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Son's death tests cult movie star's faith

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: June 16, 2013 at 10:22 AM

Joel Wynkoop has always been infatuated with superheroes.

He's 53, but the cluttered office in his Tampa home is adorned with countless comic book collectibles honoring The Hulk, Batman, Spider-Man and the like. He wears T-shirts featuring those characters. And he talks about comics the same way others talk Shakespeare.

As an actor with 80 films to his credit, Wynkoop has yet to portray a superhero, but he has played an action hero, the type of man who can take on an army of ninjas by himself with nothing but his fists and feet. Wynkoop's most iconic film is “Lost Faith,” about a husband's one-man rescue of his kidnapped wife.

But in March, the world of comic books and action heroes never felt more like fantasy as Wynkoop sat next to his 20-year-old son David's hospital bed and held his lifeless hand. He couldn't rescue him. He couldn't save his life.

There is no middle ground when it comes to Joel Wynkoop. You're either a huge fan or you've never heard of him. Often called the “King of the B Movies,” for decades Wynkoop has starred in the kind of straight-to-VHS or DVD horror and action movies that become instant cult classics on the comic book, horror and science fiction scene. His autograph table at conventions will sometimes have a longer line than those of actors who have had parts in Hollywood films.

At one of those conventions, in Orlando in 2011, an adoring fan decided to repay the actor for all those hours of entertainment by giving Wynkoop six free passes to Universal Islands of Adventure. Wynkoop was ecstatic. He has five children, four of whom are boys who inherited his love of all things related to comic books. He had long dreamed of taking them all to the theme park, but the cost of tickets plus meals and other expenses was always too great.

“I know to some it may sound corny,” Wynkoop says, “but I'm glad I got to take David there before he passed. When I think of him now, one of my first happy thoughts is of him whispering in excitement, like a little boy, when we parked at the amusement park and of his smile when we went on the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man ride. We had so much fun.”

His next thought is always of the name of the fan who gave him the free passes — Lazarus.

David Wynkoop was rushed to Indian River Medical Center on Feb. 28 when he complained of stomach pains. Doctors had to perform emergency surgery; he had a perforated bowel. While operating, they learned he had a tumor caused by Burkitt's lymphoma, a rare form of aggressive non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was so advanced that there didn't seem to be much they could do. Wynkoop was told his child was probably going to die.

Wynkoop remained by his son's side throughout most of his final days. He would try to make him smile by telling him that that the Hulk was inside his stomach and was going to smash that cancer. He would remind him to keep Jesus in his heart at all times. He read him “King Kong” twice and started a Star Trek book, but four chapters in, David died.

As David's other family members consoled one another in the hallway, Wynkoop remained in the room. He stoically watched the nurses unhook the devices that had kept his son alive. Even when the medical staff closed the curtain around David so they could perform their duties in private, Joel stayed. He cried, as any father would, but he was also angry.

“Why?” he says he asked God. “Why would you take my son?! I am a good man! I do what you ask! Why did you take him?!”

And then, David came back to life. Almost 10 minutes after he was pronounced dead, his heart began beating and his lungs began circulating air again. He was in a coma, but he was alive. And Joel thought, “Like father, like son.”

When he was 5, Joel Wynkoop slipped into a coma due to meningitis and the doctor told his mother there was nothing else that could be done for him. His mom was a woman of faith, however, and refused to give up. She asked her friends and family to please pray for her son, to ask God to please return her son to her.

Days later, he was awake.

Wynkoop has always thought that God granted him a second lease on life for a reason, so he helps everyone he can who is in need. He is quick to assist any young filmmaker with an endeavor. He gives what he can to charity. His friends will tell you they have never seen him not hold a door for a child, woman or senior, and that he is the type of man who will leap from his seat at a restaurant to thank an entering member of the military for protecting this nation. A firm believer that if enough people call out to God, he will listen, Wynkoop has never turned down a prayer request. He has rallied prayers from friends and family for hundreds of sick individuals over the years, many of whom recovered. When his son came back from death, he believed this was God's way of thanking him.

As he wept tears of joy, a nurse told Wynkoop it was only the second time she had ever witnessed such a miracle in her 30 years in medicine. The doctor, however, tried to temper his hopes by saying it was probably only temporary. But Wynkoop wouldn't believe him. He had faith in God. He kissed his son on the cheek, told him he loved him and welcomed him back.

Twenty-four hours later, David died again.


Wynkoop questioned God a lot in the weeks after David's death. Why did God take his son, give him back and then take him again, playing yo-yo with his heart?

“I thought it was a cruel joke God was playing on me,” Wynkoop says. “And I didn't think I deserved it. I'm a good man.”

He finds spiritual solace, however, in his son's temporary resurrection.

Rather than believing God was acting cruelly, he sees it as an act of love. God wanted him to know that he heard his cries, so he gave David back temporarily to relay the message that he is always listening.

The film “Lost Faith” was released in 1992, the year David was born. Its 20th anniversary edition was released just weeks after he died.

It's the movie for which Wynkoop is best known. Now, it will forever be attached to David.

The editing and artwork for the re-released version had been completed when David died, but the film's producers reopened the project following the sad news. The DVD cover and the opening credits now read, “In honor of David Wynkoop.” The movie poster also was altered; a medallion bearing David's face was digitally placed around Wynkoop's character's neck.

“He's always next to my heart now,” he says.

Wynkoop always wondered what his son thought of his film career. After all, these are “B movies,” not Hollywood fare, and even though Wynkoop's performances are usually praised, the production values of some of the films are well below par. Did David respect him or laugh at him? He was afraid to ask, afraid of what the answer might be.

One of David's friends approached Joel after the funeral service and gave him the answer. David never stopped bragging about his dad, the friend said, and told anyone who would listen that he was a major movie star.

Turns out that to his son, Joel Wynkoop was a superhero after all.

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