Where are all the actors who played Jesus today?
Realistically, asPopular Mechanics notes, few of the actors who’ve played Jesus remotely resemble the real person, considering he definitely didn’t have Caucasian skin, blue eyes, or an English accent. But if you’re an actor, it’s hard to find a more iconic role for your resume. Jesus of Nazareth has featured on the big screen since film’s earliest days, and he’s been played by actors both unknown and Academy Award-winning. But what happened to these guys after their days in the desert?
Claude Heater – Ben-Hur (1959)
Though he isn’t the main character in the 1959 Charlton Heston epic Ben-Hur, Jesus plays a key role in the events of the film. When he appears, he’s played by a young singer named Claude Heater. Though Heater called Oakland his home, he had to go all the way to Rome to be discovered at a concert by Ben-Hur’s production manager, according to Heater’s official site. After filming wrapped, Heater went back to his career as a singer. He did try his hand at acting on film one more time, playing the role of Tristan in the 1970 TV movie Tristan und Isolde, but according to IMDb, he’s stayed out of the movie world ever since.
Heater grew up in a Mormon household, and even served as a missionary, but his later life took a different track. After what Heater’s website describes as a “careful examination of the book of Mormon,” he asked to be excommunicated from the Mormon church and went on to publish the book Fatal Flaws of The Most Correct Book On Earth in 2008.
Enrique Irazoqui – The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964)
You can play Jesus at just about any age — even if you’re a baby! — and Enrique Irazoqui took on the part when he was just 19 years old. Irazoqui’s Christ appeared in the 1964 Italian film The Gospel According to St. Matthew, a movie which faithfully adapts … well, the Gospel of Matthew. Initially, Irazoqui wasn’t interested in playing Jesus because he didn’t care about acting and because he was (and is) an agnostic. Nonetheless, a friend convinced him to give it a try. After production finished up, he returned home to Spain, where he claims that police took his passport for “having worked on a Marxist film,” according to an interview with Chess News.
One thing is certain: He’s lived an interesting life. Since those days, Irazoqui has resided in the Spanish town of Cadaques, where he has become a professor of literature, an economist, a revolutionary, an expert on artificial intelligence, and a devotee to the game of chess, once even playing against chess master Marcel Duchamp. Today, Irazoqui runs and referees computer chess tournaments all over the world.
Max Von Sydow – The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
Film aficionados need no introduction to Max Von Sydow, whom The Atlantic has called “The Greatest Actor Alive.” Seriously, even if you don’t know his name, you know his face: He’s got the most distinctive jaw line in film history. Von Sydow is most famous for his earlier roles, when he paired with director Ingmar Bergman for dark philosophical films like The Seventh Seal, which features him playing chess against Death. An actor of Von Sydow’s stature just had to play Jesus at least once, and he did so in 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Von Sydow has continued acting since then. Traumatized audiences of the 1970s will always remember him as Father Merrin in The Exorcist, but in more recent years, he’s had memorable roles in Minority Report, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and most notably, Game of Thrones, in which he played the Three-Eyed Raven. He also lent some of his seemingly infinite supply of gravitas to the opening scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Donald Sutherland – Johnny Got His Gun (1971)
Okay, so Johnny Got His Gun definitely isn’t a Jesus movie. Based on the famous anti-war novel by Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun is the story of a young American soldier whose limbs, face, and ears get blasted off by an artillery shell, leaving him almost completely unable to communicate. The novel and movie are told from the soldier’s perspective as his mind drifts between fantasy and reality. An important dream sequence depicts him and his war buddies playing blackjack with the Christian savior, played by Donald Sutherland.
It’s been a long time since 1971, but contemporary audiences will immediately recognize Sutherland from his villainous turn as President Snow in The Hunger Games. When he’s not acting, according to The Guardian, Sutherland is a notable left-wing political activist, known for aggressively opposing the Vietnam War. These beliefs are what inspired his involvement in both Johnny Got His Gun and the Hunger Games franchise, the latter for its themes of class inequality.
Victor Garber – Godspell (1973)
If you’re looking for one of the most unconventional depictions of Jesus to ever hit theaters, the 1973 movie Godspell is your ticket. Adapted from the off-Broadway musical of the same name, this 1973 movie features a contemporary Christian messiah and his wild band of hippie disciples prancing around New York in the ’70s. The movie’s Jesus, who dons a Superman T-shirt, was played by a young actor named Victor Garber in his first starring role.
Garber has been steadily working ever since: He’s one of those actors everyone recognizes, even if they’re not sure where they saw him before. Alias fans will recognize him as Jack Bristow, and he also played Reese Witherspoon’s creepy professor in Legally Blonde. Maybe that Superman T-shirt he wore in his Jesus days earned him the favor of DC Comics because lately he’s been hanging around the CW’s “Arrowverse,” where he plays Dr. Martin Stein on The Flash, Arrow, and Legends of Tomorrow.
Ted Neeley – Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
If there’s one actor who could arguably claim to be a “professional Jesus,” it’s Ted Neeley. Both on stage and on film, Neeley brought life to the singing, dancing messiah portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar, and this Texas native — and lifelong believer — loves it as much as he ever has. After playing Jesus in the 1973 movie, Neeley continued taking on the role in subsequent stage revivals. Ironically enough, according to Yellow Springs News, he originally auditioned for Judas. Weird.
Anyhow, HollywoodChicago.com claims Neeley has portrayed Jesus around 5,000 times. When he’s not playing the role he loves, he tours the country doing screenings of the film version, often including sing-along portions for the audience. In 2017, an interviewer for The Greenfield Recorder asked Neeley if he ever gets tired of playing the role. “Absolutely not,” he replied. “Every performance is like the first time, and that’s because of the music. It never grows old.”
Robert Powell – Jesus of Nazareth (1977)
The 1977 TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth is remembered fondly by many. The nostalgia is mainly due to Robert Powell’s memorable performance as the son of God, which turns up on a lot of “Top 10 Jesus actors” lists. In the years since, Powell has taken on plenty of other roles, including playing Agatha Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot in the play Black Coffee, according to the Edinburgh Evening News.
However, the memory of Jesus of Nazareth has stuck to Powell’s resume like glue, and he’s reconnected with his biblical performance a few times. In 2013, according to Radio Times, Powell played God, narrating Mark Burnett’s TV series The Bible. More recently, he has starred in the documentary series Robert Powell on the Real Jesus of Nazareth, produced by the Smithsonian Channel, in which he travels to Israel and other locations looking for records, anecdotes, and experiences that connect to the historical Jesus.
Kenneth Colley – Life of Brian (1979)
The central joke in Monty Python’s Life of Brian is that the main character isn’t Jesus, despite being born on the first Christmas, living in the same region, and having a similar fate befall him. The real Jesus does occasionally pop up in Brian’s story, and when he does, he’s played by a lesser-known actor named Ken Colley.
However, Jesus isn’t the role Colley is best remembered for today. In 1980, he journeyed to a galaxy far, far away, and cemented his place in nerd culture by playing Admiral Piett, a minor villain in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. The Atlantic praised Piett as “one of the original trilogy’s best fringe characters” for embodying the banal, bureaucratic evil at the heart of the Galactic Empire. In more recent years, he has mainly turned his acting talent toward television, with roles on Holby City and Peaky Blinders.
Chris Sarandon – The Day Christ Died (1980)
Chris Sarandon has sneaked his way into many corners of the film world. Audiences were first introduced to him in Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, where he played Leon, the transgender wife of Al Pacino’s Sonny. After playing Jesus in the 1980 TV movie The Day Christ Died, Sarandon cut his teeth as a vampire in the 1985 cult classic Fright Night. Two years later, he memorably starred as Prince Humperdinck, the haughty antagonist of The Princess Bride.
However, Sarandon didn’t stop there. Alongside guest appearances in everything from Star Trek to ER, Sarandon snagged the role of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas, the creepy-but-heartwarming cult classic that gets airtime on two holidays, Halloween and Christmas, every year. Since then, Sarandon has returned to voice the skeletal “Pumpkin King” in various Disney video game projects, and in 2016, he appeared as Kip Carnigan on Orange is the New Black.
Willem Dafoe – The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
Looking back, it seems hard to believe, but when The Last Temptation of Christ was released in 1988, it was easily one of the most controversial movies of all time, with the New York Times reporting that one Paris theater was set on fire just for showing the film. So, what was everyone up in arms about? Primarily, it came down to how the movie portrayed Jesus, as played by Willem Dafoe, in a somewhat unconventional manner. Dafoe’s Jesus was tormented, cynical, and resentful of his place in God’s plans.
These days, the controversy is barely remembered. One thing’s for sure, though: it definitely didn’t hurt Willem Dafoe’s career. Dafoe has become a big name, bringing his trademark grin to integral roles in American Psycho, Mississippi Burning, and The Boondock Saints. Younger people today probably know him best for his cackling (but surprisingly sympathetic) turn as the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. His Goblin days are done, but Dafoe is coming back to the comics world in late 2018 to star as Vulko in Aquaman.
Jeremy Sisto – Jesus (1999)
After appearing in Clueless, actor Jeremy Sisto tried to nab the part of Jack Dawson in James Cameron’s Titanic, according to an interview with Huffington Post. Sisto evidently did a good job, even getting far enough to do a screen test with Kate Winslet, but the role eventually went to Leonardo DiCaprio. Sisto instead went on to carry the cross in the 1999 TV movie Jesus.
Sisto’s acting career continued steadily after his Christly moment ended. His big break finally hit when he snagged the role of Billy Chenowith in HBO’s funeral home series Six Feet Under. After that, Sisto got recurring roles in other shows like Law & Order, Suburgatory, and Wicked City. TV audiences today might recognize him from Ice, the diamond business crime drama, where he plays Freddy Green.
Christian Bale – Mary, Mother of Jesus (1999)
Yeah, it really happened. No joke. You’d think that Batman playing Jesus would’ve been the sort of monumental event that would set headlines ablaze, but nope. Back when Christian Bale played Christ in the 1999 TV movie Mary, Mother of Jesus, everyone still only remembered him as the kid in Empire of the Sun.
Bale’s resume changed dramatically only a year later, when he bulked up and terrified audiences as the ax-wielding Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Following that, Bale earned acclaim for his intense method-acting approach to films like The Machinist — a role he dropped a dizzying 60 pounds for — followed by his star turn as Bruce Wayne in the epic Dark Knight trilogy. Bale’s place in Hollywood history was forever cemented in 2011, when he won an Academy Award for his performance as boxer Dicky Eklund in The Fighter.
If Bale were cast as Jesus today, studios would probably go nuts with excitement, but at this point, that ship has probably sailed.
Henry Ian Cusick – The Visual Bible: The Gospel of John (2003)
After a number of smaller acting credits, Henry Ian Cusick played Jesus in the 2003 movie The Visual Bible: The Gospel of John, narrated by Christopher Plummer. It’s not hard to see why Cusick was cast: He’s got the look of someone spiritually connected to higher realms and the sincerity to match it. That’s probably why, just a few years later, he earned the role of Desmond Hume in Lost, a beloved character whose psychic premonitions saved the day on multiple occasions.
Barring a Lost reunion that (probably) won’t ever happen, Cusick’s most notable recent appearances have been in the CW series The 100 as Marcus Kane. He’s also been on Scandal, as well as The Inhumans. Then there’s the movie Frank Vs. God, in which he starred as the eponymous “Frank,” a lawyer who tries to sue God. Good luck, Frank! One can only imagine whether his previous career playing Jesus might come up in the court proceedings.
Jim Caviezel – The Passion of the Christ (2004)
Lots of people have played Jesus, but Jim Caviezel is definitely the guy most associated with the role today, thanks to his unforgettable performance in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Which is only fair, since according to Entertainment Weekly, he did survive literally being struck by lightning during production to bring this religious icon to life. Since playing Jesus, Caviezel has starred as John Reese in the AI surveillance series Person of Interest. But recently, Caviezel has been circling back around to the New Testament in more ways than one. According to Deadline Hollywood, he plays the apostle Luke in the 2018 film Paul, Apostle of Christ.
However, USA Today spilled the beans on some even bigger news when it reported Caviezel and Mel Gibson will be teaming up to make a sequel to The Passion, which will chronicle (what else?) the story of Christ’s resurrection. Caviezel has already predicted that it will be “the biggest film in history.” You know Hollywood can’t resist a sequel like that cliffhanger ending from The Passion.
Diogo Morgado – The Bible (2013), Son of God (2014), Women of the Bible (2014)
Getting the opportunity to play Jesus Christ even once is a big deal. But Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado made Jesus into his staple role. His “trilogy” of Jesus performances began with the History Channel’s Emmy-nominated miniseries The Bible. He followed that by depicting Christ in Son of God the next year, then finished it off with a performance in Women of the Bible.
Since then, however, he’s turned to the dark side — on camera, at least. As described in an interview with Glamour, he joined TV series The Messengers in 2015 to play the devil, who in the show is known as “The Man.” That’s two incredibly major biblical roles for a relatively unknown actor, but Morgado seems to be enjoying himself. He’s also appeared in shows like CSI: Cyber and Ouro Verde.
Ewan McGregor – Last Days in the Desert (2015)
Everyone’s probably seen the internet prank that displays a picture of Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi with a caption stating something like “I bet you’re too afraid to upvote Jesus.” In 2015, this meme became a reality when Mr. Obi-Wan himself ventured out into some very Tatooine-esque sands for the film Last Days in the Desert. As you might imagine, the movie depicts the iconic story of Christ’s 40 days in the desert, with the neat twist that McGregor plays both Jesus and the devil.
What has McGregor done since then? He was already a major star, and he’s kept himself busy with some major roles. He reprised his role of Renton in T2 Trainspotting, followed it up by starring in the Fargo TV series, and plays Christopher Robin — yes, friend to stuffed animals — in a 2018 movie showing a grown-up version of the character reconnecting with his old animal buddies in the Hundred Acre Wood, according to Variety.
The Jesus actors who are no longer with us
Alongside the many living actors we’ve caught up with, some of the most significant Jesus actors are no longer with us. The first Jesus on film was R. Henderson Bland (left), who starred in the 1912 film From the Manger to the Cross. After a handful of additional acting credits, Bland passed away in 1941.
H.B. Warner (center-left) starred in Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings in 1927. According to TCM, Warner was required to sign an agreement to lead an “exemplary life” for the next year, which might’ve contributed to his struggle with drinking. Warner later starred in other Hollywood classics, including It’s a Wonderful Life, before dying in 1958.
Robert Le Vigan (center) played Jesus in the 1935 French film Behold the Man. Sadly, after the Nazis invaded France, he declared his antisemitism and regularly helped the Gestapo, according to Films de France. He was later arrested, sentenced to hard labor, and spent his remaining free years in poverty.
Jeffrey Hunter (center-right) featured in the 1961 remake of King of Kings, but sci-fi fans will forever recognize him from Star Trek, in which he played the ill-fated Captain Pike. He passed away in 1969.
Finally, legendary thespian William Hurt (right) was Jesus in Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I. Hurt later starred in the film version of George Orwell’s 1984, and was recently the “War Doctor” in Doctor Who. Hurt died in January 2017.