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Lights, camera, faith: The Shawn Stevens story

“For ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith.” — Ether 12:6

Shawn Stevens’ life could be a full-length "Mormon Messages" movie.

There are good examples, heart-warming conversions and intense trials of faith. There are good times, unexpected twists and gut-wrenching, tearful decisions. Myriad gospel principles are taught and marks are made in LDS Church history. And there are moments of quiet reflection, life lessons and the recognition of worthwhile blessings.

It’s a story about a man who faced a series of destiny-defining decisions and elected to remain on the strait and narrow path.

“I always wanted more than fame and riches,” Stevens said.

Act I — The young convert

Stevens was born in New Jersey, but his family moved to Burbank, Calif., in the late 1960s when he was 10 years old. Stevens saw the move as fortuitous because he was a performer. He loved to sing, act and entertain people. His grandmother fueled his passion by taking him to plays and shows.

“I took it as my family was moving for me to pursue my career to stardom,” he said.

Stevens developed his musical talent singing a cappella in a local Christian congregation. A member of the church noticed Stevens’ flair for performing and recommended he audition for a part in a production at the Glendale Centre Theatre, owned by Nathan and Ruth Hale, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Utah. Stevens not only got the part, but continued to act with the Hales through his teenage years and had a positive experience. He was also active in his high school drama program.

Following high school graduation in 1976, Stevens began a 48-state tour performing “The Music Man” and “Oklahoma” before accepting a role in a small independent movie being filmed in Kanab, Utah, where he associated with more members of the LDS Church.

“It was my first time being away from my family, and I was impressed with the Mormon community of Kanab,” he said. “I decided I would go check out the LDS Church, and I was more impressed.”

About this time, Stevens was introduced to Bonnie Larson and Lyman Dayton, both members of the church.

Impressed by Stevens’ talent, Larson became his personal manager and has remained a lifelong friend. Dayton was a film producer whose work included “Where The Red Fern Grows,” “Baker’s Hawk” and “Against a Crooked Sky." He invited Stevens to meet the LDS missionaries.

One afternoon, Stevens sat down with the elders and didn’t leave until he was taught all six discussions. He committed to baptism on the spot.

“I was getting all the answers I was looking for,” he said. “Everything just made sense to me. I was soaking it up and couldn’t get enough. We just went through the whole thing.”

Stevens was baptized a week later in September 1977 at age 19.

His family was furious.

Act II — A promising career

Following his baptism, Stevens was invited by Lex de Azevedo to fill the lead role of “Jimmy” in the touring production of “Saturday’s Warrior.”

That was fortunate considering his parents had kicked him out of the house. For different lengths of time he stayed with friends while he battled for a break in the film and television industry. He was getting numerous interviews and auditions, but nothing materialized and he was discouraged.

“I was kind of hitting rock bottom,” Stevens said. “I was out of money, my family wasn’t speaking to me. I’d become alienated from a lot of old friends because of my change in lifestyle. I knew what I had done was right. I wasn’t wavering in my testimony, but it was still pretty hard.”

While waiting for a callback, Stevens scraped together a meager living by working at fast-food establishments and roofing, among other odd jobs. At one point, his mother communicated to him that “if he hadn’t become Mormon, things would be going a lot better.”

That same week, Stevens said, he auditioned for and got a part in a network TV series called “The MacKenzies of Paradise Cove” (1979). He would play the oldest in a family of five orphans living in Hawaii.

“My whole world changed, again,” Stevens said. “Blessings come after the trial of your faith.”

Over the next six years, Stevens got roles in feature films, TV mini-series, specials, movies and daytime dramas, and he traveled across the country. During the early 1980s, he appeared on shows such as “Eight is Enough,” “Buck Rogers,” “Savage Harvest,” “The Facts of Life,” “Days of Our Lives” and “Fame,” among others.

He obtained a recording contract and worked with renowned producer Michael Lloyd. He appeared as a guest on talk shows and game shows. There could have been more, but Stevens turned down most roles because they compromised his LDS standards.

“I turned down almost as much as I got,” Stevens said. “But that was a choice I was happy to make.”

During this time, Stevens began dating Kaylene McLaws, a pretty girl he met at the Studio City LDS singles ward. They were married in 1984. With a new bride and a promising career, life couldn’t be better for the young actor.

Then Stevens got a call to audition for the lead role in a new LDS Church film. He could not have known how his life would change for the third time.

Act III — ‘Our Heavenly Father’s Plan’

Leading up to the mid-1980s, the LDS Church’s public communications outreach included the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s “Music and the Spoken Word” weekly broadcast, general conference, a series of radio and television public service announcements (the "Homefronts" campaign), the Mormon Youth Symphony and Orchestra, and a campaign in several foreign countries called “Meet the Mormons.” “Mr. Krueger’s Christmas,” starring Jimmy Stewart, also came out in 1980.

A new effort was set forth around 1984, according to Elder Stephen B. Allen, an Area Seventy and the managing director of the LDS Church’s missionary department.

“The brethren (church leadership) transferred the whole function from public communications (now Public Affairs) to the missionary department with a charge to learn how to use media as a proselyting tool, not just a PR tool,” Elder Allen said.

“This was the beginning of a brand new era. We were now starting to preach the gospel in the media. It was a difficult leap. Our team of extremely talented producers was so good at doing the soft stuff, but to do the hard stuff was scary because they didn’t know at what point the audience would tune out. So we took it a step at a time.”

An executive producer at Bonneville Communications named Michael McLean spearheaded a campaign called “Bounce Back,” a free 30-minute cassette tape that offered 10 ideas for bouncing back from life’s problems. It was a nice effort, Elder Allen said, but didn’t bring the desired results.

The team researched the spiritual needs of the 18-to-34 demographic and decided to make a series of six films with the theme being the gospel principles of the first missionary discussion. After several attempts to get everything just right, McLean directed the first production, “Our Heavenly Father’s Plan.” Stevens auditioned and was offered the lead role.

“Shawn was riding the wave. He was a triple-threat — he was good looking, a talented singer and actor, and he had some legitimate successes," McLean said. "Then he is featured in ‘Our Heavenly Father’s Plan,’ a breakthrough approach to sharing the gospel through film, and has to carry the responsibility of being the guy who’s basically bearing testimony about several fundamental principles of the gospel. Probably not the best career move for an actor in Hollywood, but a pretty courageous leap of faith for a relatively new convert.”

The movie, about 28 minutes long, was filmed on the Alpine Loop in American Fork Canyon. While saddling a horse and camping in a beautiful mountain setting, Stevens talked about the purpose of life, a loving Heavenly Father and his own conversion experience. Music, video clips and pictures supplemented his narration.

“He did a really nice job,” said Elder Allen, the film’s executive producer.

“Our Heavenly Father’s Plan” was released in 1986. Over the next seven years, Allen, McLean and others produced “Together Forever,” “What is Real?,” “Labor of Love,” “The Prodigal Son” and “On the Way Home,” all based on themes from the first missionary discussion. In the decades that followed, these short films were translated into dozens of languages and shipped around the world to be distributed by missionaries.

“These six films were pretty historic. … By tracking referrals and orders for free materials, we know that at least 600,000 people joined the church as a result of those campaigns, and that’s a conservative number,” Elder Allen said. “So they had a big impact on the church.”

It was standard procedure, Elder Allen said, to encourage the actors in these films to live exemplary lives going forward so as not to take away from their performance.

“It’s not like we hired someone off the street in Hollywood to be a Mormon. We’d say, ‘Listen, your testimony is going to come through in this, and we want it to come through, because this is real for you,’ ” Elder Allen said. “We really need you to live your life in the future so that there is not a double standard, so people don’t see something else with you in it and say, ‘Well, that was all fake.’ ”

Although he was already striving to live a faithful life, this suggestion caused a serious stirring in Stevens’ soul. For the first time, he considered seeking a new career.

Initially, the idea was like a bombshell. He wanted to do the right thing but had no backup plan. Even so, the more he prayerfully considered the decision and discussed it with his wife and trusted friends, the more compelled he felt to move away from acting, much to the consternation of his Hollywood colleagues.

“Try explaining that to your agent," Stevens said.

But he did it. Soon, Stevens was driving a bread truck and struggling to make a living for his wife and baby daughter.

Act IV — A hard road

The next year was one of the hardest of Stevens’ life.

“The wages of a bread truck driver and an actor were very different,” Stevens said. “I left a lot of tears in that truck.”

As he struggled to earn extra money, Stevens resorted to entertaining passers-by on city sidewalks and was always impressed with others’ generosity.

Things got so bad at one point that Kaylene said she considered leaving Shawn. Their financial problems placed an enormous strain on their relationship. But in the end, she stood by her husband and trusted in the Lord’s promised blessings.

“It was very painful. I wanted him to bring home those nice paychecks, but I had to go back to work,” she said. “We put our faith on the line and were blessed in other ways. It was what we needed to do.”

Agents and show business colleagues figured Stevens had cracked up, and many tried to persuade him to return. But the decision was made.

As the years passed, he was forgotten in Hollywood circles and the bread truck led to other opportunities. The family owned a restaurant for a time, as well as an LDS distribution company. Eventually Stevens started a studio catering business because he always felt at home on a set with lights, cameras and action. Shawn and Kaylene Stevens also served in the church and tried to set a good example for their four children. The experiences they had brought them closer together and strengthened their testimonies.

Act V — Reflecting on the blessings

More than 25 years since narrating “Our Heavenly Father’s Plan,” Stevens has no regrets.

Over the years, he has been honored to meet several LDS converts who investigated the church after seeing the film.

His oldest son served a mission in Cambodia and now teaches at the Missionary Training Center. His second son is currently serving in Cleveland, and the youngest son is finishing high school with plans to serve. Their daughter will soon marry a returned missionary.

Stevens’ relationship with his family has improved significantly, although the topic of religion is off limits. In researching his family history, Stevens learned he was the descendant of a Canadian convert and pioneer named Roswell Stevens. Roswell knew the Prophet Joseph Smith, served as a bodyguard to early church leaders, journeyed west with the original pioneer company in 1847 and marched with the Mormon Battalion. He also traveled with the Hole-in-the-Rock San Juan pioneers. Stevens believes his heritage may be the reason he joined the church so fast.

In addition to his studio catering business, Stevens has been performing with a quartet called “The Diamonds” for the past six months. After 25 years, he is pondering a return to acting. He and Kaylene are also planning a move to Utah to be closer to his children.

Looking back, Stevens is grateful for the lessons he has learned and the blessings in his life.

“Faith precedes the miracle … and I look at my family as being the miracle,” Stevens said. “When the decision was made to change career directions, I had no idea what I would do. It was seldom easy, but it was always worth it. We’ve seen the blessings come back.”

For McLean, Shawn Stevens is the miracle.

“A talented young, energetic guy makes a contribution and finds joy in it," McLean said. "He’s humbled and grateful he got to bear testimony to millions and decides there are other ways to make a living than being an actor in Hollywood. He trusts in the Lord that all would be well and continues to bear testimony. Not just in words, but in the way he lives his life. To me, that’s one of the great miracles of ‘Our Heavenly Father’s Plan.’ ”

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