Hollywood actor Bob Turnbull played everything from gun smugglers to Coast Guard captains on television and films like “Hawaii 5-0,” “Cagney and Lacey,” and “Tora Tora Tora.”
Growing up, he attended high school in San Diego with Dennis Hopper, the co-star of the 1960s classic “Easy Rider.”
A few years after they graduated, Hopper called him and asked, “Do you want to get into show business?”
“Yes,” Turnbull replied.
“Then quit messing around in San Diego,” Hopper said. “Come up here and stay with me a month, I’ll introduce you to my agent, and then you’re on your own.”
It was the spur he needed to begin a career in Hollywood, but it shocked his mother. His first picture, “Dragstrip Riot,” Turnbull describes as “a beastly thing.” Indeed, it was voted one of the worst movies of all time by the American Film Institute.
“At that time, Jesus Christ was just a swear word in my mouth, along with all the other swear words,” Turnbull says. He had no church background whatsoever.
But a funny thing happened while he was making a film on location in Malibu. He began to notice actress Yvonne Line, who just finished making “I Was A Teenage Werewolf” with Michael Landon.
“I thought I was going to make my moves — I was Mr. Lover boy,” Bob says. He sat next to her at lunch and noticed her bow her head in prayer before eating, something very foreign to Turnbull.
“I thought she was sick,” he says. “She was leaning over her plate and I didn’t know she was praying. It didn’t make any sense to me because I’d never seen anybody pray.”
Turnbull grabbed her and asked, “Are you all right?”
“Yes, I was praying,” she said. Bob laughed at her because he had never seen such strange behavior. For three days he stayed away from her because he thought she was “a nut.”
Then she invited Turnbull to go to Forest Home, a church camp in the Southern California mountains.
“It sounded like a prison in the mountains,” Bob recalls. But he reluctantly agreed and rode up to the camp with Henrietta Mears and another elderly woman. Mears was the legendary ministry leader at Hollywood Presbyterian Church.
I can’t believe these two old bags are dragging me up to this church camp, Bob thought as they drove.
When he arrived, Bob was surprised by the quality of the people he met. “The whole thing was so powerful as I looked at the lives of these people,” he recounts. “If this is true, it’s incredible.” He thought it was either true or it was a joke.
Turnbull decided he would make a deal with God. “God, I’ll give you one year to prove yourself,” he declared, and accepted Jesus into his heart.
It was only a matter of days before he realized something was very different. “Suddenly I had eyes to see and ears to hear, and I said, ‘This is for real!’”
As Bob’s relationship with Jesus Christ grew, his interest in the entertainment profession waned, until he decided to go into full-time Christian service. After becoming a college-career pastor at a Lutheran church in North Hollywood, he received an unusual opportunity.
In 1968 he became the college-career pastor of the Penthouse Church of Hawaii, which occupied the top floor of a high-rise overlooking Waikiki Beach.
One day he was speaking to a group and looked down at the tourist throng on the beach. He decided, That’s where all the people are; they need to be reached for Christ!
Bob made a vow to himself to start a beach service within a year, and managed to meet with and win the approval of the governor, the mayor, and the police chief.
Finally he found himself in the office of the manager of the Hilton Hawaiian Village, the perfect beachfront location for the service envisioned by Turnbull.
Turnbull explained his vision and the approvals he earned, one-by-one.
“Oh, so it’s just you and me, huh?” the manager said.
“All of a sudden he swung his chair around and looked out over the Pacific Ocean. He put his back to me and didn’t say a word for about two minutes. Finally he swung around and I could see he had tears in his eyes.”
He pointed to the North Shore of Oahu. “In a shaky voice he said, ‘Bob, up there is my drug-crazed 18-year old son in a cave with his hippie friends. If you and your friends can reach kids like these with your Jesus, you have my permission.’”
After Bob spread the word through the rock stations in town, 400 showed up for the first Sunday service. Later, Governor John Burns gave Turnbull the honorary title of “The Chaplain of Waikiki Beach.”
Bob met and married his wife, Yvonne (no relation to Yvonne Line), as a result of the beach service. Despite their strong faith, they soon discovered they were woefully unprepared for marriage.
“We played the game,” Yvonne says. “We put on the mask and let everyone believe we were OK,” she says. “Then we’d come home and put the boxing gloves on.
“Our personalities are strong, and there was always a power struggle. We were too prideful to ask for help. We were Christians in ministry. How could we tell anyone our lives were falling apart?” Yvonne says.
But God met them at their lowest point, by giving them a reason for hope contained in Romans 15:13. Things didn’t change overnight for the couple, but it gave them a message that things could be different if they trusted God.
“We said let’s start looking at scripture and applying it,” Yvonne says. “We’re very strong in our teaching about using the Word of God, but we’re also very practical people, and always want to know how to apply it,” she says.
“As God spoke to us he molded us together, taking two head-strong people, and turning us into a team. It took us submitting our wills to him on an on-going basis.”
For many years, Bob and Yvonne led a ministry together, leading seminars for those with difficult marriages. “Our heart is for struggling couples, particularly younger couples,” she says. “We want to ground them in the Word of God.”
A few years ago, Turnbull decided he would make an acting comeback, and appeared in “L.A. Law,” “Family Ties,” and “Highway to Heaven.” One morning, he left his house in Mission Viejo before dawn to beat the traffic to west Los Angeles, where they were filming a “Highway to Heaven” episode.
He pulled into the lot at the break of day, even before the production trucks arrived, and noticed one other car pull in at the same time. Presuming it was another actor, Bob went over to introduce himself.
“Hello, I’m Bob Turnbull,” he said.
The man’s eyes got wide, he staggered back, sat down on a fire hydrant, and started sobbing.
“Is there something I can do for you?” Turnbull asked.
“This is incredible,” the man said. “Two days ago my wife told me she’s filing for divorce. Yesterday my father and I decided our family company would have to file for bankruptcy. I asked, ‘God, is there anybody you can send to help me?’
“Now I look at you, and you led me to Christ 19 years ago at a youth rally in Portland, Oregon.”
“That was an ordained hour,” Turnbull says. “We had all day during breaks to talk and pray and cry and read the Bible,” he says.
Turnbull believes in being alert to God-given opportunities. “Seize the moment,” he says. “We need to go through those openings with full passion until God calls us home.”
More recently, Bob and Yvonne have been developing a 55-plus “Legacy Builders” Ministry at their church in Southern California, which involves outreach and mentoring opportunities. “What can we do to make a difference and help younger generations?” he asks.
This is the latest installment in their active ministry lives, helping others to grow in Christ and see God’s kingdom expand through their influence.
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