By Mark Donovan
March 10, 1980 12:00 PM

Get me Walter Cronkite for lunch on Thursday,” John Heyman cries out to his secretary. “Cancel that tennis date with Sam Spiegel.” Like any other movie producer, Heyman, 46, has learned to talk and think big. Otherwise, of course, he would never have undertaken the magnum opus that has become his life’s work: putting the entire Bible on film.

As managing director and chief executive officer of the six-year-old Genesis Project, Heyman has already produced 33 14-to-20-minute film segments based on two of the Bible’s 66 books. The cost so far is $17 million, of which $6 million went into the making of Jesus, an earnest and estimable two-hour feature film edited down from earlier segments in the can. Jesus will be released later this month.

By the time he is finished—in 1993, he hopes—Heyman will have filmed more than 300 episodes for his New Media Bible, at an expense in the hundreds of millions. Praised by the late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen as “the greatest event in [this] domain since Gutenberg printed [his] Bible,” the project, says Heyman, “will teach people in a 20th-century manner and do it properly, not like some bathrobe comedy that’s shown in Sunday school.”

In fact, a panel of 220 biblical scholars has been consulted to ensure authenticity. The Israeli cast of Jesus speaks in the tongues of the period—Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek and Coptic—while a voice-over translates into English. Filming, wherever possible, is carried out at the historical sites. The miracle of the loaves and fishes was re-enacted at Tabgha, a mere few hundred yards from where it is said to have taken place, but Calvary is now so densely populated that Christ’s crucifixion had to be staged on a hillside 30 miles away.

Born in Germany, Heyman was taken as an infant to England, where his father was an economics editor of the Times of London. As a young man, John read law at Oxford, but in his final year he appeared as a guest on a radio show called Double Your Money. Two years later, he began producing a TV version of the same show and embarked on a successful career in British television. He eventually produced some 40 feature films, including Privilege and The Go-Between, and for a time ran the largest personal management agency in Europe, with a clientele including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

Married in 1960 to actress Norma Parnell, by whom he had two children, Heyman was divorced following an affair with actress Joanna Shimkus. Then, two months before he and Shimkus were to be married in 1969, he heard on TV that she was spending the weekend in Las Vegas with Sidney Poi-tier. “I called her apartment to share the joke,” he remembers, “and it turned out to be true.” Since then he has dated around. “Until this project,” he laments, “I was considered quite a swinger. Now my work is my play.”

The project that currently commands Heyman’s energies had its inception some 11 years ago, when the late Israeli leader David Ben-Gurion approached the actor Topol (Fiddler on the Roof) about setting up a biblical research institute in Jerusalem. Topol called in Heyman, and they talked enthusiastically about filming the Bible. They then joined forces with an American group that wanted to produce a series of half-hour films called, improbably, The Best of the Bible. The institute never materialized, but by 1974 the Genesis Project was under way, on a scrupulously non-sectarian basis. “To do an honest, scholarly, dispassionate work,” explains Heyman, “we couldn’t align with any one denomination.” (He also decided that recognizable stars would be a distraction, and has cast only one: Topol as Abraham.)

Though the backers of Genesis—such as banks, insurance companies and Heyman himself—hope eventually to make a profit from it, they realize they have undertaken a long-term investment. “Very long-term,” emphasizes Heyman with a grin. “Maybe our great-grandchildren will see a nickel or two.” As for the project’s spiritual impact on the man entrusted with seeing it through, Heyman is a onetime agnostic of Jewish descent who reports he has made a “total commitment” to God. “The work I’m doing,” he says, “is more important than I am.”