Roger Ebert Home

Interview with Pat Boone

Pat Boone (you once made him cry when you said good-by) will be 36 in June, and he wears fancy leather spats these days instead of the white bucks, but his face is still unlined, his eyes are still bright, his voice is still clear and he still keeps the faith.

"My new movie will be called 'The Cross and the Switchblade,' and it will be released in March," he was saying the other day.

"It's based on a book that is the true story of David Wilkerson, a man who read an article in Life magazine 12 years ago about the gang wars in New York City. David Wilkerson was a 28-year-old preacher from Pennsylvania at that time, but he found himself strangely moved to leave Pennsylvania and go to New York...

"The magazine article was about the Farmer trial, named after one of the boys who was killed. It was a thrill killing. Several gang members got high on pills and killed him. Then they ran his blood through their hair...they seemed to kill just for kicks, and even the death sentence didn't seem to affect them. David Wilkerson wanted to reach those boys.

"Well, he was unable to reach them, and he found himself alone in New York with nothing but his faith. He walked in the streets, in the slums, and he was filled with an overwhelming sense of compassion. He was one skinny 28-year-old preacher with no money, no organization, nothing but his faith in God. But he meant to help the street gangs."

Boone talked softly, earnestly, of the skinny young preacher.

"He went into the streets, into the alleys. The gangs humored him. He became sort of a gang chaplain. Finally he began to get results. He centered his work on drug addiction, and out of those early days came the experience he used in founding Teen Challenge.

"Today," Boone said, "Teen Challenge operates in 30 cities, including Chicago. It buys old homes in the ghetto and fixes them up into centers to help kids who are strung out on dope. It has a staggering 74 per cent record of rehabilitation - less than one out of four kids ever uses dope again. Yet Teen Challenge doesn't use medication or anything else except prayer. It believes that if a person really wants to kick dope, he can ask God to help him, and God will."

Boone said he spent seven weeks on location in Harlem and Brooklyn, shooting the film. Don Murray (star of "The Hoodlum Priest") directed it, and all of the actors except Boone were recruited on the spot.

"They're real people from real places," he said. "I talked to a lot of $40-a-day addicts. I'd be talking to a guy and he'd be nervous, fidgety, you could see he was hooked. They weren't used to programs like Teen Challenge. They knew about programs that would dry them out for a few days; if their habit got too expensive, they'd go to one of these places and get cleaned out so they could work down to a cheaper habit.

"The movie is about Wilkerson's first six months at work. It ends with the first turning point, a gang rally he held at St. Nick's Arena. The gangs came prepared for a rumble. They had guns, knives, chains. But miracles took place that night. They came to rumble, but they put down their guns and chains!"

Boone was in town to appear at the Sportsmen's Show and to visit area offices of a land-development company he's associated with. He said "The Cross and the Switchblade" has had a profound effect on him:

"Both the book and the movie have been life-changing experiences for me. The book is a 20th-Century addition to the Book of Acts. Wilkerson is like one of those fellows Jesus chose to be an apostle.

"He had no great qualification but faith. But one day he stood on a tarred rooftop in Little Puerto Rico, and a group of young dope addicts told him: 'Man, there's only three ways out of addiction: Overdose, suicide or God.'

"Wilkerson realized they were right. He told me that story one night when I stood on the same rooftop with him. He said that at that moment he spoke to God. He said, God, you're gonna have to give me miracles. You gave Peter and James and John miracles, and now you're gonna have to give them to me."

What happened then? I asked.

"God gave him miracles," Boone said. "The first miracle I personally ever witnessed in my life took place at a Wilkerson Youth Rally last year in Orange County, Calif. See, the young kids trust Wilkerson. They trust him because they know he walks the streets talking to the junkies, the prostitutes, the homosexuals. They listened to him, and when he had finished, 500 young people came forward for counseling.

"A lot of them were on pills, grass, speed. But he reached out to them right through the dope, and they heard him. And it was then that I witnessed the miracle.

"One of the young men was freaking out - literally! He was on some kind of chemical. He was moaning, clawing at his face, screaming. I asked his friends what was wrong with him, and they said he was on a bad trip. How do you give counsel to someone who's freaked out?

"Just then, two counselors approached the young man. They put their hands on his shoulders and they began to pray. And as they prayed, I saw this young man suddenly slump in his chair. He appeared to go to sleep. His face was tranquil. Prayer had cut right through the drugs and given him instant peace."

It certainly sounds remarkable, I said.

"It was a miracle," Pat Boone said softly. "If things like that didn't happen all the time, there'd be no Teen Challenge."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

Latest blog posts

Latest reviews

Sweet Dreams
Disappear Completely
LaRoy, Texas
The Long Game
Sasquatch Sunset


comments powered by Disqus