The Last Timothy

by Andrew Atwell, Creative Director

I love comic book origin stories.

Watching an awkward teenage Peter Parker transform into the Amazing Spider Man or seeing a broken Bruce Wayne turn fear and hate into something virtuous as Batman. Knowing someone’s origin story helps you understand who he or she is today.

This post is my origin story and the largest contributing factor to why I started Next Step with Nick and Todd.

Rewind to 10 years ago. I had just plowed through my final college exam, skipped my graduation and drove out to Los Angeles to take the film industry by storm. For as long as I could remember I wanted to make movies. Now finally I had my chance. I was going all in. I had no money, no place to live, just a dream and roadmap.

Two friends of mine were producing a feature film and despite my inexperience, they allowed me to assist them for the summer. I set up temporary residence at a popular apartment complex for aspiring actors and actresses, and quickly became wrapped up in an exciting and slightly sketchy social group. My time was split between long days on set and late nights in the city, leaving me exhausted. If I were a cup, I would have been half empty and foggy from hard water stains.

But then I met Hal Riddle.

Hal was an 87-year-old character actor who like me, once had dreams of making it big in Hollywood. It never happened. And now he spent his time at the Hollywood Motion Picture Home (a retirement facility for industry people) giving tours of the facility. If somehow an encyclopedia for the Golden Age of Hollywood sprung to life, spoke with a southern draw and grew a bushy mustache, you would end up with Hal Riddle.

Forces beyond my understanding brought us together one afternoon and we quickly became friends. Hal was a natural storyteller and with each new story, I felt like I was getting a glimpse behind the curtain of old-Hollywood. I came by every few days for a few hours for a few more stories.

And then one day he told me the Billie Dove story.

Long ago in a dusty, rural town in Kentucky, a 10-year-old version of Hal (probably sans mustache) snuck out of school to see a movie called Adoration starring Billie Dove. She was the most beautiful and famous actress of her day, and Hal immediately fell in love. As he tells it, he ran home, wrote her a fan letter and prayed to God that one day he would become a famous actor and they would meet and fall in love.

A few weeks later Hal received an autographed photo in the mail, signed “Love, Billie Dove.” He spent the next 70 years holding onto that prayer, but with every year that ticked by, his faith in God was a little more challenged and the photo a little more faded. Meanwhile Billie Dove had an affair with Howard Hughes and eventually left Hollywood altogether.

Then one day, as the then-84-year-old Hal entertained a group of old folks at the retirement home with his origin story, a nurse overheard him talking about the beautiful Billie Dove. And how his love for Billie, despite never meeting her, shaped the trajectory of his life.

The next morning the same nurse stopped by Hal’s room and told him something unbelievable — Billie Dove secretly lived only a few doors down from Hal. She had retired there in secret and now, well into her 90s, was wheelchair-bound and didn’t want any attention. But for Hal, the nurse was willing to make an exception. She asked, “Would you like to meet her?”

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to guess what Hal said. As he tells it, the first time he met Billie she was as beautiful as the first day he saw her on the silver screen. He began to visit Billie every day, wheeling her around the facility, listening to her stories and even helping her respond to fan letters she was still receiving. Over time, they fell in love. One year after they met, she quietly passed away and Hal delivered the eulogy at her funeral.

Hal then turned to me and said, “You never know how and when God chooses to bring people in and our of your life. Just remember Romans 8:28, for we know that all things work together for good, for those who love the Lord, and are called according to his purpose.”

You see Hal was a Christian. From the outside people might have just seen a washed-up character actor, but Hal knew his true worth was only found through his relationship Christ. He never gave up believing and trusting in God. It became clear to me that it wasn’t Billie that shaped the trajectory of Hal’s life — it was his faith that God hears and answers prayers.

That summer after college ended with Nick, Todd and I leading a mission trip for our local church in Alaska. I remember all of us worshiping together around a campfire on Will and Yvonne’s mountaintop property. I looked up at the stars. I thought of Hal. I felt God’s presence. And I decided to put my life on a different trajectory. A few weeks later I left Los Angeles and we started Next Step.  

Hal used to call me his last Timothy (likening himself to Paul). He had mentored many young people throughout his life, but he figured at his age, I would be his last. Peter Parker had Uncle Ben. Bruce Wayne had Alfred. I had Hal Riddle. And he showed me that we all have a unique origin story to tell. Whether you’re a masked avenger fighting crime in red spandex, or an aging character actor in Hollywood, the important thing is to remember that if you love God, he will take whoever you are today and transform you into something beautiful.

In 2009, a few weeks into our first summer of mission trips with Next Step, Hal passed away from cancer. He had no immediate family and few close friends. I was with him the morning he died and delivered the eulogy at his funeral. Hal donated his infinite collection of Hollywood memorabilia to Murray State University. To display this collection they built the Hal Riddle Museum that you can visit on campus if you’re ever in Kentucky. In the museum hangs a wooden cross that hung above Hal’s bed in his apartment — it was his one request.


Next Step Ministries