Cancer Claims Tammy Faye Bakker
Televangelist—just seen on Larry King Live last week—survived scandals, persevered as author, AIDS research advocate
Kansas City, MO — Tammy Faye Messner, who, with her former husband Jim Bakker, established a thriving business empire in television evangelism—which eventually crumbled amid scandal—died Friday at her home near Kansas City, Missouri. Messner, who had been battling colon cancer, which spread to her lungs, for several years, was 65.
An alarmingly emaciated Messner, who had withered to a reported 65 pounds in recent months, appeared last week on the CNN talk show Larry King Live. During her conversation with King, Messner said she was receiving hospice care and taking morphine to ease the pain of swallowing food.
Messner’s willingness to reveal herself so vulnerably on television was consistent with her intimate relationship with the medium. Known for her diminutive size, big hairstyles false eyelashes and heavy application of makeup (which inevitably ran down her face when she broke into tears), Messner had been a small-screen fixture for more than 30 years, and television was nearly inextricable from her life.
Her King appearance bookended a 2004 appearance in which she had announced her diagnosis with inoperable lung cancer. Her eventual radiation treatments were included in the 2005 documentary Tammy Faye: Death Defying.
Jim Bakker Proposed to the
Minnesota Native on First Date
She was born Tamara Faye LaValley on March 7, 1942, in International Falls, Minnesota. Reared in a strict religious household, she pledged to devote her life to her faith after speaking in tongues at the family’s Pentecostal church when she was 10 years old.
She met Jim Bakker, who proposed marriage on their first date, when they were both students at North Central Bible College, the Assemblies of God school in Minneapolis. They were required to leave the school when officials learned of their April 1961 marriage, which the couple did not realize violated a restriction against student matrimony.
They began touring the American South, where they preached in various Assemblies of God churches. When one of their puppet shows drew the attention of an aide to minister Pat Robertson, the Bakkers were summoned to Portsmouth, Virginia, where they joined Robertson’s nascent Christian Broadcasting Network.
The Bakkers agreed to perform their children’s puppet show on the condition that Jim would eventually host a Tonight Show-type program for Christians, which he believed would revolutionize Christian broadcasting. So it was that he went on to host The 700 Club, the first Christian talk show on television. The popular program became a lucrative source of revenue for Robertson’s broadcast ministry.
Split Between Bakker, Pat Robertson
Leads to Birth of Trinity Broadcasting
In 1972, after differences arose between Bakker and Robertson, who began taking over as host of The 700 Club several nights a week, the Bakkers left CBN.
They moved to southern California, where Jim Bakker co-founded the Santa Ana-based Trinity Broadcasting Network in 1973. with Paul Crouch, his former youth pastor in Muskegon. Jim Bakker served as president, Crouch as business administrator.
Bakker began hosting the PTL (for “Praise the Lord”) show, with his Tammy Faye as featured co-host and singer. The show was syndicated across the country, but according to Messner, the board of directors voted Jim Bakker out as president.
In 1974, friends in Charlotte, North Carolina, contacted Bakker seeking his assistance to launch a new Christian TV ministry. A new venture, The Jim and Tammy Show, went into syndication soon afterward, and viewer pledges resulted in donations in excess of $27 million within four years. Bakker was investigated by the FCC for allegedly improper fundraising practices, but was not charged.
Over time the couple’s business holdings, which included Heritage USA, a 2,300-acre religious theme park and resort in Fort Mill, South Carolina, expanded to more than $125 million.
Scandal and Legal Woes Wreck
Bakker Ministry, Marriages
Scandal erupted in 1987, when it was reported that seven years earlier Jim Bakker had a sexual encounter in a Florida hotel room with Jessica Hahn, a church secretary from Massapequa, New York, and had paid her $265,000 to keep quiet. When the news was made public, Bakker was stripped of his ministry.
Two years later, Bakker was convicted of federal charges that he had cheated followers out of more than $150 million by promising lifetime vacations at Heritage USA while knowing he could not provide them and that he had diverted more than $3 million to support an extravagant lifestyle.
As a result of the scandals, the Bakkers turned over PTL to the Rev. Jerry Falwell in 1987. Three months later, Falwell placed the ministry, which was more than $60 million in debt, in bankruptcy and turned financial records over to the U.S. Department of Justice. The Bakkers also lost Heritage Village through bankruptcy.
Although she initially pledged steadfast support of her husband, who was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison, Tammy Faye Bakker, who in 1987 was treated for drug dependency at the Betty Ford Center, filed for divorce three years later.
In 1993, she married Roe Messner, a contractor who oversaw much of the construction of Heritage USA. Following a reduced sentence, Jim Bakker was paroled in 1994, and in 1996, Roe Messner faced his own legal troubles when he was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for bankruptcy fraud.
Tammy Faye Perseveres as Author, with Television
Appearances and AIDS Research Advocacy
In the years since then, Tammy Faye Messner has remained in the public eye as an author, as the subject of the award-winning 2000 documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and as a television personality.
In addition to talk shows, game shows and infomercials, she appeared as an actress in episodes of Roseanne and the Drew Carey Show. In 1996 she co-hosted a short-lived talk show with actor Jim J. Bullock, and in 2004 she participated in the reality series The Surreal Life, in which she shared a house with five other celebrities, including actor Erik Estrada and rapper Vanilla Ice.
Unlike some of her televangelist peers, she was a longtime advocate of HIV/AIDS research and championed civil rights for gays early in her television career. As a result, she was an iconic figure in the gay community.
Most recently, an Off Broadway production based on her life, Big Tent: The Tammy Faye Bakker Musical, had its first public viewing in a staged concert on May 23 at New World Stages in Manhattan.
In keeping with the family legacy, her son Jay, a pastor, was recently the star of a Sundance Channel documentary titled One Punk Under God: The Prodigal Son of Jim and Tammy Faye.
In addition to her husband and son, she is survived by a daughter, Tammy Sue Chapman and two grandsons.
Archive of American Television talks with Tammy Faye Messner
In January 2005, Archive of American Television director Karen Herman interviewed Tammy Faye Bakker Messner.
During the conversation, Messner spoke of her childhood desire to become an evangelist. She described meeting her future husband Jim Bakker at bible college and their subsequent collaboration as traveling evangelists. In detail, Messner described their discovery by Pat Robertson, their launch and tenure with the fledging Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN).
She delved into the the creation of Trinity Broadcasting and their eventual split with their co-founders, which led to the formation of The PTL Club. While she declined to discuss the subsequent “PTL scandal,” she spoke of the devastation it left on her life, her more recent television appearances and more.
The complete Tammy Faye Bakker Messner interview is available for viewing at the AAT office, located on the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences plaza in North Hollywood. You may also view this two-part interview here at Google Video: Part 1 • Part 2
Contact the Television Archive at (818) 754-2800 for more information.
To learn more about this life and works of this American Archive of Television personality online, please visit the Archive of American Television Update blog.