He’s known in Hollywood as "Father Willy," and his job is to be a Christian and Catholic influence on what is produced on film and for television.
The Rev. Wilfred "Willy" Raymond, a priest for 34 years with the Congregation of Holy Cross, is executive director of Family Theater Productions, which first gained national prominence after World War II with the slogans "A family that prays together stays together" and "A world at prayer is a world at peace." Today, Raymond oversees a company working on many fronts to "evangelize culture by using mass media to entertain, inspire and educate families."
He said Hollywood, a target for relentless criticism for its impact on morality and culture, is a force that needs people of faith trying to help guide it. "I think the media today, especially film and television, are shaping a lot of popular culture around the world, so it is absolutely critical what direction the media goes in and what it is used for," Raymond said.
Raymond, 61, will speak Aug. 27 at the Arizona Marian Conference at the Doubletree Scottsdale-Paradise Valley Resort, 5401 N. Scottsdale Road. His focus will be the Rev. Patrick Peyton, founder of Family Theater Productions, a priest who was a broadcast pioneer and an early architect of religious entertainment.
Peyton recruited hundreds of Hollywood stars from 1947 to 1969 for "Family Theater on the Air," broadcast by the Mutual Radio Network. Its first episode, "Flight From Home," featured Jimmy Stewart, Loretta Young and Don Ameche. The half-hour dramas, which also includedBing Crosby and Grace Kelly, set a record for longevity.
"It was not too specifically Catholic and was broad enough to include other Christians, plus Jews and people of other faiths or no faith," Raymond said. "There would be nothing that would be offensive to Catholic beliefs or detrimental to the church."
Now, the package of 500 radio shows are being digitally remastered for rerelease, but not before the dialogue is re-examined to "make sure the changes in language are not offensive" to today’s audiences, he said.
Peyton is a candidate for Catholic sainthood, and "in the next few years, he is very likely to be beatified and then, we hope, canonized," Raymond said.
Raymond, who took the executive post in 2000 after service as the superior of its eastern province, said his mission is to continue in the spirit of Peyton, whose message was that "families need a spiritual life to hold them together."
"The bond of unity for families and the way to achieve that is through prayer," said Raymond, who earlier in the week had attended a party at the home of Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in last year’s blockbuster film "The Passion of the Christ."
Caviezel, in fact, was a newcomer to Hollywood in 1990, when he showed up at a drop-in center that Peyton’s ministry operated to reach out to the thousands of young people who come to Southern California with a dream of getting into film.
"Everything that Jim owned was in his car, and he was driving around Hollywood lost," Raymond said of Caviezel. "He didn’t know where to go, and he said, ‘I saw that sign: "The family that prays together stays together," and he said to himself, ‘That sounds familiar. I am going to go see what’s in there.’ " Caviezel met Peyton and said he wanted the priest to hear his confession. Caviezel remains a supporter of Family Theater Productions, which continues to reach out to young people in Hollywood.
"I decided early on that a lot of young people come to Hollywood and they are looking for direction, and they get taken advantage of by people who set themselves up as, or claim to be, agents and managers but just take their money and never help them out," Raymond said. Once a month, he holds "Hollywood Prayers — Prayer and Pasta Nights," an open house to meet and help young people. It is described as "a place to pray, network and receive spiritual direction and limited guidance in pursuing and sustaining work in the media industry."
Family Theater Productions has produced four halfhour TV dramas aimed at
teens and their families and linking contemporary stories to the mysteries of the rosary. It also sponsors the annual Angelus Awards Student Film Festival, which recognizes films produced by university students. The 10-yearold contest attracts more than 600 entries a year.
It gives out $25,000 in prizes, with $10,000 for the best film.
Family Theater Productions (www.familytheater.org) gave actor James Dean and director George Lucas early credits — Dean in a 1951 episode of Peyton’s television series, and Lucas as an assistant cameraman on the 1963 short "The Soldier," starring William Shatner.
Actor Ricardo Montalban, of "Fantasy Island" fame, has worked with the organization since the 1940s and has done many recordings and projects that reach the Hispanic community.
"A lot of Christians in particular are coming to Hollywood," Raymond said. "There are a lot of evangelical Christians and a lot of Catholics coming with very good intentions. They either come with money, or they come here with what they hope is talent, and they want to make a difference in Hollywood."
Many come, lack patience, get burned and leave, he said. "This is an art form, and if you want to have an influence on that art form, you have to learn it and you have to to find out what is true and beautiful and good and respect those who are already good at it."
Judy Keane, a board member of the Mir Center of Arizona, which is host for the Aug. 26-28 Marian Conference, said Raymond was invited to speak because of the "uniqueness of his ministry as it pertains to the importance of the family."
The annual conference is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and focuses on the life of Christ and the role of Mary, mother of Jesus, in the Catholic faith. Nine speakers will focus on such issues as Mass, reconciliation, eucharistic adoration and prayer.
For more information, call (480) 964-6111.