Perched on a divan at his Malibu home, the Pacific Ocean offering a backdrop dramatic enough for the beard he’s been growing since Lent–which has now reached biblical proportions–Mark Burnett seems eager to ask me what appears a straightforward question about one of the most popular film franchises of all time.
“What was Superman based on?”
“The comic book,” I reply, falling conveniently into his trap. The 54-year-old Burnett is the most successful person in the genre that has dominated prime-time television for the past 20 years, reality TV. He glances over at his wife, former Touched by an Angel star Roma Downey, who’s decked out in dark jeans, brown boots and a crucifix necklace. She shakes her head.
“The story …,” begins Downey, her Northern Irish brogue joined emphatically by Burnett’s London lilt in a pan-British duet,” of Jesus!”
“He came from his father up above to save mankind,” continues Burnett, who’s clad in a T-shirt emblazoned with the word GRATEFUL. “It’s not my theory. It’s fact, by the way. Do the research. Superman is Jesus.”
Technically, Superman was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, a pair of Jewish high school students from Cleveland, in 1933–a year after Siegel’s immigrant father was killed in an armed robbery. Comic book historians believe this trauma led the pair to use heroes like Samson and Hercules as models for their protagonist. As this is Hollywood, though, that’s clearly close enough for Burnett, who rattles off a list of other film franchises he says take their dominant influence from the world’s most popular book: Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Matrix.
“If you look at all of these stories they are biblically based,” he says. “So really, you’ve taken a foundation of thousands of years of true stories and built literature upon them.”
Burnett should know. He’s been walking on Hollywood water since bringing Survivor to America a decade and a half ago. From The Apprentice to Shark Tank to The Voice, he’s produced over 2,800 hours of television, winning six Emmys in the process. Ranked No. 41 on this year’s Celebrity 100 list, he earned $86 million over the past 12 months and $249 million in the past four years. His net worth is likely approaching half a billion dollars. (He purchased the sprawling seaside mansion we’re sitting in from Michael Jackson’s former manager, Sandy Gallin, in 2005 for a reported $30 million.)
“He’s got tremendous imagination, he’s got a great sense of theater, and he’s somebody that everybody likes,” says Apprentice star Donald Trump of Burnett. “That helps him get things done that a lot of people can’t.”
His biggest hit in recent years has been a very different sort of show: The Bible. Produced by Burnett and Downey, the History Channel series drew an average of over 10 million viewers per show in the U.S. during its ten-episode run in 2013 (and performed similarly worldwide, beating out the NHL’s opening night in hockey-crazed Canada). Its Easter Sunday finale outdrew the first episode of Game of Thrones and the finale of The Walking Dead.
“Roma,” he says, lowering his voice mischievously, “tell him your favorite headline of the year.”
“Oh, God,” she replies. “It was a CNN headline: ‘God Beats Zombies.’ ”
“The point here is the mainstream intelligentsia of journalists, people like you in New York and L.A., maybe don’t understand the fabric of the nation,” he continues, with the confidence of a true believer. “This nation was built under the Bible and free enterprise. … Because of Touched by an Angel, which is a very middle-of-the-country show; Survivor, a very middle-of-the-country show; Shark Tank, a very middle-of-the-country show, I think we understand our viewers.”
That understanding now extends beyond the small screen. In February Burnett and Downey released Son of God, a feature film focusing on the life of Jesus. Culled from scenes shot for The Bible, it grossed $60 million domestically–not bad for cable television table scraps. The success of those two properties pushed NBC to strike a multimillion-dollar deal with Burnett and Downey to create a show based on the lives and work of the apostles after Jesus’ death. Dubbed A.D.: Beyond the Bible, the series will premiere on NBC next year on Easter Sunday. They also signed on as producers of the MGM-Paramount remake of Ben-Hur.
“There are not a lot of books being read these days,” says Paul Telegdy, NBC’s president of late-night and alternative programming. “But there is one that’s being read and reread, and that’s the Bible. Mark and Roma’s relationship with that text as a television spectacle is intensely personal, and I believe them when they’re talking about it.”
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