Will Graham delivers the 1949 sermon that is thought to have turned Louis Zamperini’s life around.
Will Graham has a vivid memory of driving to a hotel with his father, Franklin Graham, at the age of 8. He remembers that the hotel was in California, though he doesn’t remember where, exactly.
What impressed him was the line of people waiting to say hello to his grandfather, the Rev. Billy Graham.
“I remember the line all the way around the hotel, to meet my grandfather in the ballroom,” Graham, 43, said in an interview. “My dad and I walked into the ballroom. I was going to run up and give him a hug. I made a beeline for him, and I was about 12 feet away, and a policeman stopped me and said ‘No, son, the line’s over there. You need to get in line.’ And that line was going all the way out the door. I thought ‘Oh man, I have to get in line to meet my own grandfather. At about that time, my granddaddy saw me, bent over, opened up his arms and said ‘Come over here.’”
This weekend, with the opening of Unbroken: Path to Redemption, Will Graham takes audiences back to California—and even further back in his grandfather’s life. In his acting debut, Graham portrays his own grandfather giving a sermon at his Los Angeles Crusade in 1949.
The movie is a sequel to Unbroken, the 2014 Angelina Jolie film about Olympic runner and World War II prisoner of war Louis Zamperini. But Harold Cronk (God’s Not Dead) directs this film, rather than Jolie, and Samuel Caleb Hunt portrays Zamperini.
Both films are based on Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, Unbroken. Zamperini spent 47 days lost at sea after his B-24 bomber crashed into the Pacific. After Japanese Navy personnel took him captive, he spent two and a half years in a concentration camp, enduring severe torture.
After the war, Zamperini returned to the United States and eventually founded Victory Boys Camp, a charitable organization for at-risk youth. He died in 2014 at the age of 97.
It is believed that it was the 1949 sermon Billy Graham preached that put Zamperini on the road to recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder. Will Graham delivers that sermon during a key scene in the movie, when Zamperini—and his marriage to his wife, Cynthia (played by Merritt Patterson)—is at the breaking point.
But the younger Graham, who now works for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and conducts Crusade-like events like his grandfather’s, said he never considered being an actor. In fact, he might not have even read Hillenbrand’s book were it not for his wife.
He said he doesn’t remember his grandparents, Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth, speaking about Zamperini. “But other people would bring up his name, like Cliff Barrows [Graham’s longtime music and program director]. And they would tell me about Louis Zamperini. My grandfather’s photographer, Russ Busby, who’s now passed away, he would tell me stories about Louis Zamperini.”
Graham confided that he is not a big reader, but when Hillenbrand’s book was published in 2010, and his wife remarked that “it’s an incredible book, and it’s got your grand daddy in it,” he said he read the book “and couldn’t put it down.”
“So I fell in love with the story of Louis Zamperini,” he said. “Both Cliff Barrows and Russ Busby were still alive, so I could ask them lots of questions, and I learned a lot more about Louis Zamperini. I never got to meet him personally, but I met his son and grandson.”
A few years later, he heard from the wife of a former employee that a movie version was being planned that would pick up on the story where the Jolie film left off. It would show the effect Billy Graham’s sermon had on Zamperini, and “they wanted to know if I would be even remotely interested in doing it.” During lunch with one of the producers, he said might be interested in participating. “But I’m not an actor,” he protested. “This film is too important. I don’t want my inability to mess up the movie.
“But then Universal invited me to come in and try some lines and see how it goes,” Graham said. “They said ‘Will, we want you to take this part.’ It seems like it would be real exciting, but it made me nervous. This is another world I’m not used to. But they made it so comfortable for me.”
Universal provided an acting coach, and the director suggested that rather than trying too hard to imitate his grandfather, he should “just be yourself.”
Graham told Fox & Friends that what viewers will see in the film is the way he actually preaches. Any similarity to his famous grandfather, who died at age 99 in February, he said, is due to the particular accent they share, being from western North Carolina.
Universal 1440 Entertainment, the production arm of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, and faith-based production company The WTA Group co-produce the project, with Pure Flix distributing.