Volatile Attractions Saul Holiff, Johnny Cash, and Managing a Music Legend

The Rupture: Part Two

In addition to his own personal problems, Holiff soon began to clash with Cash again. After the huge commercial success of 1968-1971, Cash was turning to other priorities. 

Johnny Cash being baptized in the Jordan River, 1971

In 1970, Cash met Reverend Billy Graham and began performing at Graham's Crusades. As Hilburn explains, Graham's influence led Cash--with June's encouragement--to incorporate more religious content on his television show, which was renewed for a third season (396).

The show was cancelled in March 1971. According to Hilburn, the decreasing popularity of variety shows likely contributed to its declining ratings (396). However, people involved with the show, including producer Stan Jacobson (who was fired earlier that year after telling ABC that Cash would not do a circus-themed episode), speculate that the religious content also may have accounted for the show's dwindling popularity (Hilburn 396-397).

But Cash was not dissuaded from the religious direction of his work. In May 1971, according to Julie Chadwick, Cash was born again at a service in Nashville with the Reverend Jimmy Snow (Chadwick 281), and he set his sights on a new project: a film about the life of Christ.

In November 1971, Holiff accompanied Cash to Israel for the filming of what would eventually be called The Gospel Road, released in 1972. Holiff played the role of the Jewish high priest Caiaphas, and his pictures from the trip--particularly of Cash and June being baptized in the River Jordan--suggest what a personal undertaking the film was for Cash. 

Holiff, who had been raised an atheist but was the son of Jewish immigrants and had experienced anti-Semitism throughout his life (he would later say that he found anti-Semitism in the southern U.S. "palpable"), was wary of Cash's growing fundamentalism.

Holiff was also concerned about the effect of Cash's outspoken religious beliefs on his career. When Cash insisted on doing the film, Holiff, ever pragmatic and candid, apparently told him outright that he should not expect it to be a commercial success.

Listen to Saul Holiff discuss anti-Semitism in the southern U.S. in an interview with Howie Siegel on Pajama Party, 1984:

Saul Holiff on Anti-Semitism in the Southern U.S., 1984
Saul Holiff as Caiaphas on the set of "The Gospel Road," 1971

In a phone call that Holiff recorded, Cash brings up the subject of the film by saying that he "need[s] to clear the air completely." He tells Holiff, "I knew way before I even did the film that there's a lot of people, maybe the majority of people, who are not gonna buy what I'm saying in this film or what the film is saying. So you see, I don't really have to be told that 'cause I know that."  

Holiff responds that he was merely being honest and that too many people "tell you exactly what you want to hear . . . and that doesn't help," to which Cash replies, "No, it doesn't."

The phone call offers a fascinating glimpse at the way they approach the issue; there is some defensiveness on Cash's part and the clear effort to be tactful on Holiff's, and while they seem to agree upon the need for honest constructive criticism, there remains a sense of uneasiness about the exchange.

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