TV Executive Bets his Life on a Fish Story

Joe Kissack might still be lost if it weren't for a fish story.

Kissack never found joy in his Rolex watch, Porsche 911, or 6,000-square-foot house. When he attended the Emmy's on a perk ticket from his employer, he could stylishly strut the red carpet, but he couldn't find happiness in Hollywood.

He was a top sales executive at Columbia TriStar Television, now part of Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc. He sold shows to TV stations, including "Seinfeld," "Married...With Children" and "Mad About You." His life had become one big distribution deal after the next. But the higher his career soared, the harder it became to shake his mortal fears of impending doom.

Beneath his tuxedo, Kissack said, he suffered from depression, anxiety, alcoholism and a dependence on drugs to treat these things. His high-flying career was tearing him to shreds. He'd wake up with the kind of debilitating knots anyone would feel if they'd just learned their child had been killed.

He'd grown up in rural Illinois, the son of a high school principal. His father routinely demanded that he "assume the position," and beat him with a fraternity paddle, he said.

Later in life, no matter how thoroughly Kissack succeeded, he never felt approval from his father. He had almost everything, including a devoted wife and two loving daughters. But when he said his prayers--if you could call them prayers--he prayed to be dead.

If anyone asked Kissack how he was doing as he battled suicidal impulses, he would smile behind $300 sunglasses and say "fantastic." He did this until 2004, when he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. He was so broken that when a friend suggested he turn to Jesus, he did. And when he awoke the next day, he felt miraculously cured.

"I felt this joy, like I never felt before," he said. "It was peace. ...The pain was gone. The lump in the throat was gone. The knots in my neck were gone. I was smoking a pack a day. Gone. I hadn't had a drink for three years, but...don't think I didn't think about it. That was gone. I didn't swear anymore. I used to love to swear. Gone. ...I just felt this desire to serve people. To help people. I had never helped anybody in my life. It was always about me. Everything changed."

Kissack, now 49 years old, said he used to make fun of Christians but found himself living the miracle: "I once was lost, but now I am found," goes the famous 1779 hymn, "Amazing Grace."

The 1970s comedy duo, Cheech & Chong, put it another way, "I used to be all messed up on drugs. Now I'm all messed up on the Lord."

I don't know what to make of Kissack after having breakfast with him this week. He is as charming as any highly compensated entertainment industry executive. He also exudes the inner peace that comes from a spiritual transformation. And he also has a track record of embracing one obsession after the next: career, addiction, religion and now a very Hemmingwayesque fish story.

In 2006, this tale made headlines around the world. As soon as Kissack heard it, he flew to Mexico to secure publishing and movie rights. A Taiwanese fishing boat had rescued three men in a 27-foot fiberglass skiff. The men were from a tiny Mexican fishing village, 5,000 miles away, and claimed to have been adrift and exposed to the elements for 284 days. They said they'd tossed overboard two others who died on the boat, unable to hold down the fish and birds they ate raw. The fishermen said they survived by drinking rain water, urine and turtle blood, and drawing strength from a tattered Bible.

It was received in Mexico as a tale of hope--that redemption lies just over the horizon, no matter how vast and menacing the ocean. "We should follow the example of these three fishermen, making prayer the source of our strength," the Roman Catholic Mexican Council of Bishops declared.

It was also received with unholy media skepticism. Some questioned whether the men concocted the tale to cover up alleged drug trafficking operations. Others wondered whether the men survived by resorting to cannibalism, eating their dead companions. Some charted the ocean currents and argued the men could not have drifted to the point where they were found. Others noted the men hardly looked emaciated from their long ordeal. One of the men had a rap sheet--for stealing shrimp. And the whole reason they claimed to be out to sea in the first place was because they were illegally fishing for sharks.

In the end, it is an intriguing tale that cannot be completely verified. Kissack, however, said he interviewed the men extensively and is impressed with the consistency of their stories. An Associated Press report claimed Kissack's company bought the story for $3.8 million--a figure Kissack says just isn't true.

What is true, he concedes, is that he has gone nearly broke pursing this tale because he feels it's what God wants him to do. He has eaten through his savings and come close to losing his home to foreclosure. He has yet to land an acceptable movie deal, without compromising the story, but he is still trying to do everything he can with the tale from speaking in churches and charitable events to writing a book.

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. Contact Al at or