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Heaven Can't Wait

Actress Dyan Cannon will take her ministry--God's Party--on the road.

July 08, 2001|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If it's true that the Lord works in mysterious ways, then ExhibitA might be inside the CBS commissary in Studio City.

There, dressed in a glittering rhinestone choker, clingy black blouse and indigo slacks, Dyan Cannon stands in the glow of a spotlight, a clutch of bodies lying at her feet. It's almost midnight, and things are winding down at her latest God's Party, a kaleidoscope of gospel and pop music, prayer, dancing, storytelling and Pentecostal-style faith healing.

It's a surreal experience: On the corner of St. Elsewhere Street, across from the soundstage where "Will & Grace" is taped, an actress known for her sex-kitten roles in "Ally McBeal" and "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" is invoking the power of Jesus to literally knock people off their feet.

For Cannon, the ministry caps a personal and spiritual odyssey that began in childhood and covers three Academy Award nominations, a bizarre marriage to Cary Grant and dalliances with nearly every self-help fad known to man--from watermelon diets and hypnosis to LSD and climbing inside an Avis van and pounding its walls.

Now, with her acting career moving forward in two new films and a sitcom role as a retired Playboy bunny, she plans to take her ministry on the road, franchising God's Party to cities across the U.S.

Although it's not the first time a celebrity has stepped into the pulpit, it's certainly one of the most dramatic ventures.

When CNN's Larry King visited one of the parties in April, he came away dumbfounded. "What happened to you?" he blurted when Cannon appeared on his show the next week. "You're a Jewish person."

Maybe so. But something strange is definitely going on.

Perched on a sofa in her high-rise L.A. condo, the sixtysomething actress begins retracing the journey. While she speaks, a pet Chihuahua named Jeepers Creepers ricochets around the room, and candles flicker in every corner.

"This was not my plan," she says of GPDC&U, her shorthand for God's Party With Dyan Cannon and You. "My plan, since the age of 4 in Tacoma, Washington, was to star in movies and TV." But that dream spun out of control.

Arriving in Hollywood as Samille Diane Friesen, she was renamed Dyan Cannon by a producer and soon caught the eye of Grant. Flipping channels one night, he saw her on TV and asked her to audition for a movie. Instead, they wound up marrying in 1965, and had a child, Jennifer Grant.

Three years later, the romance unraveled amid accusations that Grant was an "apostle of LSD" and spanked her. Cannon descended into a haze of booze and pot, then turned to a series of self-help remedies: Esalen, rolfing, psycho-cybernetics and the tape-recorded sayings of Plato and Einstein.

She also experimented with primal-scream therapy. Her house in Malibu was outfitted with a small room containing padded walls and ceiling. "This is where I come to think, cry, scream [and] curse," she told a writer at the time. At one point, she even rented an Avis van and lined it with pads so she could take scream breaks while rehearsing for a nightclub act in San Francisco.

Her career rebounded with roles in such movies as "Heaven Can Wait," "Revenge of the Pink Panther" and "Deathtrap." She became a fixture at Lakers games. She wrote and directed two films.

Yet something was missing. "The hole got bigger and darker," she says.

Cannon had an eclectic spiritual past. Raised by a Jewish mother and Baptist father, she remembers singing "Jesus Loves Me" on the way to synagogue. As an adult, she wanted nothing to do with God.

But somewhere along the way--she's not sure exactly when--Cannon started flirting with Christianity. In the late 1960s or early '70s, she went to the Shrine Auditorium to hear faith healer Kathryn Kuhlman and remembers being thrown to the ground by a mysterious wind. "What was that ?" she wondered.

Then, in 1976, the same year she hosted an episode of "Saturday Night Live," someone introduced her to Lily Cavell, a British-born poet, painter and self-described spiritual advisor to the stars.

"I was told Dyan needed a little counseling, which was an understatement," recalls Cavell, who markets a line of inspirational cards and gifts based on her homespun Bible interpretations.

Says Cannon: "I wanted to find a love that lasts." After seeking happiness through fame, fortune and men, "I knew my life had hit a dead end."

She and Cavell began meeting five days a week, poring over the Bible and various spiritual precepts. But the transformation took years. "We're still working on it," Cavell says.

On the CBS lot in Studio City, visitors are driving down a fake residential street, hunting for parking. Even though the houses in this neighborhood are just facades, nobody thinks to park in front of a driveway.

Up the block, waiting for tonight's God's Party, a man in cowboy duds sits outside, reading a Bible. Inside, volunteers inflate helium balloons and sprinkle Jolly Rancher candies on the tables while a funk version of "Jesus Is Just Alright" thumps over the loudspeakers.

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