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Robert Powell will always be remembered as the man who played Jesus, says ROBERT GORE-LANGTON

Think of Jesus on screen and there's every chance that you are thinking of Robert Powell in Jesus Of Nazareth. Remember those big blue eyes, the cheekbones, the rock star haircut? Alone in British Equity, Powell can claim to have genuinely added to the iconography of a religion. That Christ is still with us; in fact he's currently on tour at a regional theatre near you in a two-handed mystery, Double Double, with Susannah York. The tour is making a bomb not because the play is any good but because Powell - like Ms York - is a screen institution.

And for that Robert Powell has Jesus to thank. In 1975 the curly-haired actor was on a roll. Looking For Clancy had been a great success on the BBC. He was in the West End in Tom Stoppard's Travesties - a wild hit. His face was on film posters for the Ken Russell biopic, Mahler. He was also going out - and still is - with Babs, the blonde one in Pan's People from Top Of The Pops.

So when he got a call to audition for Jesus Of Nazareth, he didn't bother to go. "I didn't want to do it. It was the arrogance of youth," he says from behind specs, hair elegantly frosting at the temples, and looking more like a software executive than the Son of God.

But he was offered a screen test that the director, Franco Zeffirelli, loved. His hair was chemically straightened, his features enhanced. Apparently, when Powell came out on to the set the crew gasped.

"I looked in the mirror and realised I was looking at the image of Jesus I had retained from my childhood. It was the image English people recognise as Christ: Holman Hunt's Light Of The World. Except I wasn't blonde. But my silhouette could only have been of one man - Christ. It was extraordinary."

The film was shot in Morocco and Tunisia. Laurence Olivier, Rod Steiger, James Mason, Anne Bancroft were co-stars. It appeared - six compendious hours of it - to respectful approval. "The secret to the success of the film is down to the fact that it's not idiosyncratic. We were trying to reach thousands of people, all with the same image," says Powell. "But the 10,000 letters I got from viewers all said the same thing: 'It's exactly how I imagined Him.' That's because I did nothing. It's a blank canvas on which the audience paint their own image and think their own thoughts. Which is why I was angry with Dennis Potter."

Potter, the celebrated TV playwright who had written his own highly secular life of Jesus as a TV play, Son Of Man, was reviewing for the Sunday Times. His remarks about Powell were vitriolic. Which adjective, I wonder, really stuck in his mind? "Costive," recalls Powell instantly. Costive as in constipated? "Yep. That is the word which will go with me to my grave and for which I have never really forgiven Potter."

Potter's review also said Christ was "nourished on the disinfectant bottle [and] made to look as though he has a bad case of piles". Funny but unfair. Nearer the truth is that the anger, energy and agenda that had informed Potter's Jesus were missing from Zeffirelli's version.

Jesus Of Nazareth was never going to be a patch on Pasolini's masterpiece, The Gospel According To St Matthew, which used hand-held cameras and amateur Italian disciples with faces so haunting that even the Vatican surrendered to the work of a homosexual Marxist. While Pasolini's Christ was steeped in an unforgettable reality, Zeffirelli's attempted to provide what the great portraitists of the Renaissance had done - a brand image.

At first, Powell says, he tried to make Jesus sparkier, more of an individual. He stopped when he realised that "the more I made him a man, the less I made him divine". Didn't Olivier give him any tips on how to act the part? "Yes, he gave me the best note I have ever had. I was doing the 'spirit is willing - pause - but the flesh is weak' line. He said: 'Bobsy, do you mind if I say something? Never pause if the audience know what you are going to say next.'" On another occasion, the director asked Powell to shout "I am" when Jesus is asked if he is truly the son of the living God. He duly yelled. After the take, Olivier opined: "Bobsy, I think Jesus would have been quietly proud of being the son of God, don't you?" If one experience from playing Jesus - aside from the hell of the crucifixion - is seared into Powell's mind it was hearing his own voice echoing off the mountains during the Sermon On The Mount and actually listening to the words - "There was me, the extras and crew in a flood of tears, rapt at what is, I am convinced, the most profound piece of writing in history."

As for religious experience, Powell - the grandson of a Lancastrian Methodist - underwent no personal conversion. Indeed, the minute he touched down at Heathrow he shaved off his hair and signed up for a film in which he was graphically sodomised by a bunch of sailors on a river barge. "I deliberately kicked the traces by doing that picture. The censor, James Ferman, laughingly told me there would have to be so many cuts there was no point showing it in England!" For Powell, Zeffirelli's film is now ancient history. He went on to do the remake of The 39 Steps, but a Hollywood career was off the cards largely because no American producer dared hire Jesus to do any on-screen sinning, however minor.

Babs and he have now hit their 25th wedding anniversary. "Dennis Waterman and I used to watch her on Top Of The Pops and I ended up marrying my own fantasy. She looked after me, she brought up the kids and now she's on a boat." She is on the gruelling BT Challenge Trophy, having never sailed before, limbering up for the daunting 40-day leg between Rio and Wellington. Why? "Because that's the sort of person she is," says her husband with quiet pride. As for Robert, there will never be another role like Jesus Of Nazareth. One wonders if over the years the association hasn't become a professional nuisance. "No, not at all," says the actor. "It's flattering. I genuinely hope my obituary says: 'The man who played Jesus.'"

Robert Gore-Langton, The Express, April 1 2000.