Steve Martin, who plays a charismatic and mendacious con-man evangelist in his latest movie, "Leap of Faith," says he has mixed feelings about the men who employ sleight-of-hand in the name of the Lord.
"As a person in show business I think they're fabulous. And when they start healing people, I think some of it may be very true and inspired and spiritual, and I definitely believe that some of it is completely fake. That's where I draw the line. I think that's where it gets into the world of evil; playing on people's emotions like that. I think there are legitimate evangelists. There are shysters -- like anything."
The fever pitch of the audience enraptured by what the preacher has to say is similar to the idolization often given a comic star like Mr. Martin, or the hysteria that surrounds a rock star.
"I think it's much more rewarding for the evangelists than it is for the comedian," he says, "because you're always headed for the money-collecting."
Mr. Martin has come a long way since he first babbled non-sequiturs with an arrow through his head.
At 47, he is a bona fide movie star, with films like "Housesitter," "L.A. Story" and "Father of the Bride" decorating his resume. But the status he enjoys now was not the result of any driving desire to be taken "seriously," he says.
"It's a way to conveniently write about what I'm doing by accident. It's so easy to say a comedian wants to be serious or wants to play Hamlet. But it's not about that. I'm a performer and I've moved along in my career from stand-up to movies like "Airplane" to movies like "Father of the Bride" to "Roxanne." To me it's a certain kind of progress. I can't stay where I was."
Eleven years ago, when Mr. Martin starred as the luckless sheet-music salesman in "Pennies from Heaven," the world wasn't ready to see its favorite wild-and-crazy-guy as the hapless victim of the Depression.
"Now audiences have no trouble accepting me in 'Leap of Faith,' " he says, "at least audiences in Pasadena (Calif.) " (where the movie was sneak-previewed. It opens nationwide Friday.) As the rapturous, swindling evangelist, Mr. Martin is able to use not only his mental gymnastics but his physical prowess.
Anybody who saw Mr. Martin playing the man with the woman inside his body in "All of Me" will remember how facile he was on his feet. In "Leap of Faith," he not only praises the Lord at the top of his lungs, he gets to do some Irish step-dancing.
Mr. Martin says he doesn't feel cheated that while comedy is difficult, it's rarely honored by the folks who hand out the Oscars.
"It's like saying, 'How come I didn't get an award from the American Medical Association?' Because they're in a completely different business. That's what the Oscars are. They're a completely different business from what I do. So as a fantasy and as conjecture it's sort of fun to play around and think about it. But ultimately you know this is not their business."