Josef Meier has spent the last 50 of his 74 years playing Christ - more than 8,000 performances in The Black Hills Passion Play," set here in a natural ampitheater near Mt. Rushmore and Devil's Tower.

It's an eerie, impressive setting.A three-block stage under the West's magnificent and awesome skies, where camels and sheep parade forth and a cast of 250 act out the last week of Christ's life, right down to the crucifixion of Josef Meier, on a mountain specially designed for the play.

Never mind that Meier has been playing Christ for much longer than the 33 years Christ himself lived.

"His mission would have continued in the same vein if he hadn't been killed," Josef Meier said.

Indeed, Meier himself has taken on the passion play as his mission in life. Raised in Luenen, Germany, having studied medicine as a boy, he was chosen to play Christ in the town's Lenten passion drama.In 1932, after a Pittsburgh Shriner had seen the play in Germany, the enterprising Meier brought the production to that town's Sylvia Mosque. From there Meier put it on the road (including an evening at Washington's Constitution Hall) for five years, carting sheep, camels, horses, costumes, sets, and players on railroad cars.

"It was a pleasure to travel by rail in those days" he says lost in the intricacies of managing a road troupe. Meier is rummaging through the desk in his office at the amphitheater, looking for his old diary and fonding his pet miniature poodle, Teeney.

He could be a Russian count out of a Marx Brothers film, with his tiny mustache, close-cropped beard and foreign accent. His fiery eyes have a glint that make him seem like a character out of an out rageous '40s comedy film.

"We approach our work with a serious attitude." he says of himself and his company of 250 actors. Thirty-eight of them are professionals, and two - Harold Rogers, who plays Peter, and Meier's wife as Mary the mother of God - have been with him since the onset. "We bring to our work a sense of faith and believing. If this became a commercial, cold business, the essential symbolic value would be lost."

With money from the road production, Meier build the amphitheater in 1939 and has presented the passion play in the Black Hills every summer since. It is seen by 6,000 people three nights each week. In the fall the production moves to Lake Wales, Fla., where Meier built an amphitheater in 1932.

"I first came here for political reasons," Meier says. "You could sense then in Germany that things were not going in the right direction. I'm worried that the situation in this country today is not unlike the situation in Germany then. We've lost a sense of responsibility and inflation is eating up people's money.

"When I began to travel around this country with the play, I really saw the need for it. The separation of church and state here is extreme. In Europe, every school has a serious religious program. Here we would find that children really knew very little about religion, but they were fascinated by the character of Jesus. You must always reinforce, never disturb people's concept of Jesus."

After 8,000 performances in the same role, you might think an actor would become tired. But no so with Meier, who says that every performance is a re-dedication to his life's goal.

"I gain by the role," the Roman Catholic says. "People often say to me. 'It's a heavy cross. Aren't you tired?' He said. 'Ask and ye shall receive.' And if I need strength, I get it. The good Lord will tell me when it's time to retire. (Meier is grooming a nephew to take on his role, and his daughter for the role of Mary.) He's the one who'll make the joints go stiff and the voice grow cold."

Meier often relies upon scripture to express his point. Referring to Christ's words to Peter at the Last Supper, he says, "The Kingdom of which I speak is different than the one you have known. The greatest will become the least.' These are the qualities that must remain with you in every single line when you are on stage. Otherwise it becomes a hollow role."

If all this sounds obsessive, Meier says he is careful not to let his role become the world's most amazing case of method acting.

"I'm too terribly aware of my short-comings, and always want to remain so," he says. "Doing something like that would be a form of insanity."

Which is not to deny that there is some religious spillover from the play into Spearfish's secular life.

A young girl who had just begun appearing in a crowd scene surprised hr father one evening when he arrived home from work. She came running out of her bedroom, waving a branch of palm and shouting, "Hail Hosanna."