Wendell Burton, whose promising Hollywood career began with a starring role opposite Liza Minnelli in the 1969 film “The Sterile Cuckoo” but fizzled before he turned to ministerial work for the megachurch preacher Joel Osteen, died on Tuesday in Houston. He was 69.
The cause was complications of brain cancer, his wife, Linda Burton, said.
Alan J. Pakula, the director of “The Sterile Cuckoo,” cast the little-known Mr. Burton as Jerry Payne, a reserved college freshman who falls in love with Pookie Adams (Ms. Minnelli), an eccentric, needy student at a nearby college. Until then Mr. Burton’s experience had consisted of playing the lead in a production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in San Francisco.
He got the movie role one day before his 21st birthday. “Yes, it felt like a fairy tale,” he wrote in his memoir, “Godsmacked: A Sojourner’s Guide to the Heart of God” (2015). “My second job ever as an actor, the lead in a motion picture.”
Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote that Mr. Burton was “excellent in a role that requires him to play straightman to the brandnew star.” But Charles Champlin of The Los Angeles Times said that while Mr. Burton was “ingratiating,” he delivered “a one-note characterization of worried embarrassment, which becomes mildly boring and generously unconvincing.”
Ms. Minnelli was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress (and would win one in 1973 for “Cabaret”), and Mr. Burton moved on, playing a blind man in the national touring company of “Butterflies Are Free” with Eve Arden.
He told The Los Angeles Times in 1970 that he had a “guilt complex” because his success had come so easily.
Wendell Ray Burton was born in San Antonio, on July 21, 1947. His father, Wendell, died while serving in the Air Force, and his mother, the former Myra Jean White, also worked in the military. He attended Sonoma State and San Francisco State University but did not graduate.
He later made television appearances in “Room 222,” “Kung Fu,” “Go Ask Alice” and “Medical Center.” But his career never fully took off. His last appearance in a film was in 1986, in the Burt Reynolds drama “Heat.”
Don Iloff Jr., a senior executive at the Joel Osteen Ministries, said one reason Mr. Burton’s acting career slowed was that he had begun a spiritual quest that included studying Eastern religions. “He was searching for a while, and his career subsided as his priorities shifted,” Mr. Iloff said.
He also turned to work on the business side of television — in advertising sales for the Family Channel and as director of programming and national sales for KTBU, a station then owned by the Osteen family’s Lakewood Church in Dallas. He became senior director of the church’s Champions Network in 2002. He was also an ordained minister and a singer.
In addition to his wife, the former Linda Dena, he is survived by a daughter, Haven; a son, Adam; a sister, Hazel Bishop; a brother, Kenny, and a grandson. A previous marriage, to Patricia Nann, ended in divorce.
He was found to have brain cancer in 2013 and spoke to the Lakewood Church about it last year.
“I honestly can say that I had no fear of death,” he said. “I know that sounds strange. But I didn’t. I had a peace. I knew it would be inconvenient. Because I had things I wanted to do.”