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The Eucharistic Faith of Actor Clarence Gilyard
By John Feister
This co-star of Matlock and Walker, Texas Ranger, was enormously successful on the outside but barely making it deep inside. Then he discovered the Eucharist.

Q U I C K S C A N

All Over the Place
A Star is Born
Then Came Religion
Eucharist: Food for His Journey
To South Africa—and Beyond
An Evolving Sacrament


CNS PHOTO BY PAUL HARING

Sometimes all that it takes for a person to find the Eucharist is the invitation of a friend—and the grace of God. That’s what happened to Hollywood celebrity Clarence Gilyard.

Raised in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, he left religion behind during the years he became famous acting alongside Jim Carrey (The Duck Factory), Tom Cruise (Top Gun), Bruce Willis (Die Hard) and on TV, most famously co-starring with Andy Griffith (Matlock), then Chuck Norris (Walker, Texas Ranger). Like so many Hollywood stars, his life off-screen was confused. But, like so many Christians before him, after years of confusion, Clarence found his way home.

Still a film actor (he played a repentant too-late-for-the-Rapture pastor in two of the Left Behind films), he devotes himself these days to university teaching and theater. A striking feature of Clarence, day-to-day, is his deep devotion to his Roman Catholic faith, and, especially, pious devotion to prayer and the Eucharist. “Something about the Catholic Mass was different from any other worship experience,” he says. “To this day, it sustains me.” But he came to this faith along a rocky road.

All Over the Place

Born Christmas Eve, 1955, to an Air Force family in Moses Lake, Washington, Clarence Darnell Gilyard, Jr., is the second of six children in a family originally from New Orleans. “My family was lower-class,” he explains to St. Anthony Messenger. He is sitting in a room at the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in Washington, D.C., near the place where he has been attending, as a consultant, the Communications Committee of the U.S. Catholic bishops. A few miles away, the nation’s first black president would be sworn in a week later.

Though Clarence’s father once had dreamed of being an attorney, the Air Force became his ticket. “He figured it would help pay for his education,” explains Clarence. This was the 1950s, and the U.S. Air Force was one of the few places where black Americans could find equal opportunity.

His family moved around the country “more than 15 times” during the 1950s and ’60s, he recalls. Along the way his father converted from being a Baptist to being a Lutheran, which is the faith Clarence practiced most as a youth in California, Hawaii, Texas, Florida, Chicago—“all over!” says the actor.

Clarence was a very sharp student in high school (class of ’74), and went on to the Air Force Academy. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot, but I was practically blind,” he says with a smile. “I wanted to play football, but I really wasn’t able to play at that level.” He tried tennis, but nothing seemed to work out. “I wasn’t mature enough,” he admits.

He didn’t mature anytime soon, he recalls. He transferred after a year to Sterling College, in central Kansas. He tried out for football, got a tennis scholarship instead, then dropped out after a year. He came home, at that time to San Bernardino, California, where his parents had finally bought their first home during his high school years.

“I was a prodigal, and not learning a lot of healthy habits,” he ruefully observes. “I was doing a little drugs, drinking a lot, chasing women until my parents said, ‘You’ve got to move out.’” (His siblings fared well, by the way, including his moderately developmentally disabled brother, Milton, who now lives in an assisted-living home.)

Clarence, amidst his reckless lifestyle, was living at Long Beach (about 60 miles from San Bernardino) with a friend, Tony. He went to work with his housemate at a clothing store, and was eventually promoted to manager. After two years he quit that job for an opportunity to sell industrial chemicals, a job at which he was admittedly horrible.

He was attending classes at California State (Long Beach) but, more accurately, was “partying like wild” with his Sigma Chi fraternity. “It was ridiculous,” he says regretfully.

The last semester of his second year, when his academic focus was “nil,” he decided to take a theater course, an elective. That’s when he “dumped everything,” and took a whole semester of theater courses. In acting he would find his vocation.

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While going to school, he found a job at a restaurant where actors worked, and kept his ears open. “One afternoon, one of the gals said she was going to Hollywood to audition for a children’s theater program,” he recalls. It was an open audition for a rendition of Aesop’s Fables that would play on Saturdays for Hollywood kids’ birthday parties and so on. He got the part of Aesop, but “I didn’t get it for the acting,” he says. “I got it for the energy and animation, and the fact that I could play the guitar and sing.”

That led to his role in Bleacher Bums, which the theater group was performing at night. That play (which later became a made-for-TV film) is about a group of Chicago Cubs baseball fans in the bleachers at Wrigley Field, nostalgic home of the Cubs. Clarence got the part of a cheerleader, and to this day holds a place in history as the first black actor to play a cheerleader.

Through that role, “I started taking an acting class in Hollywood.” Inching his way into the acting industry, he read the trade papers and found other opportunities. He found his way into a “Twelfth Night Theater Ensemble,” which was doing arts education in various public schools. That was how he found his place in Hollywood—waiting tables, auditioning, networking.

“Other people would go to university conservatory training, then come to Hollywood. I came in off the streets!” he exclaims.

Professionally, he was developing; personally, he wasn’t. “I used and abused myself and other people. I moved in with a girl.” He admits he had “no moral integrity, no financial stability, no spiritual stability.”

He found a good agent, whom he has kept as his sole agent throughout his career. She got him, literally, a one-line part in the TV sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, playing the part of a high school kid. They called back in a week, and he was off and running. He got his union card and, within a year, he had a part (Officer Benjamin Webster) in the final season (1982-83) of the light-action crime drama CHiPs.

His career was taking off. After Clarence had played various small roles, Jim Carrey chose him to play in the short-lived series The Duck Show, where Clarence learned that he would need to develop more as an actor to find real success. He hired a personal acting coach, and as the saying goes, “practiced, practiced, practiced.”

He was cast in Top Gun, playing a supporting role in a fighter jet flown by Tom Cruise. The more time Clarence spent with stars, the more he sensed his need for education. So he went to school at night, even while, by day, he was playing a computer hacker in Die Hard with Bruce Willis. At age 27, he was making it professionally, but he still didn’t have his life act together.

“I was living with a girl, using her,” he confesses again. At school, he met Catherine Dutko, who would become his first wife and mother of two of his children. Around this time Clarence’s agent called and told him of an audition opportunity for the TV series Matlock. Clarence flew to New York, beat out two other actors for the role, and began filming with Andy Griffith, one of his childhood TV heroes. The two worked very well together, and Clarence became known across America as Conrad McMasters, private-eye companion to defense attorney Ben Matlock.

Clarence played the role for 57 episodes, from 1989 to 1993. His propensity for stunts made his character unique, he says. After the program switched networks, and stunts were written out, Clarence sensed that his time there was coming to an end.

He auditioned for a new series, Walker, Texas Ranger, to play partner and close friend to Cordell Walker (Chuck Norris). “There was really no one else in town who could play that character,” Clarence matter-of-factly observes. The show was ultimately broadcast in over 100 countries (including reruns in many today) and ran on CBS for eight seasons (from 1993 until 2001). Clarence’s role of Jimmy Trivette, a clever, hard-fighting Texas investigator, is the one perhaps most people remember.

This show about modern-day Western heroes, now on cable networks and on DVD, has achieved cult status among U.S. college students, who enjoy Chuck and Clarence’s contrived personae, karate fights with criminals and other antics. In that spirit, various clips have been a regular feature on NBC’s Late Night With Conan O’Brien.

In spite of his success, or perhaps because of it, there were problems. Clarence’s behavior was not proper for a married man: “My wife left me because I started to have an affair,” he admits. She took the children and wanted a divorce. Clarence got a wake-up call.

“I was speaking a different language than the language of truth and accountability,” he says. Now he was sleepless: “Sure, I was hot as far as television was concerned. But I didn’t have my two babies. I didn’t have my wife. I was in Dallas; they were in Marina del Rey, California. She was filing for divorce.”

It was as much as he could do to go to work each day, he recounts. He ended the extramarital affair and got into a therapy group. “The only thing that was comforting was being in the presence of somebody where I could talk about my pain, then being with a group of people who were talking of their pain,” he remembers.

Someone in the group invited Clarence to go to Mass with him. “So I went to a 5:30 Mass at St. Rita’s in Dallas.” Sunday evening was a hard time for him to be at church, because he was so mindful of everything from the weekend and days, even years, preceding that. He had spent a lot of time on his knees, alone, in his anguish. Now he had to go to his knees in the presence of everyone. “I was in the assembly with everyone, acknowledging...” His voice trails off.

“I don’t know how many Catholics are aware of why we are on our knees in the presence of Jesus,” he continues. “That’s where I needed to be. Mother Church allows that and informs us that way,” he says. “It is one of the great gifts.”

Being near the Eucharist made Clarence intensely aware of the presence of God, he explains. “It’s all about the presence of God in the consecrated host. Otherwise, it’s just a building. If Jesus is not present, it’s a sham,” he says. But Jesus is present, he knows: “I experienced it that day and to this day. To this day, it is what sustains me.”

He describes “needing” to go to daily Mass, and when he slips, he recommits himself to the practice. He had known God’s mercy, God’s grace. Back in the early ’90s, when his religious awakening had occurred, he soon got himself to a priest: “I dumped everything” out, and, after it was all over, he was “in a state of grace,” he says. The priest told him, “’You’re in a great place, kid.’ I’ve never forgotten that.”

That Jesuit counseled Clarence into an RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) program for joining the Catholic Church and gave him some booklets for daily prayer.

His friend from therapy, whose privacy Clarence protects, invited Clarence to come to be with his family on Sundays when Clarence wasn’t invited back to be with his own family in California. “I would spend Sunday afternoon, then we’d go to Mass. They taught me the Rosary.” Then he would drive back to work for the week.

Over the course of the RCIA, Clarence developed a hunger for the Eucharist. “I so much wanted the Body of Christ,” he recalls. Since he was traveling overseas that Easter, he delayed his reception into the Church until the following Christmas, the day after his own birthday, eight years ago.

By then divorced, he had talked to the parish deacon, who was running the Initiation program, about his previous marriage. His wedding had been a civil ceremony, not considered sacramental. He recalls, with some feeling of irony, a line from the homily at that Christmas Mass where he was confirmed a Catholic: “The self-made man is a poorly made man.”

As every active Catholic knows, Clarence’s journey by no means ended there. The eight years from then until now have been filled with opportunities for grace, struggle, growth. “After the divorce, I had to figure out how to negotiate my single life,” he says.

Vatican II calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of Catholic worship” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, #10). The Council’s focus on the Eucharist leads to the most obvious liturgical changes.

Vatican II emphasizes the unity of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The faithful are not to be silent spectators at Mass but are to participate “actively, fully aware and devoutly” (Liturgy, #47). Before Vatican II, the Offertory, Consecration and Communion are regarded as the principal parts of the Mass.

A wider selection of Scripture passages is used at Mass. Expected on Sundays and holy days of obligation, homilies concentrate on the Scripture readings. Short homilies begin at many weekday Masses.

Celebrating Mass in local languages is permitted. General intercessions and the exchange of peace become common. Communion under both kinds (the form of bread and of wine) and concelebration begin as options. The current Order of the Mass is introduced in 1970.

—P.M.

He sought out a Catholic counselor, a priest who became his spiritual director. Clarence became active in his friend’s parish. It was, he recalls, “a parish that was full of big, happy Catholic families. I had never experienced that in my life!”

But something was still missing in his life. In his prayer, Clarence knew that he was called to be married. He needed to become a good husband and father—a role in which he admittedly had failed. The image of a friend’s sister, Elena, kept coming into his mind from years previous. He had been a casual, respectful friend to her. He found a way to visit with her, then again, and, over a year’s time courting, the couple decided they were right for each other.

“That’s when it really got tough!” he exclaims. “The courting was fun, but [his spiritual director’s formation] sent me to eucharistic adoration every night, for the longest time.” Clarence needed to talk to God constantly, because he was becoming afraid: “I was becoming aware that I was going to have to become more mature in my use of time and resources. The sacrament was going to demand of me a sacrifice, a loving response.”

This 40-something actor/stuntman/ cowboy was in his parish adoration chapel, on his knees in prayer, contemplating the changes that life in Christ would demand of him. “I’d say good night to Elena and before I got to my apartment I would say, ‘Whoa! Help me, help me!’”

And help he needed. Having been involved in an addictive lifestyle, he still finds the need to call on God in prayer constantly. “The battle is little thoughts, laziness, disorganization,” that leads back to unhealthy patterns. The Eucharist is food for his journey: “It is Jesus saying, ‘I am here.’”

He recalls hearing an interpretation of Jesus’ saying about the yoke and his burden (Matthew 28:30). “On the umpteenth time it came through. The image I had of a yoke was incorrect. I thought that it was me carrying the yoke, the yoke not really working in your behalf. The priest said, ‘You know that the yoke has two places.’ This is me, in my late 40s, realizing Jesus is on the other side of the yoke. Wow, wow, how many people really know that?” For an actor, adds Clarence, that’s an especially powerful image.

After taping his last episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, in 2001, Clarence and Elena were married. Camden, New Jersey, Bishop Joseph Galante, who was coadjutor in Dallas-Fort Worth at the time, officiated.

But Clarence would now look for a new life direction. “I decided not to go back to Hollywood and put my family in the way of harm,” he says. He headed instead to graduate school at Southern Methodist University’s Meadow School of the Arts, and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree.

Today Clarence Gilyard is an associate professor, teaching both film acting and theater at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The Newman Center chapel on campus is a frequent stop for him. He and Elena had their second child not so long ago, and Clarence is a devoted father to all of his four children.

Last summer, he played the lead in a revival of Athol Fugard’s drama, My Children, My Africa, at the Victory Theater in Chicago. When not in the classroom, or raising his children, he spends time supporting local charities, making occasional celebrity appearances, and helping develop—and learn from—a theater program in South Africa. (He is looking for supporters to help with that project.)

“Because of my heritage, my roots being African, I knew there was a part of me I couldn’t identify. I was aware that there was a depth, a width, a power in me and a resonance unique to my artistic voice, an African-American that I needed to identify so that I could be effective,” he explains. His involvement with the South African program helps him connect with his heritage.

And he’s been a bit surprised at some of his friends’ reaction to his becoming Catholic. “Can a black actor become Catholic?” one actor asked him incredulously. “And he was not joking,” adds Clarence. “The Church is a rainbow of colors,” Clarence comments. “God doesn’t see race.” What God sees, he adds, “is whether both feet are committed or not. I am a Catholic. And I’m very black,” like many of the rest of the people in this world who are indeed Catholic, he observes.

Along his life’s journey, Clarence Gilyard, the dramatist, has discovered a role, he says, “attracting people to God’s presence in my life.” The Eucharist is his food along the way. With a grateful heart, he adds, along with so many Christians who found their way home before him, “We are the Body of Christ.”

 

John Feister is an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine, director of electronic media and managing editor of Catholic Update. He serves with Clarence Gilyard on the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Communications.


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