Mark Burnett's voice softens to a whisper as he enters a book-lined alcove set aside for prayer in his sprawling oceanfront Malibu mansion. "These are all the old family Bibles," he says, reaching for a tattered pocket edition that belonged to an uncle in the British army. "Killed by the Germans in World War II," he says. Nearby, a makeshift altar is stacked with photos of relatives and friends who've passed on. "That's someone Roma worked with on Touched by an Angel," he says, pointing at one. Roma Downey, the Irish-born actress who starred in 212 episodes of the CBS series, married Burnett in a backyard ceremony here in 2007. Her former costar Della Reese, now a minister, officiated as the couple's three children from previous marriages looked on.
Burnett, who went through Anglican parochial school in England and came to the U.S. with only a few hundred dollars in his pocket in 1982, would today make anyone's short list of Insanely Powerful Hollywood Producers. At 53, he has created the reality megahits Survivor, The Apprentice, The Voice, and Shark Tank, among others. "He'd be an outstanding motivational speaker if he weren't already so well-paid," says Paul Telegdy, the executive of unscripted shows at NBC. "When it comes to daring to fail and daring to be better, Mark is fearless." And yet Burnett, wearing a taut gray sweatshirt and jeans, is practically quivering as he puts both hands gently around a crown of thorns leaning against a lamp. "I'll hold on to it so you can touch it," he says with gleaming eyes. "This is the actual, original crown that he wore."
To be clear, "he" is the actor Diogo Morgado, who wore the actual, original prop crown as Jesus in Burnett's greatest success yet. Last March, History Channel's 10-part miniseries The Bible, which Burnett and Downey coproduced, drew even more attention than that gay naked Survivor guy who went to jail for tax evasion. Nearly 100 million people around the world watched the series, which has multiplied Burnett's fortunes like loaves and fishes. The Bible had tie-in books, DVDs, CDs, study apps, and megachurch viewing spectaculars. Now come the recut big-screen version, Son of God, in theaters this month; a sequel miniseries, A.D.: Beyond the Bible, to air in 2015 on NBC; and CBS's miniseries The Dovekeepers, about the ancient battle for Masada, also slated for 2015.
All of which might seem like an about-face for an exec who once sold MTV a reality show called Bully Beatdown that pitted martial-arts fighters against former playground toughs (some claimed the series was completely faked). And what would Jesus do about, say, the $100 million–plus ad-revenue split Burnett inked with the Donald? Burnett sees no inconsistency. "I'm doing what I've always done—make the most entertaining shows possible for the entire family," he says, adding that he never showed so much as a butt crack on Survivor. "If there's one difference now, it's that I'm focused on something that fills my entire heart, and that is the omnipresence of God."
The almighty dollar doesn't hurt, either. In a country where 245 million people identify as Christians, feeding the faithful is great business. A Variety Op-Ed pointed out that evangelicals spend an estimated $2.1 trillion a year on media, adding that "the notion that people of faith are just little old ladies in the Bible Belt doesn't fit." Burnett knows it. "The Bible genre is an untapped market that Hollywood has been slow to cater to, yet we've discovered how large and vocal this audience is," he says. "God is everywhere, even in entertainment."
Downey clearly had a role in Burnett's awakening. Sitting with his wife on a verandah over the Pacific, he gazes at her, a devout Catholic, as if she were a cherub in a Raphael painting. Also 53, Downey is still model-hot in skinny jeans, boots, and a camel-colored riding jacket. "In our partnership, I bring the heart and my husband brings the hammer," she says. "Had it been up to me, we'd still be gently tapping on studio doors asking to bring The Bible to the screen. Mark tends to kick down the doors."
Tackling religious subject matter in godless Hollywood can be dicey (just ask Burnett's Malibu neighbor Mel Gibson). Darren Aronofsky's $125 million Noah and Ridley Scott's forthcoming Exodus angle for the secular mainstream by using Bible stories as action-adventure fodder, but Burnett stays faithful to Scripture, peppering in just enough action sequences to hook broader audiences. "You have to be entertaining," he says, "but the mass of humanity will call you out if you stray too far from the sacred word." The trust of the spiritual community is key. Noah "generated troubling reactions" in Jewish and Christian test audiences, The Hollywood Reporter noted. Exodus caught hellfire merely for renting camels from a Spanish zoo meant to walk in a local Christmas parade. The biggest controversy The Bible mustered concerned not dogma but casting: The actor playing Satan looked eerily like President Obama.
Burnett and Downey have assembled an enlightened mafia of 40 religious scholars and advisers, including a cardinal, televangelists, Muslims, and observant Jews, to guide the couple around incendiary plot points. "I e-mailed some concerns about an early draft of the Bible script, and Mark called me within 15 minutes to say the changes would be made," says Bob Beltz, a Denver pastor on the holy Rolodex. "His willingness to listen and show a deep sensitivity and respect to this material is why the project resonates with so many millions."
Oh, right. The millions. That giant audience these Christian projects tap pays back with rich rewards, and Burnett's just fine with that. "It's clearly interpreted in the Bible that money itself is not negative," he says. "You don't do well and stop. You keep going and growing. If you look at Solomon, he was probably far wealthier than Bill Gates." Burnett's not doing too badly himself. We step out onto a gravel motor court lined with his gleaming car collection—a Bentley, a vintage Chevelle, and a triple-black 1969 Pontiac Firebird convertible. "Having been to Galilee, I saw where Saint Peter lived," he says, the ocean rolling in behind him. "It wasn't exactly the smallest house. Bigger than this one. He must have been a very successful fisherman."