Reporter John McCandlish Phillips, Who Inspired Movie ‘The Believer,’ Dies at 85

New York Times reporter left journalism to become a Christian evangelist

Last Updated: July 24, 2014 @ 1:16 PM

John McCandlish Phillips, a longtime New York Times reporter known for his elegant prose and his devotion to evangelical Christianity, has died at the age of 85.

A Times reporter for nearly 20 years, Phillips was described as “one of the finest stylists” at the paper in the Times’ report of his death. His most famous story came in 1965, and revealed that Daniel Burros, then the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in New York State and a former national secretary of the American Nazi Party, was Jewish.

John McCandlish PhillipsBurros threatened to kill Phillips if he revealed his Orthodox Jewish background. On the day the story ran, Burros killed himself instead.

The story, which won numerous awards, later served as the inspiration for the 2001 film “The Believer,” one of Ryan Gosling‘s first significant roles. Gosling played a Neo-Nazi partly based on Burros, while A.D. Miles played the reporter who threatens to expose his Jewish roots.

Phillips worked at the Times from 1952 until 1973, first as a copy boy but largely as a reporter and columnist. An evangelical Christian, he but also founded a New York-based Pentecostal congregation, the New Testament Missionary Fellowship, in 1962. After he left the paper, he devoted his time to preaching.

In 2006, a mentoring/teaching position was created at the World Journalism Institute, where Phillips had taught. It was named the John McCandlish Phillips Director of Mentoring in his honor.

Phillips died in Manhattan of complications from pneumonia, according to a friend who reported the information to the Times.