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Born-Again Christian Gavin Mcleod Stars in New Faith-Based Film

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As Murray Slaughter, he wrote for airhead anchor Ted Baxter on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" for seven years. As Merrill Stubing, he captained the "Love Boat" for nearly a decade after that. Today, iconic TV actor Gavin Macleod says "I know who my admiral is," referring to his faith in God.

Macleod, 78, is a born again Christian now piloting a career in the Christian film industry, and starring in the movie "The Secrets of Jonathan Perry," which opens this weekend.

"I've worked with some of the biggest names in Hollywood, Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck, Mary Tyler Moore," he told FOX News in an exclusive interview. "[But] the biggest honor I have ever had was to play the role of Jonathan Sperry in this simple but special film."

PHOTO ESSAY: The cast of "Love Boat" then and now.

The film is about three 12-year old boys who are best buddies in the summer of 1970. One of them mows the lawn for an elderly widower named Jonathan Sperry. The two develop a unique friendship as Sperry employs Biblical teachings to help the boy and his friends deal with a bully, a secret crush, and other life challenges.

"The film is about forgiveness," Macleod says. "Forgiveness is one of the greatest tools God has given us."

The movie was written by twins Dave and Rich Christiano; Rich also produced and directed. They're part of the new breed of grassroots Christian filmmakers that include the Kendrick brothers, makers of the surprise box office hit "Fireproof."

Instead of complaining to Hollywood about the films it produces, Rich Christiano says it's time for Christians to put their money where their mouths are. Sperry has no big-name distributor, so Christiano, who worked with Mcleod on the 2002 film "Time Changer," is marketing directly to churches, a technique also adopted by the Kendrick brothers.

The film has a staggered release starting September 18, showing in 118 theaters. Openings are scheduled through November 2009 with a total of 240 theaters onboard so far. Each one is sponsored by a church or group of church members. They advance $2,000 to get the film into the theater. The church will make their investment back if the film grosses $4,500. The movie's web page www.sperrymovie.com links to a site about sponsorship.

Christiano is betting on success in targeted theaters bringing additional theaters into the fold. Hee says theater owners are already calling him because people who want to see the film are calling them, wondering why the film isn’t showing in their communities.

The key to getting churches on board is having a well-known actor to star. Like Kirk Cameron, who starred in "Fireproof," "Sperry’s" Gavin Macleod is a true believer. Christian audiences know the actor is saying lines he personally believes.

It brings "authenticity and validation" to the film, says Mark Dupre, associate pastor at Christ Community Church in Brockport, New York — one of the churches sponsoring a theater showing. Dupre, who also teaches film at Rochester Institute of Technology, says having a strong Christian like Gavin Macleod play the lead is a built in marketing hook, "the equivalent of having the acting genius of a Meryl Streep in secular movie. Captain Stubing is someone America just loved."

Macleod charts his religious conversion back to September 15, 1984, seven years into the popular TV series "Love Boat." His mother had a serious medical condition and was scheduled for surgery. That morning he woke up and prayed to Jesus to "give my mother more time."

Unknown to Macleod, his then ex-wife Patty, who he hadn’t seen in two years, had gotten involved in a Christian women’s prayer group. She’d been praying that her husband would come back to her. Right after Macleod said the prayer to save his mother, he called Patty and asked "can we see each other?" The two repaired their relationship and were remarried in 1985. Gavin’s mother lived several more years.

From the moment he said his prayer, Mcleod says the change was immediate. "My castmates knew I was different. I was hearing with different ears and seeing with different eyes."

After "Love Boat" ended in 1987, Macleod became the spokesperson for Princess Cruises, a job he still holds today. He’s turned down several TV roles because he’s not interested in doing series work again. His passion now is for his faith and the lives he can touch. "The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry" allows him to be captain of his new calling.

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