In a new 20-CD audio release, one of the most infamous characters in world literature is played by former teen heartthrob Luke Perry. "Whomever I kiss, he is the one. Seize him and lead him away safely," the former Dylan McKay instructs the high priest's goons in the Garden of Gethsemane before approaching Jesus. "Rabbi, Rabbi." Smack.
If Perry manages to convince listeners he's not a Beverly Hills bad boy, it will say as much about the skills of director Jobe Cerny as his own range. Cerny directed Perry and 120 other actors in the cast, many of them from his River North sound studio. The audio re-creation of the New Testament, titled The Word of Promise and released last month, is expected to set record sales for an audiobook largely because of its A-list cast. Once Jim Caviezel got on board as Jesus, Cerny says, lots of actors wanted in. Terence Stamp plays God. Marisa Tomei is Mary Magdalene.
Last April Cerny told the Los Angeles Times that he'd been having trouble casting Satan. "The next week I cannot tell you how many CDs we got from Satan," he says. A few of the pitches came from name actors, but he was looking for someone less recognizable and he tried looking closer to home.
In addition to producing commercials, soundtracks and radio dramas, Cerny is an actor and writer who has built a successful, if not exactly lionized, career in stage productions, industrial films, and a handful of features—but mostly in radio and TV commercials, notably playing the silent Cheer detergent man. He's also the voice of the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Raid bugs. "I've gotten killed thousands of times," he says.
But Cerny has more than just a dramatic feel for what it takes to make a convincing Satan, or a Jesus, Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Cerny's parents, who raised him in Cicero, weren't religious, but in sixth grade he embarked on a precocious spiritual quest and became a Lutheran.
"Just on my own I decided to look at some religions and I thought Lutheran made a lot of sense to me," he says. "It seemed pretty straightforward in a lot of ways, and it just kind of spoke to me."
Cerny's parents wanted him to be a golf pro, but throughout high school his interest in religion increased. After he graduated in 1966 he headed to Valparaiso University planning to enter seminary. But he quickly figured out that he wouldn't be a good fit for the ministry. "Once I realized I was not gonna be able to handle being in a church every day, and visiting people in the hospital and holding people's hands while they die every day, I decided to take my interests and find another route of expression."
Cerny worked toward a degree in speech and drama, expecting to do missionary work in Japan after graduation. While waiting for the paperwork to go through he was contacted by his draft board. Caught between deferments, he avoided the marines by getting a slot as a mechanic in an army reserve unit.
He still expected to go to Vietnam, and spent 16 hours a day in basic training "learning how to kill," he says. "We were very fortunate that there was a minister there that really helped us through those times. He helped us kind of come to terms with our own mortality and our own jobs and things like that. Some soldiers are put in a position by a government to say, 'You have to do this.' It's not a good position to be in, but if you are gonna end up there you have to have your mind set on what you have to do."
Cerny's unit was never called up, and he returned home and picked up his theater studies as a graduate student at Northwestern. After graduating he won a place in Second City's touring company and sought out additional acting work wherever he could find it. In a book for young actors he published in 2002, he explains that he could have made it through lean times as a cabdriver or a waiter but instead devoted all his time and money to his own acting "business," which meant taking on jobs that might not seem glamorous but paid the bills.
Playing characters like the Pillsbury Ddoughboy earned him residuals that paid off long after he read his lines, even when the ads fell out of favor with the corporate brass. Even now, "the Ddoughboy hasn't been speaking, which I don't think is such a hot idea," he says. "I've gone through phases over the years. Sometimes they get a new executive. One guy said, 'You know, I've always hated the voice of the Doughboy. And that's you. I'm gonna do everything I can to not let the Doughboy talk anymore.' This was about seven years ago. That guy lost his job. He got fired the next year and a whole floor of people got fired with him. And then the next year I talked twice as much to make up for it."
Work like that allowed Cerny to support his family, buy a house and a vacation place, and diversify his business. In the late 80s he started his production company, Cerny American Creative, and in a River North loft building he built one of the first digitally networked recording studios in the country.
About two years ago Cerny was introduced to Carl Amari, a South Barrington-based producer who got his start putting out Golden-Age radio programs on cassette. Amari invited Cerny to play a role on his syndicated radio series based on the old Twilight Zone TV show. When Amari, a Christian, came up with the idea of putting out an audio Bible, he asked Cerny to direct.
"It was fate that we had just met," says Amari. Cerny calls it "a miracle."
Working off a script written by two Catholic priests, Cerny directed some 24,000 takes with about 120 actors, most of them Chicagoans. "What happens in church is you hear the same story for years and years and years, and people read it the same way and it becomes rote," says Cerny. "What we did is we went back, we looked at that model and destroyed it. Even things like the Lord's Prayer—imagine the first time it was done. It isn't done at a temple that a congregation does together. It is done asking for real things."
Cerny, who plays Timothy, protege of the apostle Paul, had help with his direction from theologians employed by Thomas Nelson, the Christian publisher putting out The Word of Promise. This included getting advice on the historical accuracy of particular sound effects, like the sound of sandals on a stone temple floor.
Cerny recently launched an independent online audio books publisher called Actor's Audio (actorsaudio.com), which is helping to distribute The Word of Promise and Amari's Twilight Zone series. And he's moved on to the Old Testament, which will end up at 58 hours with a cast of 450 actors. Richard Dreyfuss plays Moses, Michael York is Abraham, and three A-listers—he won't say who—are vying for the role of Noah.
For the sticky role of Satan in the New Testament, though, Cerny ended up casting a local, the same actor who played the serpent in his Old Testament: Linda Kimbrough. He wanted the devil to come across as a spiritual entity, not an earthly one. "It has to have a great deal of temptation in it," he says, but not sexual temptation. He manipulated Kimbrough's lines with digital effects. A listener wouldn't recognize her identity, much less her gender. Cerny explains, "We wanted Satan to be Satan and not an actor."v