I thought, looking at the crowd. “Cry over yourselves.”
This Good Friday marks the 20th anniversary of my first job as a public actor, portraying Jesus on a two-hour walk through the city of Fitchburg for the Stations of the Cross. I had the honor of doing this four years in a row, with my last walk of Jesus on Good Friday 2005.
I didn’t get paid and didn’t win my SAG card. But what I got from the experience was priceless.
Being a lifelong Catholic who was baptized, had First Communion and Confirmation at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Worcester, I have had a lifetime of inspiration and experiences to draw on.
And being an avid viewer of religious movies, especially during Holy Week, didn’t hurt either.
In fact, as far as I can remember, I’ve watched every year (and will continue to watch again and again every year), “The Ten Commandments” by Cecil B. DeMille as part of the ABC Sunday Night movie with many commercial interruptions and edited for television because it has become a long-standing family tradition, even though the majority of my family has now gone to heaven.
And, despite “The Ten Commandments” dealing with the life of Moses, Holy Week isn’t complete until I see Charlton Heston parting ways from the Red Sea, Edward G. Robinson accuses Moses of carving the Ten Commandments and Yul Brynner as Ramses recognizing that The God of Moses is God. So let it be written. So let it be.
To prepare for the march, I read the scriptures, memorized all the stations, and repeatedly watched religious films with moving crucifixion scenes that left a lasting impression on me as a child and still today. ‘adulthood.
I saw 1961’s “King of Kings” again, with Jeffrey Hunter – aka Captain Christopher Pike, the first captain of the USS Enterprise on the original “Star Trek” pilot – as Jesus. He was the most handsome actor that ever played Jesus.
I also re-watched 1965’s ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’ with Christ played by Max Von Sydow – aka the medieval knight who plays chess with the personification of Death in ‘The Seventh Seal’ and Father Lankester Merrin in ‘ The Exorcist”. As far as Jesus biopics go, Von Sydow was the most imposing.
An added bonus, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which is better than “King of Kings,” features David McCallum (aka Illya Kuryakin from “The Man from UNCLE”) as Judas, Charlton Heston as John the Baptist (can you get a good religious movie without Charlton Heston in it?), Sidney Poitier as Simon of Cyrene, and John Wayne as a Roman centurion, who declares with classic “duke” bluster, ” Truly this man was the Son of God.”
Although the film isn’t directly about Jesus, 1959’s “Ben-Hur” has my all-time favorite crucifixion scene and my favorite depiction of the Son of God, a shadowy, blurry, often out-of-frame divine being accompanied by a celestial choir.
“Ben-Hur” also has Charlton Heston (again!) as its most manly, musky side to “Planet of the Apes” and the spectacular chariot racing scene, arguably the best action sequence ever filmed in the movie. film history. And, folks, no CGI.
And, finally, Martin Scorsese’s labor of love, 1988’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ starring Willem Dafoe, delivering one of the coolest and most divisive portrayals of Jesus I’ve ever seen on the big screen. and one of the most powerful.
“The Last Temptation of Christ” added significance to me because the father of a high school friend of mine was arrested on September 11, 1988, for brandishing a two-foot machete outside Showcase Cinemas on Southbridge Street.
The man (whose name I leave in relation to his family) was protesting “The Last Temptation of Christ” because it featured a “sex scene” with Jesus and Mary Magdalene (played by Barbara Hershey). Spoiler alert: In reality, Satan is making a last-ditch attempt to seduce Jesus from following his destiny by offering him a happy, earthly marriage to Magdalene.
On May 17, 1989, the 56-year-old townsman was sentenced to five years in Concord State Prison for six counts of assault with a dangerous weapon. He insisted he didn’t want to hurt anyone.
The man, who had not seen the film but had read about it and seen TV reports, said the film “was against the son of God”.
For me, “The Last Temptation of Christ” was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I have ever had in a movie theater.
Besides, I took my first walk before “The Passion of the Christ” by Mel Gibson, so the influence of this film did not filter through to my portrait. But, it came into play during a poetry reading I did, which I called “The Craig’s Passion.”
I opened the reading with “Hello, I’m Craig S. Semon for Hair Club for Jesus. I’m not just the president of Hair Club for Jesus. I’m also a customer,” I concluded holding up a photo . of me with the cross.
So I already had the hair, the beard, the inspiration and the desire to play the role, and Father Rich Lewandowski of St. Camilus Church in Fitchburg, who gave me the opportunity to take this spiritual journey , provided the robe and the crown of thorns.
All I needed was a cross. So we went shopping the week before my first Stations of the Cross.
The cross-shopping caused Father Rich to open the garage door at St. Camilus Church. Inside it looked like the warehouses of the Gentiles, a vast array of wooden crosses for all your family crucifixion needs.
There were crosses of all shapes and sizes. There were mammoth crosses. There were medium-sized crosses. There were luxury crosses. There were heavy crosses and light crosses. There were high crosses and short crosses. There were even cross babies. Looking at the vast array of crosses made me feel like a messiah in a candy store.
As I tried crosses for size, I kept in mind that I was looking for two things in my portable symbol of Christianity – proper weight and length.
First, I chose a cross for the desired weight, which was very light and easy to carry but several feet off the ground. If I had used the cross it would have looked like a bad Groucho Marx skit, “You Bet Your Afterlife”.
Then I picked one that would drag on the ground for the length I wanted, but it was as heavy as a fallen telephone pole and too bulky to carry a long distance.
I suggested a polystyrene cross, but realized that a strong wind could lift the cross into the air and blow it away. Come to think of it, a cross hovering in the skies of Fitchburg might have bolstered the faith of the people of the Twin Cities, and Styrofoam might not be a bad idea.
Father Rich assured me that he would get a lighter cross built to my length specifications before Good Friday, which was only a week away. Of course, he didn’t, and the cross that I laid bare was the heavy cross that I had initially rejected.
Wearing a crown of thorns, carrying a wooden cross, walking the streets of the city, I aspired to be as handsome as Jeffrey Hunter in “King of Kings”, as authoritative as a Max Von Sydow in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and as intense and confrontational as Willem Defoe in “The Last Temptation of Christ,” with a bit of Charlton Heston animal magnetism thrown in for good measure.
With sandals on my feet, a flowing dress draped over my aching bones, and symbolically the sins of the world resting on my shoulders, I walked down Main Street as a mass of people closely followed my heels.
It was eerie to see traffic come to a screeching halt on the John Fitch Freeway and unsuspecting passengers in their cars mouth “It’s Jesus” as they make the sign of the cross, while babies strapped into child seats auto became obsessed with me, as they waved their little arms and kicked their little feet in absolute joy.
A few nuns blessed me and said, “He really looks like Jesus.
My mother, with streaming tears and a beaming smile on her face, replied to the nuns, “It’s not Jesus. It’s my son.”
When I finally came face to face with my mother towards the end of The Stations, I spoke the words, “Woman, here is your son.”
The next day, the Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise and the Boston Globe had a picture of me portrayed as Jesus on their front page, while the Catholic Free Press did the same a week later.
While the pictures on the Sentinel and the Catholic Free Press were beautiful, they were just pictures of me dressed as Jesus carrying a cross up a hill.
What Sean Dougherty captured in the photo used for the Boston Globe was much more than that.
Hired as a freelancer by the Worcester Telegram & Gazette to shoot The Stations of the Cross, Dougherty placed several photos on the AP Wire, including the cover photo used by the Globe.
Dougherty’s photo elevated my attendance as something more than just a man carrying a cross and paying homage to Jesus. A radiant ray of light penetrated the landscape and I no longer became the center of attention. His photos transcended the spiritual and the abstract, capturing the personification of faith.
One of the best photographers I’ve ever known, T&G Photo Editor Rick Cinclair took stellar photos of me on my second and third Stations of the Cross.
I decided to portray Jesus as long as he felt and looked right. I didn’t want to portray Jesus as a “mature” Elvis, a deformed old Son of God delivering his greatest scriptures.
On my last outing as Jesus, I led four hundred of my followers past “The Other Side,” a gentlemen’s club on Route 12 in Fitchburg.
For Jonathan Phillips, then a photographer for Sentinel & Enterprise, I purposely brought the crowd to the middle of Route 12, took it 180 degrees down the street so that the strip club and its “Girls Girls” signage Girls” and “Exotic Dancer” are clearly seen behind me.
I whispered to the photographer, “You know. I did it just for you.
Phillips nodded in affirmative as he captured the winning shot.