Mark Burnett Recognized for Religious Sensitivity in 'The Bible' and 'Son of God'

Michael Kovac
Roma Downey Mark Burnett and Abe Foxman

The producer and wife Roma Downey are honored by the ADL at its annual Entertainment Industry Dinner, raising over $1 million to fight bigotry, prejudice and anti-Semitism.

BEVERLY HILLS -- Producer Mark Burnett and his wife, actress-producer Roma Downey, were honored Thursday evening by the Anti-Defamation League at its annual Entertainment Industry Dinner for "building bridges of understanding among different faiths," said ADL national director Abe Foxman.

While Burnett is known for producing TV shows such as Survivor, The Voice and Shark Tank, and Downey starred in Touched by an Angel, among other credits, the focus of the award presentation and their acceptance was the hit miniseries The Bible, which they produced for History Channel last year, and the movie spin-off from that project, Son Of God, which has grossed almost $70 million worldwide since it was released in February.

Foxman praised the miniseries and movie for being among the few stories about Jesus Christ produced in the long history of Hollywood that didn't slur the Jewish people for having killed Christ.

"They didn't wait until after the fact to let the chips fall where they may," said Foxman, a Holocaust survivor who has headed the ADL since 1987. "They reached out within the many strands of Christianity and to other religions too."

Foxman said he was one of many people brought in as an adviser and came away "gratified by the respect they showed the Jewish community's sensitivity, history and point of view."

Burnett is originally from London and his wife from Northern Ireland, where she grew up during a period of great turmoil between Catholics and Protestants. Burnett said while he was growing up he "never even thought about the idea that Jews killed Jesus. It didn't even cross my mind."

Burnett recalled telling that to Foxman during preproduction and recalled his reaction: "Mark, I understand that was you, but many people do think that. And the responsibility in the subtlety of the work you are doing is to reconsider very carefully every word and every scene."

"They taught us how to make The Bible and Son of God totally sensitive," added Burnett, "so that there would never be any misunderstanding in our work to make anyone feel anti-Semitic at all."

"We reached out to the ADL and to Abe to help guide us, to help bring these important projects to the screen," said Downey. "We can see how in the past there had been division and hurt created by not simply taking the time to sit down together and understand the concerns."

"We share a focus," added Downey, "on our common humanity as citizens of the world irrespective of race, ethnicity and religion. And we share heart and intention to find ways to bring people together through dialogue and, more importantly, through listening."

Downey described the dangers and terror she faced growing up during the period people in Northern Ireland now look back on as "the troubles." She joked that these days "there are many who wonder if Jesus was actually Irish because he never got married, he lived at home until he was 30 and his mother thought he was God."

Billy Bush, host of Access Hollywood, acted as MC for the evening. The event raised over $1 million to, according to the ADL, "fight bigotry, prejudice and anti-Semitism."

There were performances by the gospel/pop group Raise, the vocal group The Tenors (who performed with David Foster) and Tessanne Chin, who was a winner on The Voice.

Burnett and Downey join a group of past winners of the award that includes Steven Spielberg, Ryan Kavanaugh, Bonnie Hammer, Rob Lowe and last year's honoree, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who introduced Foxman.

Katzenberg said of Foxman: "As a holocaust survivor, he understands better than anyone that group hatred must not be tolerated in any form against anyone. He is the embodiment of the ADL's mission. Quite simply, the world is a better place thanks to Abe and his decades and decades of work."