A funny thing happened to comedy writer Tom Leopold when he was heading for his parked car in New York City. He had just met with a psychic who pretty much told him nothing, when he saw Father Jonathan Morris, a popular writer and TV news consultant who, as it later turned out, led him to what he was seeking.
Leopold recognized the priest from the news and also because he had a copy of his book, “The Promise: God’s Purpose and Plan for When Life Hurts.”
“I said, ‘Father Morris! I have your book on my nightstand,’ and he looked at me and smiled and came over,” Leopold told Our Sunday Visitor. “I wasn’t a religious person, and I don’t know why I said it, but I asked, ‘Do you think you might have time to talk to me?’ He said, ‘I don’t know. Did you pay full price for my book?’ No, wait, that’s a joke. What he said was, ‘Absolutely. You can find me right here.’ And he turns around and points to St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral. I have been on Mulberry Street 100 times and never noticed it. It was like it just appeared when he pointed to it.”
Nudged toward the Faith
A coincidence? Not to Leopold. Meeting Father Morris was only one of several incidents that he has come to accept as God’s plan to nudge him on the journey to enter the Church.
Leopold, 63, is an actor, author, performer and comedy writer whose name has rolled on the credits of television’s “Cheers,” “Will and Grace” and “Seinfeld.” He wrote and produced the sitcom “My Family” and launched “The Muppet Game Show,” both on the BBC. He has written comedy for Steve Allen, Bob Hope, Billy Crystal, Lucille Ball, Chevy Chase and others, and writes comedy speeches for politicians like retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
“I was a secular Jew,” Leopold said. “You don’t get this funny without being a Jew.”
That all changed — the faith, not the funny — when Father Morris shook his hand and Leopold felt something that told him there was no turning back.
He entered the Church at the Easter Vigil in 2011, and the night before, his friends threw a “Tom’s Last Day as a Jew” roast with guests that included his close friend Paul Shaffer (music director and David Letterman’s sidekick on “The Late Show”), comedy writer Harry Shearer who came dressed as a Hasidic Jew and tried to perform an intervention, and singer Loudon Wainwright III, who wrote a song for the occasion.
Now in addition to his usual projects, Leopold has been touring with the show, “A Comedy Writer Finds God.” It’s a mixture of his original music, laughs and touching stories about his professional and personal journeys. In another evangelization effort, he and Father Leo Patalinghug are on “Entertaining Truth” at 1 p.m. (Eastern) Thursdays on Sirius’ Catholic Channel.
Prayers for daughter
Leopold also presents programs for parents whose children have life-threatening diseases, especially anorexia, the illness that affected one of his two daughters. A connection with the pain of her suffering brought the first of the “coincidences.”
It began one night after he and his wife Barbara visited her at a hospital in Arizona, and back at the hotel, he prayed like he had never prayed before.
“I prayed like people pray on TV, like the wagon train master looks up at the night sky and says, ‘Lord, I’m not a praying man.’ I prayed for real and in such pain. I said, ‘Lord, if you are up there, please help my daughter, because I can’t.’”
When the couple went to walk in the desert at dawn, an old man on a motorcycle pulled up and popped a wheelie. He said his name was Shepherd and that when he was 33, his wife brought him to Jesus. The sun was coming up behind his head in a perfect halo.
“He peels off, rides a circle and comes back,” Leopold told OSV. “He looks me right in the eye and says, ‘God is watching you.’”
But Leopold’s biggest push toward the Faith, was that night he met Father Morris on the street. Leopold had gone to see a psychic that he had consulted 35 years earlier, and who had predicted many things that seemed to come true. He didn’t know at the time that the Church frowns on fortune telling, but he was desperate to know what was going to happen to his daughter. The psychic had no answers, but Father Morris did, as he showed him faith that trusts in God.
Leopold found support when he announced his conversion, and his wife, a lapsed Catholic, rekindled her faith when she became his sponsor.
“I told my mother, ‘Mom, your hair looks great and I’m going to become a Catholic,’ and she didn’t hear anything beyond the hair,” he joked. “No, what she said was, ‘Do you really believe all that? OK, if it makes you call me more often.’”
Expanding his repertoire
Converting didn’t hurt his repertoire of Jewish jokes, and his favorite is an oldie about a Jewish lady who takes her grandson to the beach and a big wave comes and sweeps him out into the ocean.
“The old lady falls to her knees and folds her hands,” Leopold said. “She prays, ‘Please God, bring my grandson back.’”
When a gentle wave pushes him back to shore, she looks heavenward and says, “He had a hat.”
Now he tells Catholic jokes, too, and between the laughs, and sometimes with the laughs, he tells the serious side of his life, the painful struggle with his daughter’s health and the realization that, he said, “We all have pain and you can’t live a life of any length without getting your butt kicked a little.”
Conversion gave Leopold new insight into Jesus.
“I never really thought of him as the Son of God,” he said. “I always thought he had this James Dean or Bob Dylan rebel kind of thing about him. Then when I took the RCIA classes, I knew that if I had been around then, I would have followed him. There might not have been room for me at the seder table, but I could have sat at the cousins’ table. It was like this was written on my heart in advance. I just didn’t know it.
“One guy asked me why I converted, and I said that when I prayed for the first time in my life, Jesus was the one who showed up. That’s why.”
Has Leopold the jokester thought ahead about what he might say to St. Peter when he gets to the Pearly Gates?
He laughed. “I had a hat,” he said.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.