The Resurrection of Robert Tilton

Dogged by grabby ex-wives and financial scandals, a Texas prophet-for-profit brings his TV act to Miami Beach

Sitting in Ross Perot's favorite booth at a fancy Dallas restaurant, Leigh Valentine eats half her low-fat redfish and then explains her husband's "disguise kit." The kit contained several fake mustaches and a $1200 custom-made wig. Robert Tilton, the Texas televangelist, carried it everywhere, and during their first year of marriage he wore disguises "50 percent of the time," Valentine says.

It's a tale she's told before, under oath in divorce court -- the disguise kit, and the nights aboard a yacht in Fort Lauderdale or in various mansions where Tilton would throw her down stairs, slam her against walls, or hurl cordless telephones at her head; how Tilton would drink himself into blind rages and declare he was the Pope or wake up in the night screaming that "rats were eating his brain."

Valentine, a former Miss Tallahassee, further explains why Tilton felt compelled to use disguises in 1995 but probably doesn't any more; and why, despite having spent $6000 on private detectives in Texas and Florida, she has no idea where her husband is right now.

"We would go to restaurants here in Dallas and people would give us the finger," she says. "People would scream at us on the street. It was incredible. Bob hated Dallas, and the more he hated Dallas the more he loved Florida. He said Fort Lauderdale was like his cloak of invisibility. Nobody would ever find him there. No one recognized him. He could wear shorts and Hawaiian shirts all day and do whatever he wanted."

Apropos of nothing, Valentine announces she's "doing a book-and-movie deal" (working title: The Dark Side of the Cross). Later over coffee she says she hopes any story resulting from tonight's interview will ignore her drunk-driving arrest last month, which occurred after she broadsided another motorist at a Dallas intersection. It would be nice if she were described as 39 years of age instead of 41, she suggests. "And call me Leigh Valentine, not Leigh Valentine Tilton," she adds. "I don't know how I got myself into this mess. I mean, I'm the daughter of a surgeon! I wish I'd never heard the name Tilton."

Parting words: "Find Bob. I want photos of him. Him and whatever girlfriend he's with. He keeps telling the judge he's broke. He keeps pretending he's changed. Bob Tilton will never change, and he'll definitely never be broke."

If you saw him on TV during the late Eighties or early Nineties, you will not have forgotten Robert Tilton. Not the Howdy Doody dimples, nor the frosted, frizzy hair. Not the bizarre facial contortions, nor the Babylonian babbling that passed for speaking in tongues. Not the antics: Tilton climbing aboard his desk to wallow in a pile of viewers' prayer requests; Tilton explaining why he had gone for plastic surgery (ink from those same prayer requests had seeped into his bloodstream and created bags under his eyes); Tilton telling his TV audience that those who messed with him were "messin' with the apple of God's eye."

Robert Tilton ruled the broadcast vacuum left by fallen televangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. And if Swaggart and Bakker seemed like caricatures, Tilton was a veritable cartoon character, a self-parody of television evangelism itself.

While skeptics dismissed him as a low-rent Southern cultural phenomenon, Tilton was hee-hawing all the way to the bank. At his peak he purchased 5000 hours of airtime per month and appeared in all 235 U.S. television markets. His daily Success-N-Life show reached virtually every TV set in North America. Tilton's mass-market ministry pulled in $80 million per year, and his Dallas church drew as many as 5000 worshipers to Sunday service. He trotted the globe, wore $2000 tailored Italian suits, and drove, depending on his mood, a Mercedes-Benz or a Jaguar. He occupied multimillion-dollar residences near San Diego and Dallas and a waterfront vacation home in Fort Lauderdale. Of course, the facts of his gaudy lifestyle and the astonishing size of his business enterprise remained largely hidden until after his eclipse began.

Tilton learned from the scandals that brought down Swaggart and Bakker. While claiming to support various orphanages and overseas missions, he was careful not to link viewers' contributions to any particular project. (Bakker went to prison because he raised money for a Christian theme park in South Carolina and then spent the money on other things.) And while Tilton called himself the prophet of a generation, he did not harp on moral issues. He thereby avoided setting himself up for charges of hypocrisy. (Swaggart's demise began when he was videotaped with a prostitute. He had previously preached to millions on the sins of lust and adultery.)

One issue Tilton did dwell on was worldly wealth. Day after day he pitched a narrow, well-oiled version of the Pentecostal "prosperity gospel." In exchange for $1000 "vows" from followers, Tilton promised to lobby God for miraculous improvements in their health and finances. "If Jesus Christ were alive today and walking around, he wouldn't want his people driving Volkswagens and living in apartments," he explained.

Then came November 21, 1991. On that evening, ABC's PrimeTime Live aired the findings of a six-month investigation into the ministries of Tilton and two other TV preachers, W.V. Grant and Larry Lea.

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