Skip to main content

A fourth wise man

On Sept. 16, a week when the Senate and the FTC took turns bashing Hollywood, the entertainment industry lost one of its champions. But Humanitas Prize founder Ellwood Kieser was no media apologist.

"Let's be honest," Father Kieser said last year in his keynote speech at Humanitas'25th-anniversary luncheon, "Programs and pictures have been made that should not have been made-written and shot in such a way that they violate the most basic standards of taste and morality. But the best has never been so good."

Unafraid of such contradictions, Bud Kieser stood apart from clergymen who combat showbiz excess with boycotts or regulation. Instead he relentlessly promoted the media's capacity to do good. Inspired in boyhood by the broadcasts of Bishop Fulton Sheen, Kieser's philosophy gained purpose when he joined the Paulist Fathers, an order dedicated to the spiritual needs of those outside the church, even nonbelievers.

"Father Kieser genuinely loved actors and writers and directors and producers," said Tom Fontana, as he edited his gritty prison drama, Oz. "You felt that from him. He wasn't an enemy, but a colleague."

Kieser's creative credentials were hard-earned. He produced series and original movies and documentaries for television. "Clearly he knew how to read and produce a script. So people paid attention," said Stephen Bochco, executive producer of NYPD Blue and City of Angels. "He knew his way around our business and the material that feeds it."

Kieser honed his eye for good writing during his 23 years producing the syndicated religious anthology Insight. But despite attracting such talents as Rod Serling and Michael Crichton, Kieser's Paulist Productions struggled to place "human enrichment" programs on commercial networks in the mid 1970s. He sought another avenue when inspiration struck: "The writer is the crucial component," Kieser told an interviewer last year, "the one who starts with the blank page and puts the human values in." That point of creation would be the genesis for the Humanitas Prize, which awards up to $25,000 to film and television writers.

"The fundamental paradox of Father Kieser was he founded a prize which offered cash for writing that exulted humanistic material," recalled NYPD Blue co-creator David Milch, with a warm laugh. "And if you got to know him well enough, in time he got that money back from you."

Here Kieser's comfort with contradiction served him well. He had a genius for exploiting the angelic nature within people notorious for bedeviling Standards and Practices.

Milch admits that Detective Andy Sipowicz's epic struggles with God reflect Kieser's counsel. "I'm sure he was responsible to some extent for that drift in my writing. Although it was indicative of his gift that I wasn't completely conscious of that while it was going on."

Tom Fontana marvels how Kieser "could always get me to say yes. I'm stunned at the things he got me to do, whether it was join the board, or come out for the luncheon, or write scripts that I didn't have time to write." That includes collaborating on Kieser's first television movie, The Fourth Wise Man, and ironically his last. "He asked me to write a movie about Judas Iscariot's relationship to Jesus," says Fontana "We worked on it up to the day he went into the coma. The last conversation I had with him, we talked about his illness, but he was also giving me notes."

Fontana is committed to completing that project. Bochco feels "it's incumbent on all of us to ensure the survival of the Humanitas Prize." Milch agrees, but not necessarily as a personal tribute to Kieser. "He was a very humble man and that was one of his gifts. One way people will remember him is by carrying on his work." Greenwald is an independent producer and writer based in Los Angeles.