What role do Paul Bettany, Robert de Niro, Rowan Atkinson and Max von Sydow share? Mr. Jennifer Connelly, the Oscar winner, Mr. Bean and the legendary Swedish superstar all have one kind of part in common. They have all played priests on the big screen.
In this weekend’s post-apocalyptic action horror film Priest Bettany plays the title character, a warrior pastor hunting the vampires who kidnapped his niece. Based on Min-Woo Hyung’s graphic novels the movie also features Christopher Plummer as the Monsignor, described by the legendary Canadian actor as “a horrible priest gone wrong—a lovely, stylish villain.”
In the Barry Levinson film Sleepers De Niro was Father Bobby, a Hell’s Kitchen priest who lies in court to prevent four of his parishioners from going to jail for killing a sadistic prison guard. “Most priests like to preach from the pulpit,” says one character. “Father Bobby liked to talk during the bump and shove of a pick-up game.”
Atkinson played Father Gerald, a new vicar performing his first marriage ceremony in Four Weddings and a Funeral. The tongue-tied priest has some of the film’s funniest lines, including, “In the name of the father, the son and the holy goat. Er… ghost.”
Probably the most famous movie celebrant is Father Lankester Merrin, as portrayed by Max von Sydow in The Exorcist. Von Sydow is one of the few actors to have played both God (in The Greatest Story Ever Told) and the Devil (in Needful Things) but it is as Merrin that he is best remembered (unless you are a Great White North hoser who worships his role as Brewmeister Smith in Bob and Doug MacKenzie’s Strange Brew). The statuesque Swedish actor played Merrin twice—he’s seen in flashbacks in Exorcist II: The Heretic—and Stellan Skarsgård played him in two prequels but it is the first movie and the iconic line “The Power of Christ compels you!” that is most memorable.
Many other actors have played clerics. Carl Maldan was Father Barry in the Best Picture winner On the Waterfront, George Carlin was Cardinal Ignatius Glick, the mastermind of Dogma’s ‘Catholicism Wow!’ campaign but the actor most associated with playing priests is Pat O’Brien. He became an actor only after deciding against entering seminary and his devotion to playing priestly characters was so well known it even inspired the name of band, the blues-rockers Pat O’Brien and the Priests of Love.