Bet You Didn’t Know: Secrets Behind The Making Of “The Preacher’s Wife”
When it comes to black Christmas movies, the list is not that long. But one of the best Christmas movies, featuring brown people, is The Preacher’s Wife. Starring everyone’s favorite singer, Whitney Houston, and favorite actor, Denzel Washington, The Preacher’s Wife was a feel good movie we wanted to see from them. And though many of us were rooting for Denzel and Whitney to at least kiss in the flick, it was still a cute, little holiday movie.
The Bishop’s Wife
Maybe some of already knew this; but the fact that The Preacher’s Wife was a remake came as news to me. The original movie, which was released in 1947, was adapted from a book written in 1928 by Robert Nathan. The film featured Cary Grant as the angel “Dudley,” David Niven in Courtney B. Vance’s role of, “Henry Biggs,” (originally Henry Brougham) and naturally, Loretta Young played “Julia.”
Mundy Lane Entertainment
The idea to remake the film was developed by Denzel Washington’s production company, Mundy Lane Entertainment. Mundy Lane was also behind some of our other favorite films like Antwone Fisher and Devil in a Blue Dress.
Whitney playing hard to get
While this might have seemed like the type of role Whitney Houston would have jumped at, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Once she was offered the role, she declined…or was at least hesitant and remained hesitant. Denzel Washington pestered her for a year before she finally agreed to take it.
Julia as Julia
In the early stages of the film’s development, Denzel Washington suggested Julia Roberts play the role of “Julia.” But that idea didn’t last too long. Once Whitney Houston’s name was brought up, Denzel and his company realized that was the way to go.
Not so “good girls” and “bad boys”
If you’re wondering why Whitney was so hesitant about taking the role, she revealed her initial thought process in an interview with the Detroit Free Press in 1996. Houston said that she had her doubts because she didn’t feel she couldn’t adequately portray a woman who was, as she described her, “a dowdy housewife.” Then there was the fact that her character is married to a “good guy,” the preacher portrayed by Courtney B. Vance. Here’s what she had to say:
“I never did go for boys like that,” says Whitney. “No, I take that back. I was involved for about a minute with a boy who was the nephew of a preacher. But I always was more interested in the boys who were …”
A little bad?
“Sometimes more than a little,” she says, unleashing a knowing laugh.
She wouldn’t start to see herself in the character until after she’d read the script a second time. Eventually she realized both she and Julia have respect for the church, love their children and respect the sanctity of their marriages. Whitney talked about being able to see how both she and Julia were loyal to their husbands. “I mean, when she meets Denzel, she could say `enough of this’ and let what she has go. But Julia’s true.”
Once everybody was on board for the film there was a string of very unfortunate events that occurred both before and after shooting had already started. The weekend before shooting started, an elderly woman who belonged to the church where the film was shot, fell and broke her hip and later died. While the crew was filming the exterior and interior of the church, a building a block away caught on fire and two children were killed. Luckily a crew member was able to save one four year old child. Then lastly, in the middle of filming, a crew member was hit by a car and killed. A lot of misfortune and tragedy for what ultimately ended up being a feel good film.
Despite all the misfortune surrounding the film, director Penny Marshall set the tempo for the actors and crew by modeling a dedicated work ethic and an attitude of perseverance. Both Courtney B. Vance and Whitney told People just how hard Marshall worked despite all the set backs and even her own health issues:
Courtney B. Vance said: “We all felt the need to put our arms around her and ask, ‘Are you okay?’ She almost had walking pneumonia.”
And Whitney said: “Penny has the stamina of a horse. She didn’t take one day off. She was the strongest of us all.”
What happened to little Jeremiah?
How could we forget the preacher’s son and the film’s narrator Jeremiah, played by Justin Pierre Edmund? He was too adorable right? Well, since The Preacher’s Wife, Justin has been in a few more movies and in 2000 was featured on an episode of “Law and Order.”From there, with the exception of a few Myspace pictures, it seems like Justin kept a pretty low profile. Edmund, who was six when the film came out in 1996, is now 22.
Two Different Lives
Though looking at this movie, you’d never suspect this; but in that epic 2009 interview with Oprah, Whitney admitted that while she was filming The Preacher’s Wife, singing gospel songs and playing a minister’s wife, she was getting high almost everyday. And audiences weren’t the only ones Whitney was able to fool. Later, after her death, director Penny Marshall came forward and said that while she and Whitney were on set together, she never had any inclination that she was using.
In the movie you may remember that part of the reason the church needed so much money was because the boiler had stopped working. Well, that was certainly an instance of art imitating life because the church in Yonkers, New York, where the movie was filmed actually had boiler issue. Fortunately, the money the church received from the studio, for allowing them to rent their space, went to replace the real, broken down boiler in the church.
Did it make money?
Though the film wasn’t on the same level of success as Penny Marshall’s other films, like Big and A League of Their Own, the film was a modest hit, grossing over $48 million dollars, when it originally cost $40 million to make.
The film was generally well received from audiences and critics alike, though some felt it was too sweet. It ended up being nominated for five Image Awards and Houston won an Image Award for best actress and Loretta Devine won for best supporting actress.
We can’t mention this movie without talking about the music. The soundtrack to this film was so iconic that it soared up the Billboard charts to the number one spot, remaining there for 26 weeks. Eventually, The Preacher’s Wife Soundtrack would become the best selling gospel album of all time.
Several of the cast members have mentioned that the process of filming the movie and the film itself was and is very spiritual. In 1996, Courtney B. Vance told Jet Magazine: “This isn’t just a movie. It’s the Holy Spirit working.” In fact, before taking the role, Courtney B. Vance, said that he got baptized. “I’d been trying to find a spiritual outlet for a while. When I got this role, it was a wonderful excuse to do what I’ve always wanted to do. I didn’t have to get baptized to do this film, but I decided it was time.” Many of the scenes were filmed in the church and where Whitney is singing along with the Georgia Mass Choir. And in those moments, the spirit entered that church. See how Whitney and Penny Marshall described it in The Philadelphia Inquirer:
“There were moments when you were just walking around and everybody was joyous and praising and crying. . . . It was a spiritual event,” she said. “It revived my soul, my faith in God.” The defining moment, she recalls, occurred at Trinity United Methodist Church in Newark. Late one night, when Marshall was shooting the final take with Houston and the Georgia Mass Choir, “the Holy Ghost just came down and filled up the room,” Houston says. “Penny was yelling, `Cut!’, and then her mike went out and she kept saying, ‘Cut, cut!’ and nobody could hear her.” “Baby,” Houston says, her almond-shaped eyes widening, “we had church in that church that night! It was a fire in there and it was mighty.” “I just kept the cameras rolling like we were filming a documentary,” says Marshall, who left the full scene in the movie. “It was dizzying.”