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His chats with God go from page to screen

Neale Donald Walsch's journey is manifest in `Conversations' movie.

October 27, 2006|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

Neale Donald Walsch works hard to be humble. He isn't always successful. Yes, he acknowledged, "more than one world leader" has requested his advice. Yes, he said, he believes he has "an answer." Yes, his 1995 blockbuster "Conversations With God" has sold 7 million copies in more than two dozen languages, and he charges hundreds of dollars to fans who want a private audience. And yes, today his story hits the big screen with "Conversations With God," the movie.

Walsch fights the pull of guru status with a diligent modesty. Over lunch at the Casa del Mar hotel in Santa Monica, he asked politely if he could start on his soup while it was still warm, welled up when discussing his passion for world peace and insisted that his ability to chat freely with God and occasionally read minds is something everyone could do, if only they'd just listen.

"I don't want anyone to stop questioning me and my motives," he said, his napkin tucked snugly under his chin, "because that's when I become dangerous."

Walsch was six cities into a 48-day, 19-city media tour to promote the Samuel Goldwyn Films release of "Conversations." He looked the part of Oregon-based wise man, dressed comfortably, bearded with longish gray hair and a demeanor that suggested an awareness of his VIP-ness and, at the same time, the need to disguise it by acting casual.

"People shy away from a direct encounter with God because they're afraid they'll be considered crazy or dangerous," he said.

Walsch has been called a little of both, but over the years he's become accustomed to such sniping. It's all, he said, a cynical attempt by the media to debunk something "too good to be true." That is, God speaking through a man as "imperfect" as Walsch. He readily admits he has been an adulterer and a bad father. He is "sorry beyond words." Still, he said, his message is pure.

Considering Walsch's book-sales figures, his apologies clearly have resonated with a broad audience. He's a star in the "human potential" community, paid as much as $10,000 per appearance, with an impressive array of brand extensions. Walsch has become living proof that if carefully transcribed and properly marketed, an encounter with God can lead to all sorts of professional opportunities, not the least of which is the movies.

"Conversations," produced and directed by Stephen Simon, starring Henry Czerny as Walsch, has a mostly unknown cast, and a very sentimental tone. It follows Walsch's climb from a homeless encampment outside Ashland, Ore. -- where he lived for nearly a year after a car accident broke his neck and forced him out of his job -- to the sleek limo and adoring crowds that came after God talked back.

The movie is short on personal information, at Walsch's insistence. It bypasses his five failed marriages and his nine children (now aged 14 to 38), he said, in the interest of maintaining family members' privacy and preserving the simplicity of the story. Instead, the film focuses on his lone journey using a series of inscrutable flashbacks and mournful gazes.

The movie opens with Walsch circa 1996 on stage before an audience so adoring they could be part of an infomercial. Then it shifts to the dark years in the early 1990s, as Walsch's life implodes. One night, after yet another layoff, Walsch wakes around 4 in the morning and starts an angry letter to God. And God answers. Walsch writes the dialogue on legal yellow pads, has it typed up, then submits it for publication. The small, Virginia-based Hampton Roads Publishing buys the book; it sells out its initial print run of 5,000 copies in two months. After sales hit 50,000, Putnam pays $1.5 million for the worldwide rights.

Walsch sees the movie as an opportunity to spread the message of his books: that, among other things, we are all one with God. But Walsch's teachings don't fit neatly into today's polarized climate. He's not an evangelical Christian or affiliated with any denomination. On one hand, his message is a melange of self-help relativism and self-actualization directives. On the other, the books recognize Jesus Christ as a "master" and attempt to update biblical teachings.

"Hitler went to heaven," he writes in "Conversations With God." "When you understand this, you will understand God."

This bit of wisdom first surfaced in the 1980s as a photocopied essay of sorts. But back then it wasn't credited to God. It was credited to Neale Marshall-Walsch, which was then his married name. At the time, Walsch was giving talks to Church of Religious Science congregations, an opening act to his boss, minister Terry Cole-Whittaker. Walsch had started writing about God too. In the Hitler piece, Walsch asserted that the Nazi dictator wasn't punished for his actions but, at death, he relived them as if on the receiving end.

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