The Gospel of Mark in Franklin

Published 11:22 am Saturday, April 12, 2014

by Frank Roberts

He was two of Hitler’s henchmen. As a matter-of-fact, he was also Hitler. In a turn-around, he twice donned priestly robes and, in a complete turn-around he was Mark, as in the Gospel according to Mark.

Alex McCowen came to Franklin in the early 1990s, courtesy of Hatcher Story who was known for bringing class acts to town, such as noted blues singer Helen Hume, a Count Basie protégé. Spending money for such important endeavors was no problem for the lanky, likeable peanut farmer who put the British movie and stage star on the stage of the Franklin High School auditorium.

McCowen’s important, vital presentation, “St. Mark’s Gospel,” co-produced by one of moviedom’s most respected actresses, Greer Garson, had only recently played New York City.

It was a stunning performance, a self-directed, one-man production — no script or cue cards. He held a Bible, smilingly explaining, “just in case,” but, like many Bibles in many homes, it was never opened. He went through the words found in the 14-page, small-print King James version, passionately and effortlessly.

McCowen studied the word and the man and in his program notes, he described Mark as, “an impressionable lad, full of fervor.” He set the stage by noting that Mark’s uncle, Barnabas, was about to set out with Paul on their first missionary journey.

Mark went with them. But the going was hard. Mark gave up and went back to mother. Paul had no time for those who turned back.

Finally, the missionary journeyers left Rome. Paul was in prison, and Mark was with him. Just before Paul died, he wrote to Timothy, saying, “Bring Mark with you.” But Mark was close to Peter, too. What he wrote in his Gospel is probably what Peter remembered and taught.

Then McCowen quoted Biblical historian William Barclay, who suggested that Mark “is the nearest we have to an eyewitness of the life of Jesus.”

A New York Times reviewer wrote, “McCowen leads us gradually through Christ’s days on Earth. In his portrayal, Jesus is a man before he is seen as a divinity, a man who can rise in anger and even personal irritation, as in his wrathful reaction to the fig tree that refuses to bear fruit.

“Miracles abound as winds are stilled, a blind man regains his sight, and a handful of loaves and fishes feeds a legion.”

There were no histrionics during the performance. Excitement came from the words and the story, and that story came to life with a delightful British accent from the Kent, England-born performer who studied at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

He must have graduated with honors, as he became a noted Shakespearean actor, lending his talent to most of the playwright’s most prestigious works, many of them with the Royal Shakespeare Company, once playing the title role in “Hamlet.”

His movie roles were plenty, including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” and the James Bond flick, “Never Say Never Again.” Interestingly, in his last film, he portrayed the Rev. Raleigh in Martin Scorcese’s acclaimed, “Gangs of New York,” with Leonard DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz.

Finally, this wonderful story: A theatergoer asked him where she could find a script of his production. His response: “In almost any hotel room.”

In his autobiography, McCowen, who also worked as a director and a part of “Tale Spinners For Children,” explained his sexual preference. He died a victim of AIDS.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Western Tidewater and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at