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Phone number brings almighty problems

What happens when God's number in the movie Bruce Almighty just happens to be yours in real life?

By JEAN HELLER, Times Staff Writer
Published July 22, 2005

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Dawn Jenkins of St. Petersburg gets five or six calls a week from people asking to speak to God. Her phone number was God's in a 2003 movie.

Five or six times a week, week in and week out, stretching now into year in and year out, somebody calls Dawn Jenkins' cell phone and asks to speak to God.

It's not a hoax. It's not somebody trying to drive Jenkins crazy, although she acknowledges it might be having that effect.

The St. Petersburg resident is the victim of a bad decision by a very big and important movie maker. Universal Studios used Jenkins' number in the 2003 Jim Carrey hit, Bruce Almighty. In fiction, it was supposed to be God's phone number. In reality, Universal thought it was nobody's phone number.

Universal was wrong.

"It's gotten to the point that if Caller ID comes up "Private Number' or "Private Caller,' I just let it go to voice mail," Jenkins said.

The St. Petersburg Times originally spoke with Jenkins shortly after the movie came out. Back then she was getting 15 to 20 calls an hour from people asking for God. The calls have decreased, but not disappeared.

"Why this is still going on two years after the movie came out, I don't know. I don't even ask people any more why they're calling. I don't have time. I've had two calls for God already today, and it isn't even 2 o'clock."

The problem could have been avoided. Telephone companies and state and federal agencies that issue personal numbers for everything from aircraft registrations to Social Security cards and driver's licenses set aside numerical combinations that are not to be issued to anyone.

It is specifically done so that movie makers, television producers and novelists can use official-sounding numbers without legal ramification.

Perhaps no show on television uses more aircraft than the Fox thriller, 24. The planes and helicopters often are flown by nefarious characters for illegal purposes. If tail numbers matched up with real aircraft, trouble could ensue.

"All TV shows use one of several companies that specialize in keeping the shows out of trouble, in terms of using names, phone numbers, etc., that might result in lawsuits," said Bob Cochran, one of the creators and co-executive producer of 24.

In Cochran's case, the company is Act One, and the script analyst is Ray Felipe.

"The dummy phone numbers are the most noticeable to movie and TV viewers paying attention, and they do pay attention," Felipe said. "They all have 555 prefixes. Producers hate them because they think it limits their creativity. And maybe it does, but it also limits their liability."

According to the Federal Communications Commission, phone numbers in the sequence from 555-0100 to 555-0199 in any area code are never issued to anyone. In most parts of the country, calling one of those numbers gets a recorded announcement that it's a non-working number. Inexplicably, in the Tampa Bay area, calling one of those numbers gets you Darth Vader - actor James Earl Jones' recording for Verizon information. The FCC cannot explain why because the numbers are supposed to be reserved.

Bruce Almighty was set in Buffalo, N.Y. Producers did not use a 555-prefix number for the direct line to God, but instead one that, at the time, had not been issued to anyone in Buffalo's area code, according to a Universal spokesman.

But in some area codes, including 727, the number had been claimed. In Pinellas County, Jenkins had the number. It's a nonworking number in 813 and 352 area codes.

Since the movie didn't specify an area code, people across the country began calling the local version of the number that came up on the movie screen, and so began Dawn Jenkins' ordeal.

"The people at Universal were very responsive," said Jenkins, a database administrator and part-time jewelry maker. "It was a mistake. They were very apologetic. When the video came out, they had changed the number to one with the 555 prefix."

The Federal Aviation Administration reserves 38 aircraft registration, or tail numbers, for purveyors of fiction. There were 15 requests for those numbers last year and 15 so far this year. 24 is a leading user. But the record is held by Terminator 3, which requested and got 20 dummy numbers in 2002.

One of the reserved tail numbers, N99982, has not always been a dummy number. According to aviation historian John M. Davis, it was once worn by a C-54, the military version of the DC-4. This aircraft left Douglas' Chicago assembly line and was delivered to the Army Air Force in October 1944.

It was sold to Pan American World Airways in 1946, converted to civilian use and transferred by Pan Am to its Colombian subsidiary, Avianca, a year later. It was destroyed in 1947 when it crashed into a mountain near Bogota. The tail number has never been used in real life again.

As potentially embarrassing and expensive as it is for writers and producers to use real numbers, many don't know the dummy substitutes are available, Felipe said.

"And even if they find a number now that's not in use, that doesn't mean it won't be in use in the future," he said. "I don't know what that legal liability might be."

As for Jenkins, she plans to keep her number despite the headaches. It is a custom number that spells out the name of her jewelry business.

"I'm not giving it up for anybody," she said. "Not even for God."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

[Last modified July 22, 2005, 00:32:15]

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