During the summer of 2017, I spent some time trying to get ahold of Mark Burnett, originator of “The Apprentice,” “Survivor,” “Shark Tank” and other reality TV shows.
I was researching a story on Paula White, A key spiritual advisor to Donald Trump. She’d told me she’d held Bible studies for cast members of “The Apprentice” and I wanted to see if Burnett would talk about having her on the set.
This Hollywood player had an obvious Christian connection, as he’d been married to “Touched by an Angel” co-star Roma Downey since 2007, so I thought a few questions about Paula’s Bible studies shouldn’t faze him. But he’d been under pressure to release tapes from “The Apprentice” (so people can check to see if Trump said anything outrageous on them), so he was not commenting on anything to do with the show. Downey, by the way, is one of the most openly Christian actresses in Hollywood.
So I was intrigued to read more about his religious journey in a new story out in The New Yorker. The gist of this long tale isn’t faith by any means. Like so much news fodder these days, the key is Trump, Trump, Trump.
This feature story wanders around, asking this question: Does Burnett feel any responsibility for staging the show that propelled Trump toward the presidency? In other words, Burnett created this monster and how does he live with it?
Answer: Very well. If Burnett feels any qualms about his curious role in American history, he’s not talking about it. As good and insightful as the article is –- and I certainly learned a lot from it –- I’ll not be dwelling on most of it. But I do have something to say about the religious parts.
Downey, who grew up in a Catholic family in Northern Ireland, is deeply religious, and eventually Burnett, too, reoriented his life around Christianity. “Faith is a major part of our marriage,” Downey said, in 2013, adding, “We pray together.”
For people who had long known Burnett, it was an unexpected turn. This was a man who had ended his second marriage during a live interview with Howard Stern. … In 2008, Burnett’s longtime business partner, a lawyer named Conrad Riggs, filed a lawsuit alleging that Burnett had stiffed him to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. …
Years ago, Burnett told Esquire that religion was “a waste of time.” (Second wife) Dianne Burnett told me that when she was married to him he had no interest in faith. “But you know what? People change,” she continued. “So I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.” When Burnett met Downey, he reinvented himself. Having made a fortune producing television that was often exploitative, he announced that he would now focus exclusively on “family-friendly franchises,” declaring, “You don’t need to be mean to create drama.”
Burnett and Downey launched a production company that has specialized in Christian-themed programming, including a hundred-million-dollar remake of “Ben-Hur,” which flopped. Burnett has spoken enthusiastically to colleagues about the role that prayer and religious devotion now play in his life. He and Downey describe themselves as “the noisiest Christians in Hollywood.”
(First wife) Kym Gold told me she thinks that Burnett tends to adapt to his current partner. Before he married Gold, who is Jewish, he took a six-week course in Judaism. “I’ve never known Mark to be religious,” Gold observed. But she noted that “people close to him have said, ‘He follows the wind.’ ”
When the two got married, they had “Touched By An Angel” co-star Della Reese do the ceremony.
Naturally, one wonders where this couple attends church. It appears that The New Yorker piece didn’t broach (or answer) that question, but it did quote from a family friend, the Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church.
Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor, is a friend of Burnett’s. “Mark is not at all the person he was a decade ago,” he told me. “Hollywood is built on money, sex, power, and fame. I would say that none of those things are driving forces for him anymore.” Warren assured me, unprompted, that Burnett is sincere in his Christianity — that he is a “genuine believer” who has committed to being an “ambassador” for his faith.
Others who know Burnett noted to me that the Christian community is itself a significant viewer demographic. Burnett talks with colleagues about the “faith audience,” and describes the Christian community as “the largest army on earth.” In 2013, he and Downey produced “The Bible,” a History Channel miniseries that, Burnett claims, was watched by a hundred million people. The Good Book, in Burnett’s words, is “the ultimate period piece.”
Yes, there is money in marketing to Christians, but the religious marketplace can be fickle. Google Burnett and Downey and Saddleback and you get plenty of hits. Even if they don’t attend (and Malibu is a considerable schlep from Saddleback’s Lake Forest campus), they sure see a lot of Warren.
We also see Burnett at a U.S. State Department event advocating on behalf of religious freedom, which has become a cause du jour thanks to the Trump administration.
The article goes on to build a case for the havoc Trump has created in the past two years and the unwillingness of Burnett, one of few individuals who has access to the President, to speak truth into Trump’s life.
For all Burnett’s talk about being nonpolitical, his reluctance to disavow the President may stem, in part, from a fear of alienating Trump’s constituents. Like Republican lawmakers or evangelical pastors, Burnett is beholden to a faction of the public that, in many instances, thinks the President can do no wrong. “The moment you go political, you turn half of the nation against you,” Rick Warren told me. “And, when you’re trying to reach as many people as you can, you don’t want to do that.”
Kind of a slap against evangelical pastors, I think (even with that qualifier phrase, “in many instances”). The piece ends with the cozy existence Burnett has found for himself, surrounded by quiescent fellow evangelicals.
He seldom tweets, but he’s active on Instagram. Along with family snapshots and photographs of Burnett palling around with celebrities and religious figures, there are a couple of videos he has taken of himself relaxing on the balcony.
“Lazy Sunday afternoon,” Burnett says in one of them. He is barefoot, wearing a T-shirt that says “spiritual gangster.” He gestures at his expansive view, with undisguised satisfaction, and says, “Look at this. Wow.” He pans the camera across the sky, which is just starting to bruise red and violet in the twilight. “So grateful,” Burnett says. He often expresses wonderment at how blessed he is, and at the magnitude of his success — which, these days, he ascribes to “God’s favor.”
The number of fine details in this piece is amazing considering that Burnett refused to give an interview. Hanging an entire piece on someone from whom you can’t get direct quotes is very difficult, so I’m impressed with the sources the author did locate.
But I wonder at the specifics of Burnett’s spirituality. Is he truly as vapid as he appears? Was there truly a conversion at some point?
I found a piece in The Ringer that went more into these questions. Burnett has not publicly said how he came to Christianity sometime in the early oughts but there was some kind of change, no doubt influenced by a growing infatuation with Downey that began in 2004. And so, not for the first time, he reinvented himself.
There’s always hope that Burnett will do interviews again and will be more candid. Then again, the explanation may be quite simple. Burnett is not getting any younger and no doubt he’s auditioning for the big reality show in the sky. Throughout his career, he’s always prided himself at choosing an unlikely winner who later makes it big.
“I don’t always know what I’m doing,” he said to an audience back in 2013. “But I have instincts.”
Too bad the guy isn’t a journalist. Instincts are what we need in this business and Burnett would probably do well. We also need more journalists who ask rather obvious questions, when covering a story that includes lots of religion.