Taking absolutely no chances, the executive producers of "Jesus" (Sunday, May 14 & Wednesday, May 17, 9-11 p.m., CBS) screened their two-part miniseries at the Vatican before a large audience of entertainment-starved Cardinals on the night before a private audience with Pope John Paul II.
The Cardinals did not whistle, applaud or stomp their feet after the showing, so there were some anxious moments before Lorenzo Minoli and Judd Parkin - accompanied by Jeremy Sisto (Jesus), Jacqueline Bissett (Virgin Mary) and CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves - presented His Holiness with a videotape of "Jesus" during an audience in his private quarters on Nov. 25, 1999.
They need not have worried as the positive buzz about "Jesus" around the Sistine Chapel apparently had reached the Pontiff's ears.
"I was told that the Holy Father had not yet seen the project, but that his personal assistant, a Bishop, did," says Sisto, 25, a second-generation Italian-American briefly raised as a Roman Catholic before his father embraced Buddhism. Sisto, currently exploring several spiritual beliefs but "not a member of an organized religious group," was deeply moved by the simple proceedings.
Article continues below
"Although we were in a small room, the Pope - who appears frail and has a very weak voice - spoke to us through a microphone. He read a little prayer, blessing the movie. When His Holiness' assistant introduced me as the man who played Jesus, he looked at me and blessed me as I kissed is ring."
The Vatican's seal of approval on "Jesus" spread like wildfire beyond the walls of the Vatican, reaching beyond Rome to the provinces by nightfall. When the miniseries aired in Italy a couple of weeks later, it was blessed with the highest ratings - about 10 million viewers - for an entertainment program of the year and came very close to the Italian professional league championship soccer game.
In conjunction with the premiere of "Jesus" in Italy, Sisto - only 24 years old at the time - was honored for his "achievements" by ranking officials in the southeast region of Puglia where his grandfather hails from.
"It was all very strange because I was born in Grass Valley, California, and grew up in Chicago," he muses, "which means I felt very disconnected in many ways from my family roots in Italy.
"Reconnecting like that was a fabulous experience, though one really honoring my ancestors."
With 20/20 hindsight, Sisto regards the whole "Jesus" involvement as an unusual milestone in his young professional career.
"I think of it as a journey that started, coincidentally, by watching 'The Last Temptation of Christ' (1988) on television about two weeks before I was offered 'Jesus.' One day I checked my phone messages; the next day I was on a plane to Morocco for a three-month stay.
"We arrived in Ouarzazate, a remote desert town on the edge of the Sahara Desert that happens to have state-of-the-art sound stages built by an Italian production company where a couple of dozen Biblical epics (including 'Moses' and 'Joseph') have been shot over the years," he continues.
"All of a sudden I was working six-day weeks, playing soccer in 130-degree heat with the crew on Sundays. We were in Malta for a few days to shoot the scene where Jesus walks on water. It seemed surreal."
The story spans the entire life of Christ, but focuses on the three years before his death at the age of 33 at the hands of Roman soldiers - betrayed by many of his own people and a member of his inner circle. Director Roger Young worked with a huge cast, including Armin Mueller-Stahl (Joseph), Debra Messing (Mary Magdalene), Gary Oldman (Pontius Pilate), David O'Hara (John the Baptist), G.W. Bailey (Livio), Thomas Lockyer (Judas) and Jeroen Krabbe (Satan).
Sisto never gave a second thought to the fact that he was playing the son of God, a man held in utmost reverence by hundreds of millions of Christians worldwide.
"I never think that far ahead," he chuckles. "For me, it was really a matter of working with people I liked and respected on a project that posed huge challenges. Another reason why I was very excited about it is that the script, with its earthy interpretations, filled in gaps in the Messiah's story that I wasn't aware of."
The son of carpenter-turned-musician Dick Sisto and actress Reedy Gibbs suffered a largely unhappy childhood fraught with rejection ("I never was really accepted by my peers and classmates"), which only intensified when his parents went through a divorce a few years later. Somehow it didn't help that his older sister, Heather, and stepfather, Bruno Alexander, also are actors. Nor did he take much comfort in his eight step-siblings along the way.
Seeking to escape his demons, the intense Sisto lost himself in acting from the time of 6 - enjoying his life on stage rather than in the classroom.
"I still struggle with the fact that I have been rejected most of my life and want so much to be accepted," he says. "I also felt the responsibility of making money to help out my family financially from an early age."
He soon picked up work in local TV commercials, made his legitimate professional acting debut at Chicago's famed Goodman Theater in a Tennessee Williams play in his early teens and was cast in the hit motion picture "Grand Canyon" (1991) while still in high school.
"I don't know what I would have done if I hadn't gotten 'Grand Canyon,' but I found myself (in L.A.) thinking I had a huge gift and that this was the only place to use it."
So far, so good. After a couple of lean years in Hollywood - largely financed by his stint in the Kevin Kline-Danny Glover movie and collecting unemployment insurance - he found gainful employment in such feature films as "Without Limits," "White Squall," "Suicide Kings," "Clueless" and "Moonlight & Valentino."
For television, his credits include the miniseries "The '60s," and the MOWs "Solomon's Choice" and "The Shaggy Dog." Coming up soon is an independent film called "Dead Dog," which may get exposure at the Cannes Film Festival, and "Loveland," the pilot episode for a one-hour Fox dramedy aimed at the 2000-01 season.
Single, unattached and with no children, Sisto is taking a 10-day rest in Thailand before seeking out his next project.
"I'm trying to explore the world a little bit and learn how to sleep in and relax in the process," he says. "Until now, most of my travels have been work-related," he says.
"There's a whole different, harsher world out there when you get up at 5:30 in the morning to face a makeup chair and sleep on your only day off."
Visit Copley News Service at www.copleynews.com
(c) Copley News Service
Author: Eirik Knutzen
Heather Paige Kent
Serena Scott Thomas