In March, 2000, utility contractor Randy Simpkins’ two-year-old son Joe disappeared from the driveway of his Carrollton home.
He had left Joe on his tricycle for a few minutes while grabbing a few items inside as the family packed to go on vacation. Scary thoughts filled Simpkins’ head. Was he kidnapped? Did he get fall into a ditch? Did he drown?
Within a few hours, about 400 townsfolk and dozens of cops scoped out the surrounding area searching for Joe. By late afternoon, media helicopters circled the area. As hope waxed and waned, Simpkins faced his own crisis of faith, questioning his own priorities in life.
His story is told in a film starring Dean Cain called “The Way Home,” which debuts Friday on Atlanta-based cable network GMC at 8 p.m.
In 2006, Simpkins shared his story with filmmakers Clint Hutchison and Lance Dreesen, who were scouting for film locations in Carroll County. Two years later, they asked him if they could make his story into a movie.
Cain, a 44-year-old single father of an 10-year-old boy, said he signed on after tearing up as he read the script.
It was a low-budget film, at around $1 million, much of it for Cain, best known as the star of the 1990s ABC series “Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.” They shot “The Way Home” in the fall of 2008 on Simpkins’ Carrollton property, which included his five-acre home and the surrounding 80-acre farm owned by his parents.
For a two-year-old, the area was treacherous, littered with construction and farm equipment, small lakes and swampy areas. Bobcats and coyotes abounded. Ed Walker, a retired engineer, found Joe more than seven hours later in a deep pocket of woods more than a mile from Simpkins’ home. Walker himself had lost a brother named Joe 40 years earlier and still tears up every time he sees Joe, Simpkins said.
Joe, now 13, is “a little bit embarrassed” by it all, Simpkins said. “His focus now is football, wrestling and cheerleaders. We’re trying to keep him focused on school and not make it a big deal.”
Cain said he has portrayed real people before such as convicted murderer Scott Peterson, but this was the first time he played an actual person who was there every step of the way.
“That’s a lot of pressure as an actor to have him there in his house on his land where it actually happened,” Cain said in a phone interview earlier this week. “You have a responsibility to do it to the best of your ability. I hope I got it right. There were times we’d finish a scene and he’d have to walk away. He was going through the pain again.”
Simpkins said he changed his life after that incident. Before, he was so focused on his job, he neglected his family, his church and his community.
“I had three children but I wasn’t plugged into their lives,” he said. “It was putting a strain on my marriage I wasn’t even aware of at the time.”
He believes his son’s disappearance was God’s way of straightening his priorities.
Simpkins cut back hours at his company. He stopped working Saturdays and began coaching his sons. To repay the community, he became a county commissioner and now has a job that ensures he can make it home every evening for dinner.
The family has traveled to several churches to give testimony and screen the film. He has made a commitment to spread his story and inspire other husbands and fathers.
“It’s the joy of the journey,” Simpkins said.”If I had kept on the same path, I can’t imagine how much I would have missed.”
“The Way Home,” GMC at 8 p.m. Friday, with repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday
Also will be available on DVD in select Christian inspirational stores on October 5 and wide release October 26.
GMC, for folks aren’t familiar, used to be known as the Gospel Music Channel but now includes faith-oriented films and TV shows. It’s available on Comcast on Channel 189, Charter Channel 156, Verizon FIOS at 224 and DirectTV on 338. It is not available on DishTV.
Check out its schedule here. Shows include “Amen,” “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman,” “Early Edition” and “Highway to Heaven.”