PHOTO PROVIDED BY AL ROBERTSON
Jacob and Esaus - Al Robertson, third from left, dares to be different. He's pictured with his brothers Willie and Jase, father Phil, uncle Si, brother Jeptha and duck call makers Justin Martin and John Godwin.
FOR THESE REALITY TV STARS, 'holding Hollywood's hand' presents a challenge as they endeavor to share Jesus.
WEST MONROE, La. — Hollywood, meet the real Robertsons.
A&E's hit reality series "Duck Dynasty" has made celebrities out of Duck Commander Phil Robertson, his wife Kay and their bearded, camo-clad sons Willie, Jase and Jeptha, not to mention "Uncle Si," Phil's younger brother.
As the network portrays it, the series — whose Season 1 finale drew 2.6 million viewers — follows a Louisiana bayou family living the American dream as they operate a thriving duck call and decoy business while staying true to their family values.
For the Robertsons, those values relate to the grace and salvation found in Jesus.
But for the show's producers, the family's strong Christian faith seems to be an uncomfortable storyline — one frequently chopped in the editing room.
"They pretty much cut out most of the spiritual things," Phil Robertson, a one-time honky-tonk operator who gave up his heathen lifestyle in the 1970s, told The Christian Chronicle. "We say them, but they just don't run them on the show.
"Hollywood has run upon the kingdom of God, and there's a rub there," said the Duck Commander, a tenacious personal evangelist who has brought hundreds of souls to new life in the Ouachita River. "Well, we have to be as harmless as a dove and as shrewd as a snake in the way we deal with them."
The entire Robertson family is active with the White's Ferry Road Church of Christ, which meets just a few miles from the Duck Commander/Buck Commander warehouse in this northeast Louisiana town of 13,000.
"They have been consistently evangelistic," White's Ferry Road minister and elder Mike Kellett said of the Robertsons. "Jase and Willie were both in my youth group years ago and were reaching out to the lost as teens."
Other White's Ferry Road members include duck call makers John Godwin and Justin Martin and secretary Linda Hammit, a former missionary to Tanzania with her husband, Ryan.
Godwin has lost 35 pounds since ripping off his shirt in a scene in which a skunk sprayed him. In an impromptu interview at the warehouse, he said he grew up "kind of knowing about God."
But when his wife, Paula, pushed him to go to church, he resisted.
"I don't want to be around these holy rollers," he recalls telling her.
Then the longtime paper mill employee met the Duck Commander. Godwin decided he'd go to church and maybe stock up on "duck calls" — hunting tools used to emulate the sound of ducks.
"Boy, I got way more than that," he said of his conversion to Christ.
NO BEARD FOR 'REPLACEMENT WILLIE'
Phil Robertson and his oldest son Al — the clean-shaven member of the clan who describes himself as a "Jacob in a family of Esaus" — both serve as White's Ferry Road church elders.
After 20 years in the pulpit, Al Robertson recently stepped down as one of the 1,200-member congregation's ministers.
He left to help run the family business, which has exploded with growth since "Duck Dynasty" premiered last spring. This year the company expects to sell more than 150,000 duck calls.
"I'm the replacement Willie," said Al Robertson, who doesn't have an official title.
While still preaching some, he's filling in the gaps for his CEO brother as Willie Robertson meets the demands of running the company and taping the show. Each episode takes about a week to film.
Willie's wife, Korie Robertson, is the daughter of John Howard, also a White's Ferry Road elder and Duck Commander employee. Korie's grandfather, the late Alton Howard, wrote gospel songs and sold more than 3 million church hymnals used in Churches of Christ.
"It's a total mission and ministry," Kay Robertson said of "Duck Dynasty," which launches its second season Oct. 10.
Despite the spiritual material cut out of the show, the duck diva said, "We're so blessed for what we can get in there. That's really unknown in today's TV on a regular, big TV network like that."
'GOD-FEARING, FAMILY-ORIENTED PEOPLE'
"Money. Family. Ducks," proclaims the tagline on A&E posters promoting the show.
Except that the "Money" part has been scratched out on the posters seen at the newly opened Duck Commander store, where hundreds of fans who show up at the warehouse can buy "Phil for President" T-shirts and catch a glimpse of the world's largest duck call.
"They give us these to pass out," Al Robertson said of the posters. "We 'X' out 'money' and write in 'faith.' What's interesting is, most people get it, and they think A&E did that."
People enjoy reality television for many reasons, including the shock factor, said Jim Miller, director of the mass communication program at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
Television producers know that reality often needs to be altered to make interesting viewing or overemphasize certain stereotypes, the professor said.
"That explains some of the tension the Robertsons apparently feel with the producers of 'Duck Dynasty,'" Miller said. "I think people are especially interested in 'Duck Dynasty' because the Robertsons' family and friends are outrageous, unpredictable characters. Yet they also are relatable and likable. They are God-fearing, family-oriented people who enjoy life."
By taking advantage of an opportunity to be "salt and light" in the entertainment media, the Robertsons gain a voice and a presence in a culture-shaping industry, Miller said.
"The challenges they face deal with compromise," he said. "For example, does the opportunity to influence a segment of culture in very broad ways as TV personalities outweigh the disappointment they may feel with the producers cutting out 'in Jesus' name' at the end of every televised prayer?"
Equally shocking to the Robertsons: In the first two episodes, the producers bleeped out words said by Willie and Korie to make it appear that they cursed. The family complained. As Al Robertson explained, "We don't cuss."
Jase Robertson, slipping his beanie off his head before praying, alluded to the tension as he shared communion thoughts on a recent Sunday.
"It's a slippery slope when you're holding Hollywood's hand and you're trying to accomplish something," he told fellow church members, "when deep down all you want to do is proclaim that Jesus is Lord."
'HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY'
In the first season of "Duck Dynasty," the Robertsons waged war on beavers disrupting the water supply and hunted bullfrogs on a golf course.
The Robertson women sold some of the men's prized possessions in a yard sale, while their bearded spouses hatched a plan to build a luxury duck blind in the sky and tried to suck bees out of a honey-filled hive with a portable vacuum cleaner.
Amid the humorous misadventures, a few glimpses of the family's faith survived.
In one episode, Kay told Phil that it was his Christian duty to babysit his granddaughters. In another, Phil urged one of his grandsons to find a woman who knows how to cook, lives by her Bible and loves to eat bullfrogs.
In still another episode, Si said that he always travels with three things: a gallon jug of iced tea, his plastic cup and his Bible.
One scene found Phil relaxing in his easy chair, his Bible open on his lap, as he prepared to preach. "Duck Commander Sunday is basically a redneck rendition of fearing God, loving your neighbor," Phil said on that episode. "We all sing church songs, everybody wearing camo, and everybody happy happy happy."
WHO'S THE UGLY DUCKLING?
Al Robertson dares to be different.
He likens himself to Marilyn on the 1960s sitcom "The Munsters."
"She was beautiful," Al explained. "She thought she was ugly because she was around ugly people."
He joked that he feels the same way about his brothers, who used to shave after every duck hunting season until the beards and camouflage became a permanent marketing tool.
"Really, it's not that hard of an image to project," Al said with a laugh. "You just have to let yourself go: Quit shaving. Quit bathing. Quit worrying about it."
"Duck Dynasty" is based loosely on events in the Robertsons' lives, but the producers change scenarios to fit storylines.
"In terms of people, Si is the most like he really is," Al said of his uncle, whom he likens to Barney Fife on "The Andy Griffith Show" or Kramer on "Seinfeld."
Kay Robertson agreed: "I'm telling you, Uncle Si has always been crazy. But we never thought he'd do that on camera."
Si Robertson, a Vietnam veteran presented as single on the show, is married. He and his wife, Christine, are active members of the church.
Since Willie serves as the CEO, the show touts him as the responsible member of the family. That's not quite the full truth, Al said.
"Willie is just as irresponsible as anybody, just to let you know," his brother said with a chuckle. "And then Jase, they kind of have him as the wild man and all that, but he's much more conservative in personality than he projects on the show."
As for himself, Al said he wouldn't mind appearing on the show in the future — preferably without a beard: "My idea was, jokingly, that they have me come in and demand to know why I've been left out of the family."
TALKING DUCKS, SHARING JESUS
Even before "Duck Dynasty," Phil Robertson developed a wide following for his powerful, revivalist-style gospel preaching. He talks about ducks. He shares Jesus.
As the show has gained popularity, though, crowds once in the hundreds have swelled into the thousands, Kay Robertson said.
Phil Robertson said he and his sons Al and Jase preach the same message of faith, repentance and baptism wherever they're invited.
"We don't have godly people and followers of Jesus owning the channel that we're on or filming what we do," Phil said. "So what you see (on TV) is a functional, godly family, but there's not a whole lot of Gospel and Bible verses.
"However, the audience ... can be reached in other ways than the TV show," he added. "We're going to be making a Robertson family tour. You'll see the real family when you get us in some arena somewhere and it's just us telling people the good news of Jesus.
"People just have to realize that there's more than one way to skin a cat."