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Lights, camera, faith: The Shawn Stevens story

Published: Tuesday, May 29 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

“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.

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