"Touched by an Angel" Producer Shares Hopes for "Signed, Sealed, Delivered"
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Executive producer Martha Williamson’s new Hallmark show, Signed, Sealed, Delivered, is new territory, but not her first foray into television. You might remember a little series she did back in the 1990s called Touched by an Angel. What you might not know is that this new show about a post office department that restores lost mail to their rightful readers has a great connection to her ‘heavenly’ hit TV show.
Recently, Williamson spoke with CBN.com about that connection, why she wanted to write and produce this new series and the TV legends she got to work with again, including Della Reese and Carol Burnett. Here are excerpts from that conversation:
On how her CBS hit TV show, Touched by an Angel, indirectly inspired her new Hallmark TV series, Signed, Sealed, Delivered…
Martha Williamson: After Touched by an Angel was over, about two years after it had wrapped, I was taking time off to adopt my children with my husband and get them started and stay home for a while. You look back and you think that after a couple of years, if you're not actively making a television show in Hollywood, you might as well not exist anymore. So suddenly I was thinking, “What did I do? Did that really happen?” It's like you're going 60 mph, and then suddenly you're not.
So I found a box in a storage area in my office and I discovered it was full of a whole bunch of fan letters that I had received. Some I received early, early on and some I'd never even been able to read. They were so encouraging. They reminded me how many lives had been changed, and how many people have been encouraged, how many people have come to find the Lord, how many people have just picked up a Bible and started reading because of something they'd seen on the show. It filled me with so much gratitude and a tremendous sense of having been used by the Lord. I was so deeply humbled by it.
God's timing is always perfect. I needed to see these letters then, even though some of them had been mailed years before. So it got me thinking, what happens when lost letters or diverted letters, or misdirected letters get delivered late? Do they in fact arrive “right on time”?
On the encouraging stories she wants to share with TV-watching America…
Williamson: Touched by an Angel started 20 years ago. It's almost impossible to believe. The first episode of that show was being shot 20 years ago almost exactly to the day. I went in for my first meeting with CBS about Touched by an Angel May of 1994. It was a different world, and I think we were really at a turning point in our country because we were only six years away from a millennium.
We forget that there was really no discussion about God in a responsible, positive, encouraging way…. The country was coming off of a lot of political changes in the 60s, the sex and the drugs, and the rock and roll of the 60s and 70s. The “me” generation had to be successful….The acquisition in the 80s, back when this mentality wasn't working, and suddenly people found themselves in the 90s looking right at the millennium, thinking, what's left? And we found that there is so much interest in spiritual things. People were asking about everywhere. Maybe they'll look at Jesus, maybe they'll look at crystals. Maybe people were actually worshiping angels. There was an explosion of interest in angels. I was so thrilled that I was able to redirect that with the show.
We wanted to remind people that there was an answer and that it was there for you. So many times we would say, “All you have to do is ask. Just ask.” So all that came about because I was tasked to do an angel show for CBS. They didn't know what they wanted. They just knew that angels were hot.
So this is a different situation and we are in a post to 9/11 world where television is reflecting a lot of where people's minds are. You look at the vampires and the undead, the zombies and people really are in many ways walking around zombie-like because there has been so much change that people don't quite know how to handle, that is lost in the gap between the 20th century and the 21st century. The challenge for me was, how can we bring the best of the 20th century into the 21st century? Leave behind what we need to leave behind, embrace the best of what technology has to offer in a responsible and thoughtful way. As a Christian, what messages can I bring to a wider audience?
On bringing faith to The Hallmark Channel…
CBS had never said write a show about Jesus, but everything I tried to do, I tried to use words of Christ, I tried to use a heart of Christ and show His mercy, show His unconditional love, but they always came from a place of angels who didn't have to have faith because they had knowledge. The angels had seen the Lord, the angels came from Heaven, they knew. They had stood in the presence of God, so the lead characters didn't have to have faith.
In the 21st century, we are challenged now in our faith in a way that those of us who are believers need to be strengthened and encouraged because bad things happen to us just as they happen to anyone. It's how do we get through it? Those folks who have no faith or are searching for faith have seen a lot more in these last 20 years; and it's a lot harder to encourage them.
Some of the greatest examples of faith going on in this world are now in other countries where we are seeing daily people dying for their faith. Those young girls in Nigeria who have been kidnapped and forced to convert. There's horrifying examples of people who are being oppressed for their faith. We in the United States are losing some of our grasp on who we are as Christians, in a lot of ways.
I don't have all of the answers by any means, underlined any means. But I do know that I was the child of a man who was born in 1901, who had a very strong personal, quiet faith. He could not change the world in ways that we can now by starting a blog or doing a website. He did not go to a mega church or lead one. He was a quiet man who sang in the choir, who lived what he believed, who raised a daughter who ended up being able to share the Word with literally tens' of millions' of people, and over the course of the last 20 years, probably a hundred million people.
I started thinking, who are the best men I know? I started with my dad. I thought, how would my dad survive in the 21st century, a man who was born essentially at the very end of the Victorian age? It would still be with faith; it is still the faith of our fathers. It is the faith, and that's that character that I have with Oliver [played by Eric Mabius]. Oliver O’Toole is a man who loves the written Word, who goes to church and he sings in the choir, and does his best to live his faith. Something bad has happened to him, and we don't even know all of the details yet, that's the process of storytelling and series-making is that you parcel these things out. But his wife has left him.
I have stood in the prayer circle where a believer's husband or wife has left them. You can't blame somebody for that. All you can do is help them through it from a Christian point of view. So I'm exploring that on a family channel that is not aggressively Christian by any means, but is stunningly and wonderfully open to the same values. Hallmark has said, “We are not afraid of the Bible. Don't be afraid of God. Don't be afraid of the Bible. If you have something you want to say on this channel, let's see how we can do it and how we can work together.”
So essentially in the 20th century it was angels, and now in the 21st century it's what is it like to live as a Christian in this world? It really is an exploration of how watching this one woman [Shane, played by Kristin Booth] who just really is fascinated by Oliver, and frankly, may well be falling in love with him, dealing with a man who wants to do the right thing, who absolutely wants to do the right thing.
Slowly but surely, every single episode has a reference to prayer or a reference to scripture or both. There's a point where their lives are actually in danger, one moment when she says, “I don't know how to pray. Will you pray?” And he says, “I already have.” Those are the moments that subconsciously every Christian will recognize, and every person who is searching, it will resonate with and they'll say, “Wait a minute, he didn't pray as a last resort. He prayed as a first.”
We are asked to pray without ceasing and include the Lord in everything we do. When you're in trouble you don't say, ‘well, let me see if I can get myself out of this and then if it doesn't work, I'm going to pray’. It should be you take that to the Lord first and foremost. That is a message without putting it in the mouths of angels but actually showing it by example, and subtly, slowly, I am hoping that that will start to resonate in the hearts of men and women who are watching that show. That men will recognize that you can be strong and masculine and be a leader and a believer all at the same time. That you can be a gentleman in this world, and that is something to strive for. My nephew saw this show, and after the first episode was over he turned to me and pointed to the screen and said, “I want to be like that guy.” That was huge for me. Then second, I have two daughters and one of the things I want to do is show them what a good man looks like. I am happy to say that my daughter loves this show. She is Signed, Sealed, Delivered's biggest fan, downloads it from iTunes, watches it over and over again.
On what it was like working with TV legends, including Carol Burnett and former ‘angel’ Della Resse…
Williamson: We had to have Valerie Harper as our first guest. Valerie was the perfect person to have as the first guest on our first episode and second episode because her incredibly positive attitude and warm and wonderful embracing spirit, and phenomenal, and I mean professionalism, set the tone for the rest of the season. When she walked out on the stage, everybody knew they had a pro who knew exactly what she was doing.
We book-ended that with Carol Burnett who just turned in one of the most amazing, fun and wonderful episodes playing Norman's grandmother. Carol is so collaborative and I actually found myself at one point saying to Carol, “You know, that's not funny enough. Let's see if we can make it funnier.” And she said, “OK, let's see, what should I say, what should we do?” And I stopped and said, “I'm telling Carol Burnett this isn't funny enough?” But she was wonderful.
Valerie Bertinelli is such an amazing person to have on the set because she's funny, she's warm. She took the words that I wrote and turned them into her own and made them better.
Della Reese… it was a joy to have Della in our little mini reunion, and to be able to know exactly what to write for her, what words to put into her mouth, to be able to know exactly how she was going to read a line and that was so touching and moving. I think probably her last line in her episode was maybe the most powerful because it was like getting that little mini revelation from Tess [from Touched by an Angel] all over again. It was pretty great.
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