Until they saw him on television playing the bumbling but loveable farmhand Eb on Green Acres in the late 1960s, almost no one in Tom Lester’s hometown of Laurel, Miss., thought he would become a successful actor in Hollywood.
“They said, ‘You are too tall, too skinny, too ugly, you have a Southern accent and you don’t look like Rock Hudson,’” says Lester, now 68, who stands a gangly 6 feet, 4 inches.
But he persevered, and the same sense of self that landed him in TV land eventually drove him from Hollywood into an even greater calling. Today, Lester is a farmer and Christian speaker who travels the nation, preaching a message of faith and obedience.
He acknowledges it has been an improbable journey.
After studying chemistry and biology at the University of Mississippi, graduating in 1960 and teaching for one year in Purcell, Okla., Lester decided to follow his heart, move to Los Angeles and start acting—even though he had no theater experience.
“God never took the time to make a nobody,” he says. “People go through life wishing they had tried to do something, but they’re afraid to try because they’re afraid they’ll fail. The failure is in not trying.”
Less than three years later, Lester beat out 400 other would-be stars to land the role of Eb Dawson on the CBS comedy Green Acres, which aired from 1965 until 1971.
After the series was canceled, Lester parlayed his Green Acres stardom into an opportunity to share his lifelong Christian faith, speaking almost every weekend in churches. He landed a few more acting roles, including a part in the 1974 movie Benji, but his spiritual beliefs increasingly began to conflict with scripts that crossed his desk.
“I couldn’t go into a church and share my faith and be in a movie downtown that people in the church wouldn’t see because of the subject matter or language,” he says. After he turned down a beer commercial, his talent agency dropped him.
So 13 years ago, Lester returned to Laurel (pop. 18,893) and began a new life tending the land and spreading God’s word. Never married—“The Lord never gave me the right one,” he says—he lives with his parents, both of whom are in their 90s, and runs the 500-acre family farm in nearby Vossburg. “He is strong in his convictions, whether it is working or raising wildlife or loving the Lord,” says his close friend, Robert Woodall.
Lester makes about 25 speeches annually—fewer last year because he was repairing damage from Hurricane Katrina, which blew five giant oak trees onto his house—mixing folksy stories of Green Acres with his views on religion, education and politics.
“Tom is one of the most warm and winsome folks that you will find anywhere,” says Randy Turner, pastor of First Baptist Church in Laurel. “One of the strongest things about him is his Christian faith, and he is very consistent with that.”
Lester tries to live his faith authentically. “If, with God’s help, I wasn’t living the Christian life, then me speaking across the country wouldn’t have the effect that it has,” he says.
Because of a dearth of roles in Hollywood that meet his standards, Lester began to create his own. Last fall, he released a 58-minute DVD movie called Mel and Tom in Huntin’ Buddies, which features country star Mel Tillis and veteran comic actor Tim Conway. “It’s funny and something decent the family can watch,” he says. “You can show it in church if you want to. The American public is crying out for clean entertainment.”
Lester has no regrets about a life and career built on faith and family values instead of fame or money. “I had all the fun of being on Green Acres and laughing every day and having a great time,” he says. “I had all the fun of traveling across the country and meeting wonderful people in churches. God gets all the credit, and I get all the fun. What a great deal!”