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Death takes a Holiday

After a 16-year hiatus, Touched By an Angel's John Dye returns to the U of M stage.


Hollywood came to Memphis in the mid-'80s to shoot a teen comedy called Making the Grade. John Dye, a theater major at the University of Memphis, landed a supporting role in the film and shortly thereafter relocated to the West Coast to pursue a film career. The actor, best known for his starring role as the Angel of Death on the television show Touched By an Angel, is returning to the university with actress Melissa Gilbert in tow to star in A.R. Gurney's epistolary drama Love Letters. The show is a benefit to start an alumni scholarship fund for the theater and dance department.

Flyer: I've read that you can't enter an airport without somebody saying, "Don't let that man on the plane." Has that ever gotten out of hand? I mean, has it ever been like that episode of Twilight Zone where William Shatner freaks out because he sees a monster on the wing?

John Dye: Not really. Probably the weirdest thing -- and this is years ago -- this lady demanded to get off the plane, and they had already shut the door. That people aren't able to separate television fiction and real life is kind of troublesome. Either I'm doing a really good job, or that lady was imbalanced. I'm guessing the latter.

But most people first encounter you as the "Angel of Death." It's a first impression. That has to color the way people respond when they meet you.

I guess I get a little bit of a perverse thrill out of it because people automatically assume that I'm a die-hard right-wing social-conservative Jesse Helms-lovin' kind of a guy. And I am ANYTHING BUT that. I am a dyed-in- the-wool liberal -- though fiscally conservative -- San Franciscan. San Franciscan for now anyway. I'll always be a Southerner at heart.

Your role has certainly affected the way you are usually interviewed. You always get asked about your faith, which is, it seems to me, even more of a private concern. Do you ever get tired of talking about your faith?

It doesn't grow tiresome. When you get into this industry you know what you bargain for. What I do find tiresome is people [in this industry] who get so deeply offended that people are prying into their private lives. While I'm not ashamed of my faith, it is a difficult thing to talk about because it sounds showy. And it's not. It's anything but. It's private. So how do you talk about it in a way that sounds sincere without it sounding bombastic? That's a balance I find hard to achieve.

Most entertainers get asked about their love life or their next project, but you are always being asked about your personal relationship with Jesus.

It is a little strange. For instance I became an Episcopalian about five years ago. I was raised as a Methodist. I mentioned that in an interview on Larry King Live apropos of what I don't recall. I got like a LOT of mail from Methodists who were really angry. "What's wrong with Methodism?" Well I didn't say anything was wrong with it. I just started going to this church I like because this woman went there and I enjoyed it a lot and I changed. I was not attacking John Wesley at all. People are so deeply knee-jerk responsive because [these issues] are so personal.

Touched By an Angel has such a, um, cult following. And you are so associated with this role. Does this sort of thing help or hurt you when you look for other work?

I don't get very concerned about it. All you have to do is spend about five minutes with me and you realize pretty quickly that I am not now, nor have I ever been, an angel. If I'm pulling off this holy messenger of God stuff it must mean that [as an actor] I'm somewhat capable. I can't imagine being so associated with this very, very soft, loving, compassionate guy -- or angel -- that I play on television. I aspire to be those things. I fail dramatically. Richard Thomas and I have talked.

Because he was pigeonholed as John Boy on The Waltons?

So pigeonholed. That was a real character. He was playing a real person. What I'm playing -- it's a fantasy. And whereas I do believe in angels personally, no one that we know has ever seen one, so I don't think I'm going to be typecast as something that we don't know exists.

Well, look at poor Leonard Nimoy. Nobody's ever seen a real Vulcan that I know of.

I never made that analogy. I think you just shot my argument straight down.

Let's talk about the University of Memphis. You are coming back to do Love Letters to raise money for a much-needed scholarship. What brought this event into being?

There is no way I can be supportive enough of this program because the program has given me so much. So much. And I've been very blessed, so I feel a great responsibility, a debt to the university and to the college of theater and dance in particular. Now this is with 10 years' hindsight and has a lot to do with the way I have organized my life as a man of 38. I really admire greatly the lack of pretension. I think more than anything that is something that I look back on with great fondness and try to hold onto. Because I'm surrounded by a bunch of pretentiousness. While we, the faculty and the students, all found theater important, we never confused it with curing cancer. It's called a play. It can be moving. It can be life-affirming. But at the end of the day it's not the center of the universe.

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