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FAT WHITE DUDE
Birkeland went on his LDS mission to Sacramento, Calif.—home, he notes wryly, to the “headquarters for Ex-Mormons for Jesus. All I could think was, ‘Am I ever going to get away from the antis?’ ”
Birkeland met his wife, Melissa, at Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho) in Rexburg, Idaho, in 1993. They were married months later and moved to Utah County, where they had four children. Melissa, now remarried and relocated to Idaho with Birkeland’s children, declined to comment for this story.
In the mid-1990s, Birkeland says, he began to use drugs. He started with speed as a cheap alternative to his attention-deficit-disorder medication, then added cocaine and marijuana to the mix, the latter to help him sleep. He bought his drugs from a friend out of state and was “very secretive” about his usage. He didn’t lie to his bishop about his pursuit of illegal highs, he says, “I just didn’t bring it up.”
Birkeland friend and stand-up comedian Dave Nibley characterizes the Southern-born actor as “almost like the genie from Aladdin, Robin Williams on speed.” He speculates that Birkeland’s exhausting ability to be “on” all the time may have eventually driven him “to the dark side.”
To some in his LDS ward, like his friend Brandi Daniels, his life seemed perfect. “I’ve never seen anyone exude that energy.” She admired him as a husband and father. “I always wondered how they did it, how they kept it all together.”
In the late 1990s, Birkeland realized the road to success lay with putting on weight. “When you’re white, you’re just another white guy,” he says. “But a John Belushi, a Chris Farley, the fat white dude in the 1990s, it worked. It’s what gives you the edge on somebody [in an audition]. I started booking commercials. The second I lost weight, I stopped getting booked.”
NAIL IN THE COFFIN
In 2000, Birkeland was introduced to aspiring filmmakers Kurt Hale and Dave Hunter, who had set up a production company, Halestorm Entertainment. With the success of God’s Army, director Richard Dutcher’s pared-down tale of LDS missionary life, Hale and Hunter realized there was a potential goldmine in Mormon cinema. No one had ever done a Mormon comedy, and when writer John Moyer offered them his script about romance in a singles ward, they jumped at it.
“Within Mormon culture, it’s a no-brainer to do a comedy on a singles ward,” says actor-turned-director Daryn Tufts. Singles wards are for unmarried and divorced members of the LDS Church, providing ecclesiastically sanctioned opportunities for dating along with religious teachings.
Birkeland played a character who, he says, “keeps the word of wisdom, never touched himself, never smoked—the sheer irony in that one.”
Actor Kirby Heyborne marveled at Birkeland’s ability to run into doors or fall off tables without getting hurt. “He’d make these crazy faces and you would die laughing.”
Like Heyborne, Tufts had a supporting role and recalls Birkeland as akin to “the Tasmanian Devil in Looney Tunes.” Birkeland, he continues, “is like a twirling gravity that sucks everything to him when he walks into a room.”
Some were unhappy with the finished film. Dutcher, who did a cameo for The Singles Ward, walked out of a final-cut screening “knowing in my heart it was the first nail in the coffin of Mormon cinema.” Instead of quality films coming out of Halestorm, he saw “frat boys finding ways to finance their parties.”
Hale says he told Dutcher, “There’s room for both of us.” Tufts also had mixed feelings. “It had a lot of heart, likeable characters, but the jokes were far too amateurish, picking low-hanging fruit.”
With the finished print in the bag, Birkeland, Heyborne and several of the Halestorm team toured the Southwest in a car with the Singles Ward logo wrapped around it. They would stop at ward houses to talk about the film to young members prior to a screening.
The first weekend of its release in Utah, “the movie didn’t do shit,” Birkeland says. The local reviews were disparaging, but after a singles group from BYU saw the film, “it skyrocketed. We were LDS icons overnight.”
Friend Angie Larsen, former host of KTVX’s Good Things Utah, had Birkeland as a guest on her show. “The audience would go nuts, a standing ovation,” she recalls. “He was a hit, especially with the ladies. Women are drawn to people who make them laugh.” Stand-up comic Nibley says Birkeland had “girls all over him all the time. In a kind of Hollywood sense, he milked that celebrity, took advantage of it.”
But the success of The Singles Ward and then The R.M. brought him, and others involved in the films, unwanted attention in the form of ardent female—and occasionally male—fans.
A woman naked but for cowboy boots and hat turned up on his doorstep. Another woman, he says, crawled through his son’s bedroom window.
His friend Nate Keller sees part of the problem stemming from Birkeland “being as open and friendly as he is. He’s probably disappointed people over the years who think they know something about him and don’t.”
In 2003, Birkeland’s lifestyle and his faith collided. He says he went to his ward to talk to the bishop about his problems fulfilling the church’s dictates on lifestyles issues, only to be confronted by a pregnant woman who claimed he was the father and local church authorities who believed her. Despite his angry and sarcastic denials, the local church authorities did not change their minds.
A few weeks later, he found a letter by his front door that stated he was no longer a member of the church. His excommunication, he says, hurt his father. “I think he could feel my deterioration. He didn’t raise me to be that way.” But he adds, “I chose to be that way. I know exactly what I’ve done is wrong. I just didn’t care enough to feel guilt or change. So I made it worse.”
By the time he starred in Home Teachers, Birkeland was so “jacked up on drugs” he can’t remember shooting some of the film’s scenes.
Home Teachers referenced the LDS practice of male members making monthly visits to assigned families in the ward. What producer Dave Hunter told a reporter were “homages” to Tommy Boy and Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the Deseret News’ movie critic Jeff Vice termed as “verging on comedic plagiarism.”
But Hunter ranks Home Teachers as his personal favorite of the LDS films he produced. “It was a funny buddy road comedy,” he says, but because Mormons hate home teaching, “it was a failure, it didn’t recoup its money. It’s the film people hate; I still get hate mail about it.”
PRIDE BEFORE THE FALL
In 2005, as the trajectory of Mormon cinema waned, Birkeland opened Provo comedy club Fat, Dumb & Happy with a friend. It initially brought out-of-state comedic talent to Utah, with the proviso that the comics used only clean language. It closed after two years.
Birkeland got divorced in 2006. Already partying hard, he threw himself further into drugs, alcohol and women. Several of his friends say he was also dealing drugs, but Birkeland declined to comment on their stories.
He makes a parallel between his decline and Halestorm’s. “I think we were all punished by the Heavenly Father,” he says. “Too much pride. We all thought we were better than others, and that gift [of success] was taken away from us.”
Director Hale disagrees. “To put that burden on God is unfair,” he says dryly. “You create your own success and your own demise.”
Nevertheless, Halestorm’s bid to go mainstream with the 2006 Church Ball saw the Mormon comedy movie genre stumble its final steps. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, a lawsuit claimed the film’s budget had climbed to $1.2 million without the approval of investor Bryan Lampropoulos. Lampropoulos sued the production company for $6 million in late 2007, but the 36-year-old died suddenly in March 2008. Halestorm counter-sued, alleging Lampropoulos’ company had failed to properly finance the film’s making.
After riding the Mormon-cinema boom for seven years, Hale is the first to admit “we may have worn out our welcome,” producing and distributing so many films so quickly, that by 2005 the audience began dropping off.
Birkeland, meanwhile, was dealing with his own problems. After waking up naked in a field, he knew he had to change his life. He told his father over the phone, “I’ve gone too far.”
Hale says Birkeland disappeared for eight months after the field incident. “Whether out of personal shame, that he let down his close friends, or whether he hit bottom and was digging at that point, he went off the map.”