His Grandfather Billy, their Family Legacy and an Honored Role in a Special Film
Reaching nearly 215 million people in more than 185 countries and territories, Billy Graham preached the Gospel to more people in live audiences than anyone else in history. Not to mention the hundreds of millions more he reached through other mediums like television, video, film and webcasts. It was the 1949 Los Angeles Crusade that launched Billy Graham into the public eye. Scheduled for three weeks, the meetings were extended to more than eight weeks, with overflow crowds filling the tent downtown each night. It was here that Billy Graham would meet and lead Louis Zamperini to Christ.
Zamperini was an Olympic runner who survived at sea, in the Pacific, after spending forty-seven days on a life raft when his bomber was shot down during World War II. Listed as dead, he not only defied that by remaining alive once being captured by the Japanese and brutality beat in a POW camp while enduring a harsh imprisonment, but that was only the beginning of his miraculous story. First told onscreen in the Angelina Jolie directed Unbroken, this fall Unbroken: Path to Redemption hits theatres as a spiritual sequel of sorts. The film reveals Zamperini’s torturous nightmares, battle with alcoholism, troubles in his marriage and increasing bitterness until he finally turns to the Lord, through a message Billy Graham delivered. It would instantly change his life and begin a decades-long friendship with the man often referred to as “America’s Pastor.”
In a full-circle casting move, filmmakers asked Billy Graham’s grandson, William Graham, to portray his grandfather on-screen and deliver the exact messages Billy Graham preached the nights Louis Zamperini attended the crusade. Hesitant at first, but grateful for the opportunity to share this story through film, William Graham agreed. A preacher and speaker himself, and of course namesake, there is something special about seeing the younger Graham in this role. Risen talked with William Graham about his iconic grandfather, stepping into his speaking shoes on-screen and how the family legacy continues to impact the world.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine
Risen Magazine: I was fortunate to be on-set while you filmed your scenes in Pomona, California, last fall. Since that time, Billy Graham passed away in February at ninety-nine years old. Share a little bit of your thoughts on his legacy and how you felt as you saw the overwhelming love from the world pour in on his impact?
William Graham: With my grandfather, it’s kind of hard to explain, his death was unexpected, but yet it was expected. He hadn’t really been sick, there were a lot of other times that he was a lot sicker and we had called in family and we were all kind of on death watch you might say, but he didn’t pass away. Then he just died one morning and passed away; closed his eyes for the final time and woke up in heaven. And so that kind of took us by surprise because we hadn’t expected it. Matter of fact, my dad [Franklin Graham] was just up there the Sunday before he died. He died on Wednesday, February 21st. I remember, I was out of town that day. I was preaching in Dallas, Texas. I had preached at Dallas Theological Seminary and I had preached at Dallas Baptist University, another school that day and I remember talking to some students, and some faculty at DBU, we were kind of behind closed doors. It wasn’t open to the general public, it was just select students and some select staff and I was telling the staff, “You know there’s something our family believes, we just feel like my granddaddy’s going to pass this year.” We have no idea why, there’s nothing wrong with him, he’s just old. But within twelve hours he’d be passing away. I found out early in the morning and within about four minutes I had people calling me because they had heard it on the news. So, it spread very, very quickly. My phone was lighting up so hard I couldn’t answer all the emails or text messages. God loves to go through peoples’ prayers and it impacted our family and we’re so grateful for that.
RM: That’s amazing. Obviously, Billy Graham impacted millions of people, and we see the fruit of that, but for you, he was your grandfather first. When did you know he was “Billy Graham” or did his name always carry such weight?
WG: That’s a good question. I would say there were two different points in my life where my grandad’s name changed to me. One was when I was in kindergarten. I was a kindergarten student and I remember my teacher, she was a lovely lady, she came up and put her hands on my shoulders and she was talking to another teacher and said, “This is Will Graham, this is Billy Graham’s grandson.” And I’m thinking, how does she know who my granddaddy is? I think that was the first time that I realized my granddaddy was more of a public figure than I realized.
Later in life, I went to public elementary school, public high school, and the kids could care less who Billy Graham was. They just wanted to know if you can play soccer or play basketball; that was the more important stuff. But when I got to college, I went to Liberty University and I remember when I went to Liberty, [Jerry] Falwell Sr. would make it a big deal that Billy Graham’s grandson was at his school. Which I didn’t mind, in full disclosure, Dr. Falwell gave me a free ride to Liberty, so he could use me any way he sees fit. He gave me a free college education and I’m forever grateful for what Liberty has done for me. But I remember during that time he would say, “We have Billy Graham’s grandson here,” and stuff like that, while I’m sitting in the audience. And what happened was I had people start finding what room I was in and knocking on my door and looking in my room just to see what Billy Graham’s grandson’s room looks like. That was kind of goofy. But in all honestly, it never bothered me. I guess it’s part of the life I’ve grown up with and I’m used to it, it’s my normal. I know that’s not normal for other people, I understand that but for me it was normal.
He made every grandkid feel special like they were the favorite. There’s nineteen grandchildren, all of us would say we’re Billy Graham’s favorite. That’s how he made us feel.
I’m a guy that dressed in blue jeans and t-shirts and went through seminary class and nobody knew that I was Billy Graham’s grandson. They knew I was on campus but they never knew it was me. Because I guess they thought Billy Graham’s grandson would be in a three-piece suit or something, but when they found out it was me, I think it was kind of anti-climactic for them. My granddaddy was a very humble man. He lived in a humble home. He dressed very humbly. A lot of pictures you see of my grandfather, he’s wearing an old denim jacket and he’s got denim pants on. Those are bell bottoms he never threw away because he was so frugal with his money [laughter]. He still wore bell bottoms when he was seventy-five or eighty years old. He wouldn’t throw anything away because he came out of the depression era.
RM: What was your relationship like with Billy Graham growing up?
WG: I’m so grateful for the times I got to spend with my granddaddy. I had a great relationship with my grandfather. I’m his namesake. I’m William Franklin Graham the fourth. My father’s William Franklin Graham the third. And, if you grew up with him, you called him Billy Frank. He’s always been my granddaddy, and as grandchildren, our name of affection for our grandfather is “Daddy Bill.” I lived very close to my grandfather. I grew up in Boone, North Carolina. My grandfather lived in Asheville. It’s about sixty miles and my other grandparents, my mom’s parents, lived in Montreat for the summers, where he lived. So, they were less than a mile apart; I was always going back and forth and I had both sets of my grandparents right there. I got to see my grandparents probably a little bit more than the other grandkids. Not because I’m the favorite, please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not the favorite, they don’t have favorites. But I got to see them more often because I lived geographically closer.
Also, when my dad traveled, I would go with him sometimes overseas to my grandfather’s crusades. I would go to Puerto Rico, I would go to London, I would go to California – I know that’s not another country but sometimes we think it is [laughter] – I went to all these other crusades where a lot of my other cousins didn’t have that opportunity because my dad was a board member, and my dad was a pilot, and he could take his little airplane and fly to different places. I got to see my granddaddy in other parts of the world. And he didn’t spend much time at home. For the most of his life, he would spend it in some other city or town. He was never home very much, it was rare, but I always had a great relationship with him. He made every grandkid feel special like they were the favorite. There’s nineteen grandchildren, all of us would say we’re Billy Graham’s favorite. That’s how he made us feel.
RM: I love that. When did your faith become your own?
WG: I gave my life to Christ when I was almost six years old. My dad led me to Christ, I was at church. It was the first time I had to be in grown-up church. Communion came by and I thought it was adult snack time [laughter]. Dad said that I couldn’t take it because I didn’t have Christ in my life. I thought my dad didn’t want me to take it because I was going to spill the grape juice on the carpet. So, I didn’t think anything of it. Later that day when we were home, Dad took me up to my room, and said, “This is why you can’t have it [communion]. Because you don’t know Christ.” So, my dad would lead me to Christ that night. Communion didn’t save me, but it was the avenue that God used to bring me to Him.
RM: Now, you’re married and you and your wife have three children, two daughters and your son continues the tradition and carries on the namesake as William Franklin Graham V. Share a little bit about the generational blessing and also advice for parents when it comes to raising kids to have a personal relationship with the Lord?
WG: Thanks for asking about my family. On the 13th of June, I celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary.
It’s a really hard way to preach in a movie like that. But with my grandad’s sermon, since I knew the whole sermon, I could put it in context and know where he was going with each thought and so it was easier for me to put it together like that.
WG: I appreciate it. I’ll be holding a crusade, a Celebration of Hope in Falkirk, Scotland, and my wife’s going to be able to go with me. We’ll celebrate our twentieth anniversary in Scotland. But listen, marriage is one of the toughest things you’ll ever do in life. I think there have been times that she and I both felt like quitting, and there’s times when we didn’t like each other, her toward me and me toward her, but we were committed to Christ and we were committed to each other. We knew that love is not a feeling, it’s a commitment. And so, we were committed to one another and to working it out. Someone asked my grandparents, “What makes a great marriage?” And my grandmother was quick to say, “Two great forgivers.” My wife and I, we’ve had to learn to forgive each other. And now we get to celebrate twenty years. There is no perfect marriage. Even Billy Graham and Ruth Graham had their fights. The good news is that they did it in private, they didn’t do it in front of their children or anything like that. But they had their arguments and disagreements on things. But they loved each other, so my wife and I, we greatly love each other. I’m so grateful for her and I couldn’t do what I do now without her.
We’ve been blessed with three children, two daughters and a son. All three of them have asked Christ to come into their hearts. And my son actually did it on the ten-year anniversary of 9/11. I remember that because I was in London during that time and I just remember all the ceremonies going on and my wife calling to say, “Quinn just asked Christ to come into his life.” I’m so grateful for all three of my kids, they love the Lord. It goes by fast, my oldest just finished up her junior and will be starting her senior year this fall. She’s already committed to go to Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee and play soccer.
It just goes by so quickly. I mean, I met my wife at college and I’m thinking, “Man, my daughter is probably going to meet her future husband there.” And so, I’m praying like crazy right now. I think that’s a father’s worst nightmare, future sons-in-law [laughter]. I’ve been praying that God will bring the right person and they too will love the Lord and be good forgivers toward one another.
RM: Absolutely. In Unbroken: Path to Redemption you play your grandfather, Billy Graham, on screen at the 1949 revival where Louis Zamperini made the decision to follow Christ. What did it mean to you to get to portray him on screen?
WG: Well, I tell you, it was a great privilege. This story is so important. And it’s not a Billy Graham story, it’s a Louis Zamperini powerful, powerful story. When they first approached me a number of months before the movie even filmed and said, “Would [you] be interested in it?” I said, “Listen guys, this story’s too important for me to mess it up, so don’t base it on me, get someone better.” They said, “No, we want you to do it. I mean you’re a preacher, we need a preacher.” I said, “Well, that’s true. I don’t have to act, I can just do what I normally do.” And to be honest, it was the most nerve racking thing I’ve ever done. I don’t want to do it again [laughter]. Please don’t misunderstand me, I had a wonderful time. Because it was my first time, I didn’t know what to expect as everything was new to me. I didn’t feel comfortable. Harold [Cronk], the director, was so gracious coming up and talking to me and encouraging me. He would get the extras in the tent to encourage me. It was one of the greatest blessings, and a lot of people won’t know this, but when I was going to do my scenes from the pulpit, I’d be walking up into the tent, onto the stage, and there were two gentlemen in particular, that were saying, “We’re praying for you Will. Preach Jesus.” I had more fun with the choir than any other thing because they made me feel at home.
But it was just nerve racking because I had all these expectations in my mind and it was nothing like what I expected. It wasn’t bad, it was just not what I expected. I had to do large portions of lines, like multiple paragraphs without a break and trying to memorize all my lines and get it just right and get the gist of what my grandfather was trying to say, was very tough. I’m preaching my grandad’s sermon and it’s not the way I would say things, he uses different words and different phrases. But what’s so neat was, we did some research and we found out what we believed to be the same sermon that we thought was preached when Louis Zamperini came to know Christ. I got to preach my granddaddy’s sermon from 1949. The exact sermon. And I was thrilled to get to preach my granddaddy’s sermon. The last time it was probably preached was there in 1949 and now I’m preaching it again in a tent outside of Los Angeles. You can’t get much better than this. It was a wonderful privilege, I’m so thankful for it but I’m so glad it was over.
RM: I found that aspect about it fascinating; that you could know the exact sermons that were preached throughout the crusade. Did Billy Graham always keep and date all of his sermons or was there something extra special about that 1949 revival?
WG: I’m not sure if I can really answer to your satisfaction. I don’t know. From that time in 1949, he was a college president and so he probably had help. All of his sermons were recorded. We actually have the original recordings of my granddaddy’s sermons; so someone listened to them and then transcribed them. I had both the audio and the transcription to go over. And that’s how I tried to put everything in context. It gave me a better context than just looking at my movie lines because they picked out just certain portions.
I tell people imagine a sermon, just for a round number sake let’s say it’s 100 sentences, they made me preach sentence one, sentence two, sentence 38, 46, 47, 48, 78, 98, 99, and 100. It’s a really hard way to preach in a movie like that. But with my grandad’s sermon, since I knew the whole sermon, I could put it in context and know where he was going with each thought and so it was easier for me to put it together like that. All that to say, that most of his sermons are transcribed, at least by the time he was a college president most of his messages were probably transcribed by his secretary.
That’s one of the most recognized things I hear in everybody’s stories: “I felt like he was preaching just to me. I was going through something and he was preaching just to me.”
RM: It seemed as though God was speaking through Billy right to Louis, which so many times Christ does, He meets us right where we need Him. As a pastor, and speaker yourself with your Celebration events, how have you seen this prove to be true over and over?
WG: Definitely. I get to hear more of the testimony from my granddaddy’s impact since more time has passed since people have come to know Christ. Let’s just say from the 1960s up until now, when people see me, they come and tell me their, we’ll call it Billy Graham story. And one of the things that keeps coming up all the time, is just that, “I felt like he was preaching just to me.” That’s one of the most recognized things I hear in everybody’s stories: “I felt like he was preaching just to me. I was going through something and he was preaching just to me.”
And I found that true to be true in my life. I remember one time, I was pastoring a church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and I can’t remember what I was preaching, I’m just going to make up something. Say I’m preaching on tithing. No preacher wants to preach on tithing. You feel awkward, but if I’m a preacher, then I’ve got to preach all of God’s Word – the martial problems, the salvation parts, the sin part, even the tithing part – I have to preach all of it. So, I’m preaching on tithing, and a couple came up to accept Christ and they said, “We just appreciate what you said about the family it really spoke to our hearts.” And I’m thinking to myself, “I didn’t preach on the family. I preached on tithing.”
But that was the Holy Spirit pricking their heart about something I said and it convicted them so bad that they gave their life to Jesus Christ that morning. They gave their life to Christ on the message on tithing, but they said it was on the family. That’s the Holy Spirit speaking directly to their hearts. You have to be a faithful preacher and God takes those faithful actions and turns them into knives that pierce the heart and people hear the Spirit of God speak to ‘em. And that’s what I want to be, just be a faithful preacher, preaching God’s Word. They may not hear my sermon but they are going to hear the words of God hit them. And I’m happy with that because it’s not about Will Graham, it’s about Jesus Christ redeeming the lost of this world. He died for it and he’s redeeming it. I’m just so grateful I get a front row seat to a lot of it.
RM: I love that Louis used his personal story to impact others because it is such a remarkable story. What would you say to people that may be reading or hearing this and thinking, “My story doesn’t involve Olympics, a POW camp, sharks or being lost at sea… how can my normal life be used to impact others?”
WG: I tell people that life is full of Louises. People are going to read this article and realize they’re one of these Louises in life. And what I mean by that is, their life has not gone the way they planned, it’s fallen apart around them, and their life is a mess. Sure, maybe they didn’t go to a POW camp, maybe their legs didn’t crack under them while they were trying to run for the Olympics, I understand that, but we all have problems in our own life. We carry burdens, a lot of marriages aren’t going well, raising kids is hard, all these things weigh down on us. Louis was a failure when it came to work, finding a job, and making money. He was not good at it. But God reached down and said “You know what, I have a plan and purpose for Louis Zamperini.” God was chasing him. And Louis, like Jonah, kept running away and didn’t want to talk. Finally, he got to the point of being sick and tired, of being sick and tired, and there’s so many people in this world right now that are sick and tired of being sick and tired. They’re tired of the way things are going in their life, they feel like they can’t keep going, everything they try to fix just crumbles even more.
Louis decided to go forward [to accept Christ]. He didn’t want to go forward. He was trying to get out the back, he said the next thing he realized he was at the front. He said, “I don’t know how I got up there.” It’s like God just pulled him and Louis went. There was a big tent where my granddaddy did the preaching, but there was another smaller tent where they talked and counseled people after the service. Louis was in there and he gave his life to Christ and he had tears coming down his eyes. The whole burden that he carried, all the guilt that he carried, all the frustrations in life, they just went away. His drinking went, it disappeared. His nightmares, disappeared. For Louis it happened in an instant, boom, he was changed.
And I’m here to tell you that is what God can do for you. Anybody when they give their life to Jesus Christ, and they don’t have to be a POW, they don’t have to be an Olympian, when you surrender your problems just like Hannah did in the Bible, she surrendered all her brokenness – her broken dreams, her broken family, her broken relationships – all that she gave over to the Lord and her life was changed. Her circumstances didn’t change, but now she had given all that over to the Lord so she’s not carrying those burdens anymore. Louis was no longer carrying these burdens. His marriage was restored. He would have a second child, a son. And then he would spend the next sixty years of his life serving the Lord Jesus Christ faithfully. It’s an incredible story and I’m just so grateful that I had a small part in it as an actor. It was a tremendous opportunity for me, I’m so grateful for it.
RM: Share about the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and how it continues to further the efforts of your family. I mentioned your Celebration events, your father has Decision America nights, and of course the Billy Graham Library with resources to help reach the world. What is your hope for the future and lives changed?
WG: The greatest privilege in life is seeing lives change for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When people that are spiritually dead give their life over to Christ, that’s one of the most exciting things in life. Everything we do with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is to reach people’s hearts for the Gospel. My dad is preaching up and down California right now and I think his next stop is Berkeley. He’s going to be preaching the Gospel at Berkeley and I wish I could be there for that. Dad doesn’t mind arguments or fights. He respects people that fight back with him. But I hope, people said, “Why would you go there?” Because they need the Gospel and Dad wants to go where no one else wants to go. And that’s how I feel, I want to go where no one else wants to go. I just got back from western Australia preaching in a gold mining city where I’m not sure the last time an evangelist had been there. I got to go, we preached the Gospel, and we saw over five hundred people make decisions for Christ. It’s incredible. I mean just a wonderful outpouring of Holy Spirit there. I’m so thankful for it.
So, we still do evangelistic crusades. My dad calls them festivals, I call them celebrations. We have our Rapid Response Chaplains that respond to manmade and natural disasters. They’ve been out in Hawaii where the lava’s been destroying homes. They’re praying with people that’ve been losing everything and can’t figure out why all this is happening to them. We encourage and pray with them. Or if there’s a tornado, we show up there. We’ve had some flooding here in western North Carolina recently, I think we may have some chaplains running around now praying with people that have lost their homes in floods.
And, we have the Billy Graham Library. The whole reason the Billy Graham Library is there is not just to tell people about Billy Graham, it’s to tell them what Billy Graham was preaching about, and that is Jesus. My granddaddy loved Jesus Christ more than anything else in this world and so everything that we try to do is trying to bring glory and honor to the name of Jesus and help people to know more about Him.
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