I'll never forget the night, now more a decade past, when I was flipping around the TV dial and witnessed the legendary TV pastor, Dr. Gene Scott, engaged in a sultan-like display of decadence in the backyard of his Pasadena mansion. He was relaxing in a folding chair and smoking a giant cigar while three young ladies who looked like Baywatch extras entertained him by bumping and grinding to the accompaniment of the Eagles' "Heartache Tonight." This went on for several minutes, and every now and then an announcer's voice would drift in, encouraging me to call a phone number at the bottom of the screen and donate cash.
I'll also never forget Scott's line when the taped segment ended and we found him back in the studio, addressing his flock: "Now that you've seen what I got waitin' for me at home," he said, firing up another impressive stogie with a pistol-shaped lighter, "you should all be extra nice to me for comin' down here to talk to ya."
For decades, Scott had been a fixture on the UHF dial. You'd be flipping around, any time of the day or night, and there he'd be, staring at you in extreme close-up and talking about Jesus in a steady, mesmerizing drawl, often sporting two pairs of glasses at once and an array of eye-catching hats: a sombrero, a collegiate mortarboard, even a king's crown. Most of the time he was low-key to the point of tedium, dissecting the fine points of scripture for hour after hour. If you stuck around long enough, he'd usually get into UFOs or Atlantis or other wackjob stuff like that, all in the same professorial, soporific tone. But every now and then, whenever his audience wasn't pledging enough for his satisfaction, he'd suddenly fly into a terrifying, murderous rage, roaring at the camera and denouncing us as all as useless, faithless fools. It was strangely reassuring; whether you were home sick from school or staggering in at 3 a.m. after a night of wretched excess, you always knew you could turn on the TV and Dr. Scott would be waiting for you, cigar in hand, ready to tell you all about Joseph of Arimathea and call you a fathead.
I'm not sure when Scott introduced the dirty-dancing bimbos into his show, but they soon became a welcome addition—tasty cookies to help wash down his rather dry sermons. You could say a lot of bad things about Scott, but nobody could ever call him a hypocrite. In an era when other TV preachers were constantly being busted for consorting with fallen women and living large on the hard-earned cash of their followers, Scott somehow made such deeds into selling points. He would demand your money and he'd spend it any way he saw fit, and if that included hiring strippers to dance for his pleasure, well, we could like it or we could (literally) go to Hell.
Scott was such a fascinating and peculiar character that he inspired me to a write an OC Weekly cover story ("God's Angriest Man," Jan. 3, 1997). At that point there wasn't much to be found about him online (this was pre-Google, pre-Wikipedia) so I spent months digging through the crumbling archives of my local library, uncovering endlessly contradictory info about the man. One story portrayed him as a scary, staff-abusing tyrant with possible mob ties, while the next painted him as a quiet and basically solitary soul leading a near-monastic existence, spending so many hours on live TV every day talking about the Resurrection that he barely had any time left to get home to the harem of babes that awaited him. I learned that Scott owned an impressive stable of show ponies and one of the foremost collections of Bibles in the world—Bibles the size of your thumbnail, Bibles the size of a screen door. I learned that Robin Williams had impersonated Scott on Saturday Night Live. I crammed my head full of facts about him, but none of those facts seemed to bring me any closer to understanding who this man really was or why he did what he did.
Eventually I trekked all the way to downtown LA to rent a fritzy copy of Werner Herzog's fantastic 1980 documentary about Scott, God's Angry Man. Along with showcasing some of Scott's most spectacular on-air tantrums, the film showed Scott backstage, candidly discussing his life and the nature of his faith. I'd been prepared to dismiss him as one of the 20th century's greatest scam artists, but when he spoke of Christ, there was something in his eyes that was undeniable and genuine. While I came away from the film more confused than ever, I felt definitively confused. I had to accept that in the end, there was no understanding this guy. Somehow, someway, he was a scam artist and a true believer. He sold the snake oil . . . and he was also a client.
When Scott passed away at age 75 in 2005,I felt a twinge of sorrow knowing that we'd never see his like again. But then, a few months ago, something strange and wonderful happened.