Martha Williamson is a 25-year veteran of the
entertainment industry, writing and producing television
drama, sit-com, and variety for all three major networks and
cable. She is best known as the Executive Producer and Head
Writer of the ground-breaking hit drama, Touched By An
Angel which received 9 Emmy nominations over its nine-year
run on CBS.
Williamson was also the first woman to solely executive
produce two shows simultaneously when she created and
executive-produced Promised Land also for CBS. Her work
has been honored with numerous awards, among them, the Freedom
Works Award from Congress, the Anti-Defamation League's
Deborah Award, the Edward R. Murrow Responsibility in
Television Award, the Williams College Bicentennial Medal, the
prestigious Producer's Guild Nova Award, the Templeton Award
and several NAACP Awards for best television drama.
Martha was appointed by the President to the White House
Counsel for Service and Civic Participation and most recently
served as the host of A Touch of Encouragement, the #1
inspirational video website on Beliefnet.com. Martha has also
appeared onstage on both coasts performing her musical
one-woman show Martha At Risk.
Martha is a native of Denver, Colorado and a graduate of
Williams College. She is a popular speaker and the author of
several books, including Inviting God to Your Wedding
which was recently released in its 10th anniversary edition by
Random House. Martha has lived in Pasadena since 1977 and
resides in Madison Heights with her husband, Jon Andersen, and
their two daughters. She has served on the Board of Directors
of the Pasadena Playhouse since 2002.
“TV is Touched by an Angel”
by Martha Williamson, Pasadena, California
as told to Richard H. Schneider
Of all the television series I have produced in the past 12 years, none has affected me more than the one that came to my attention in the spring of 1994.
That’s when CBS asked me if I would be executive producer of a new show called Touched By An Angel. “We’ll send you a tape of the pilot,” said my contact.
When the tape arrived, I slipped it into my VCR and sat on the living room floor to watch. The show was about angels, and I had barely viewed half before I decided against it. In fact, it upset me. It wasn’t true to what I knew about angels. From studying the Bible I knew angels were God’s messengers who could do nothing but His will.
But the pilot I saw portrayed angels as recycled dead people with power over life and death. They didn’t treat one another with respect, and the show gave the audience the option of believing in them. I felt anyone wanting to see a show about angels would expect to see heavenly beings who were enthusiastic about their work, did it with joy and integrity, and loved their Boss.
I turned off my VCR and, without really taking time to pray about it, went to the phone and told CBS I couldn’t work on the show.
A week later I had lunch with Andy Hill, then President of CBS Productions. We met at a restaurant in Hollywood, and as we talked, something strange happened: I found myself bringing up the angel show.
“Now, when you hire that executive producer,” I said, “make sure he portrays angels as loving, joyful beings. And remember,” I emphasized, “don’t give the audience the option of believing in them.”
Again and again, I raised points that I felt should be considered. Even outside the restaurant, I continued talking about the show. As I finally left, I rolled down my car window and said, “If you need any ideas, give me a call.”
Andy smiled and waved good-bye. As I pulled away I felt I was leaving something important behind. But I had another possibility: NBC had offered me a courtroom drama series. Not only did it promise to be a success, it would also earn me more money than I had ever made before.
My deadline to accept this offer was the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, less than a week away. But during the next few days, no matter what I did—driving, reading, cooking—my thoughts kept turning to angels. Every time I prayed, I kept hearing the word angels. Each time I gave thanks over a meal, angels came to mind. Finally, I had to believe the Lord was speaking to me. I called Andy Hill at CBS. “Andy, is the angel job still open?”
“No, not exactly,” he said. “We’ve made appointments to interview other producers.” My heart sank. “But,” he added, “why don’t you come in? The earliest we could see you would be Wednesday after Memorial Day.” After Memorial Day?
“Well . . . yes,” I agreed. “I’ll be there.”
I slumped onto my sofa, my stomach tightening. I had to give my answer to NBC this coming Friday. But I wouldn’t know about the angel show until the following Wednesday. Should I risk giving up the best offer I had ever had for something that might not even happen?
For two days and nights I wrestled with my decision. Friday morning I woke still in a quandary. Finally, with only hours left, I did what I should have done earlier: I called a prayer partner. “Greg, please pray for a decision I must make today,” I said. “I’m not going to tell you what it’s about except that in a few hours I have to accept or turn down a good job opportunity. I just want you to ask the Lord if I should say yes or no.”
An hour later my phone rang. “Martha,” said Greg. “I’ve been in prayer since you called and all I keep hearing is no.”
This was my confirmation, for I had been getting the same answer. I hung up the phone and was about to call NBC when something made me hesitate. Was it wise to turn down a sure thing? Then I remembered one of my favorite Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5, New International Version).
I called the NBC people and told them I was sorry, but I couldn’t do the courtroom show.
On Wednesday I went to CBS Television City in Hollywood. How ironic, I thought, as I got out of my car in the parking lot. Here I was interviewing for a job I had had in hand just two weeks ago.
I was ushered into a large conference room where a host of CBS executives waited—Peter Tortorici, president of CBS Entertainment, Andy Hill, four vice presidents and others. I prayed quickly for guidance and started my presentation.
“You know I’m a Christian,” I began, “and, though this is not a religious show, there are standards I feel we must follow.
“If I do a show about angels, it must be true to what I know is true,” I continued. I looked around at the impassive faces, took a deep breath and went on.
“I’ll be responsible for providing you with one hour of quality entertainment,” I said. “But we cannot do a show about angels if we don’t respect God.
“Every successful show has rules that are never broken without consequences. Look at Little House on the Prairie. No one failed to love the other. No one betrayed the other. The family had rules. If a character broke one, there was a price to pay. By the same token, God has rules and they do not get broken without consequences.
“I think one of the problems with television today,” I went on, “is that so many rules get broken. I believe what makes a series long running is when the audience knows the rules are inviolate. So I want to go to the scriptures to make sure what the angel rules are and still come up with something an audience can enjoy.”
The room was silent. Finally someone asked, “So, do you think you can fix the pilot?”
I thought a moment and said boldly, “No, I want to start all over. I’d rewrite completely and keep just the angels Monica and Tess.”
No one said a word, but I felt a strong sense of peace. Then Peter Tortorici said, “Okay, Martha, please wait in the next office and we’ll let you know.”
It was the longest wait I ever spent. Have I blown it? I wondered.
The door opened and Peter appeared. He pointed to the room behind him. “Everything you just said in there? Write it!”
My challenge was just beginning. I was asking the network to throw away a pilot that had cost two million dollars to produce. The responsibility fell heavy on me.
It was now June and the show was to air in September. Normally, it takes four weeks to write, shoot and fine-tune a pilot, plus come up with new episodes to follow right away. On top of that, I had to hire writers and producers and move to Salt Lake City, where we would be filming.
But I believe God bends time to His purpose. I wrote the pilot in three and a half weeks, and began shooting on time in Salt Lake City.
Though the CBS hierarchy was supportive, I didn’t think anyone felt optimistic. One day an executive told me, “Look, Martha, we know you’ve been asked to do something impossible. When this show bombs, nobody is going to blame you.”
That only increased my commitment, and we made our deadline. On Wednesday, September 14, 1994, I sat at home alone, once again on my living room floor, watching the first episode of Touched By An Angel, starring Della Reese as Tess and Roma Downey as Monica. It was about a grief-stricken mother who had lost her baby to sudden infant death syndrome.
Monica comes to console her. But the mother snaps, “You’re an angel? So what. Where was the angel when my baby died? Why didn’t an angel call 911 for me? Why didn’t the angel drag me out of my bed into that nursery? Where was the angel then?”
Monica drops to her knees and says, “There was an angel with your baby when she died. And it’s the same angel who is with your baby now. God loves you more than you can possibly imagine.”
Tears streamed down my face. I couldn’t believe I had had anything to do with those words, or that they were being spoken on network television.
And today, after two successful years of Touched By An Angel, I still feel that way.
As far as I’m concerned, God is the show’s true executive producer.