With Langford’s blessings, Wallace left divinity school for Nashville. He worked as a songwriter and performer, then moved to Hollywood and became a scriptwriter. He continued rising early every morning to work at his fiction. The Russian authors he loved—Tolstoy, Chekov and Pushkin—inspired stories that resonated on an epic scale. With two well-received novels behind him, Wallace began a book set in the royal court of Catherine the Great. Over four years, the manuscript grew to 1,600 pages. He condensed it into a screenplay, and although he couldn’t sell that story, his next screenplay would lead to a wildly different response.
During a vacation to Edinburgh in 1983, Wallace had discovered the legend of William Wallace, who led the Scots’ 13th-century revolt against the British. Determined to learn all he could about the Scottish national hero who shared his family name, Wallace spent four years writing Braveheart . The screenplay quickly caught the attention of Mel Gibson, who was eager to portray William Wallace and direct the film.
The shadowy legends about Scotland’s greatest hero may have resonated with the mystery surrounding Wallace’s paternal grandfather, who had died of typhoid fever before his son, Thurman, was born.
“My father would take us out in the Tennessee woods to this little country graveyard,” said Wallace. “He would stand at the grave of his father in silence, but there was a lot said in those silences.”
Despite never knowing his own father, Thurman Wallace became an extraordinary parent to him and his sister, said Wallace. “I marvel at what patience he had – what consistent, limitless love he showed.”
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Wallace was flying from Hollywood to his father’s bedside when terrorist attacks forced the grounding of air traffic. His plane landed in Asheville, N.C., where he rented a car and continued to Tennessee. His father had died of complications from heart surgery before Wallace reached the hospital.
In his father’s memory, Wallace has committed $500,000 for the Cloister Walk in the divinity school’s addition. Although the heroes of his books and films do battle on an epic scale, “My father is my model of manhood,” said Wallace. “A real man has the heart to face his enemies and recognize that the greatest battles are within.”
His friendships with Thomas Langford and poet and novelist Reynolds Price, with whom he studied creative writing, brought Wallace back over the years, but he is now more connected to Duke than ever. His son Andrew is a Duke junior, and Wallace, who has joined the divinity school board of visitors, tries to visit several times a year with his younger son, 16-year-old Cullen.
“When my father passed away…I began to care more about tradition and what lasts,” he said. “And, best of all, I feel connected to the present and future of the divinity school and the university. I don’t feel I’m going back to relive past days, I’m going to celebrate and enjoy the present and the attempt to shape the future in a positive way.”
The celebrity mania surrounding Braveheart left Wallace convinced that “There is no clearer example of the biblical sin of idolatry than the Oscar: It’s an actual golden statue. People worship it, not just in Hollywood, but all over.”
When the awards celebrations were over, Wallace experienced a lingering sense of spiritual isolation. In response, he offered to teach a Sunday school class at his church. The class, called “Spiritual Issues in Cinema,” was popular, filling with aspiring actors and screenwriters eager to give Wallace their portfolios and screenplays. When a chagrined Wallace turned to his minister, “he then started bringing me his screenplays.”
Determined to give without “strings attached,” Wallace founded Hollywood Habitat for Humanity. Since its 2000 launch with a blitz build of 20 homes in Los Angeles County, the group has partnered with International Habitat to construct more than 150 homes. Volunteers have included Robin Williams, Dustin Hoffman, Bo Derek, and Maria Shriver. On the group’s Web site (http://www.habitatlb.org/Blitz ), is a section called “Meet the Stars”: The photos are not of actors, but the mothers and children whose homes are under construction.
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