Dr. Gene Scott, who died last February, was a televangelist like no other. Sporting unkempt white hair, a scruffy beard, and thick cigars he chewed like candy, Dr. Scott entranced me for years, and I have no idea what the hell he was talking about.
When I was a kid, televangelists towered over the Alabama landscape. Their broadcasts didn’t just bathe the airwaves of the deep South, they battered it thicker than my grandmother’s fried chicken. Shit-slick snake-oil salesmen like Leroy Jenkins and Ernest Angely taught me how to spot a liar a mile away with both eyes shut. Shiny suits, bad hairpieces, lying toothy smiles as they begged you to send Jesus your money. Well, they’d ask you to send it to them, of course, and they’d be sure to forward it on to Jesus. After they paid for those mansions and Cadillacs and Greek vacations that Jesus wanted them to have.
Dr. Gene Scott didn’t just beg for money, he demanded it. He berated his audience for not meeting pledge goals. He cursed and swore and growled like the gruff, drunk uncle who embarasses everyone at Thanksgiving, but at least keeps things lively.
His low-tech broadcasts were insane. Between rants about apocalypse and resurrection, he’d show endless footage of his horse ranch, or him cavorting at picnics with big-bosomed beauties. Then you’d return to the soundstage – sometimes a bare set with a recliner, while other times it was decorated with pure kitsch -- to watch the doctor translate scriptures from Aramaic to Hebrew to Latin to Greek to English on a whiteboard. Then he’d yell some more because money wasn’t coming in fast enough.
He was out there, folks. Often he’d tell his band to strike up a gospel-country tune he’d written called “Kill a Piss-Ant for Jesus.” During the first Gulf War, he urged the first President Bush to “Nuke Iraq for Jesus!” He liked those big-bosomed women a lot, and sometimes had them dancing on his program.
To say his theories and beliefs were bizarre is an understatement. In his first HBO special, comedian Robin Williams accurately parodied the good doctor by growling: “I will compare and contrast Jesus with Spider-Man!”
If you’d like to see a clip of Dr. Scott at the peak of his powers, watch this excerpt from a telethon. And read this profile that ran in the L.A. Times. If you’re brave, run a Google search and marvel at the websites, pro and con, devoted to this man.
On a hot summer night in 1990, I was sitting in my Tampa, Fla., studio apartment, mesmerized by the good doctor’s latest telethon. He’d shown footage of his horses, a few strangely touching clips of his just-departed father doddering at a dinner, and was introducing an older sermon he was gonna rerun while a toll-free phone number flashed for donations.
I’m tempted by toll-free numbers. Back in the day, I’d look for consumer hotlines on every product I could find. I’d call ‘em up seeking advice on situations they were ill-equipped to handle. “Hello? Yes, um, I just used your steak sauce to wash the scent of a skunk off my dog, and now he’s acting really strange. Like, panting and twitching and his eyeballs are rolling around in his head. Can you please help me?”
So I finally broke down and called Dr. Scott that night. Although I’d been watching his show for weeks, I honestly didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. I took the guise of a whispery old man named Melvin Sumpter, a widowed Navy veteran who wanted to donate money to the cause, but was holding back because Dr. Scott seemed slightly incoherent. Then I told the representative that I had a cousin who was hooked on drugs and pills of all kinds, and Dr. Scott’s behavior was so similar that I just had to wonder …
Ah, they hung up. Whatever. I remember cracking a brew and reaching for some comic books to flip through until something better came along.
Which took about ten seconds.
Suddenly Dr. Scott cuts off the pre-taped sermon and slams himself down in the chair on his bare-bones set. The camera pulls in tight as he chomps his stogey. He’s live and in color, red-faced, filled with God’s righteous anger. “If you people would fill them phone-lines, we wouldn’t have any damn pranksters calling in saying I’m on drugs! Do your jobs, people! Our phones oughta be off their hooks! What the hell do you think we’re doing here? Get on them phones and give me that damn money!”
Then he looked right at me, narrowing his bleary eyes and pointing the lit end of his cigar at the camera. “And you! Calling in here! You listen up, pal. You think you’re funny, do ya? Smart ass. Wisecracker. Calling up, rattling off your nonsense! Well, let me tell you something. You’re useless! You don’t understand a damn thing! You need to switch channels ‘cause we’re doing the Lord’s work here! If you don’t understand that, you need to get the hell out of our way!”
Then it was back to the horses for twenty minutes. I was speechless at first, and then the giggling started.
When Dr. Scott died, his cancer-wracked body had driven him to abandon the faith-healing he espoused for decades. He sought medical treatment at the end, but died anyway. He left behind a strong evangelical empire to be run by his third wife, Melissa, who sings a lot on the show, probably because everyone's afraid to tell her she can't sing. And it looks like LA’s indy channel KDOC has enough Dr. Scott on tape to rerun him for the next thousand years or so. It ain’t immortality, but it’s pretty darned close.
I’ll say this for Dr. Scott. He was entertaining as hell. And unlike other televangelists, there was at least one brief moment when I felt he was speaking directly to me.