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Hollywood Priest Was an Insider

Father Ellwood 'Bud' Kieser saw the industry as a hotbed of lapsed spiritual belief. He became a producer himself, methodically working for change.

October 17, 2000|PAUL BROWNFIELD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

While Hollywood's reputation was being flogged before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in Washington recently, some of those back in the den of iniquity were mourning the loss of one of their own--a priest.

The death of 71-year-old Father Ellwood E. "Bud" Kieser was both sudden and striking--striking for the way it coincided with one of the more high-profile political assaults on the entertainment industry.

Kieser injected himself into this culture war, and his death was seen by some in Hollywood as a sad, less-talked-about postscript to the nationwide referendum on movies, television and video games. He died Sept. 16, around the time a report released by the Federal Trade Commission revealed the extent to which movie studios market R-rated films to underage teens. The Senate hearing, complete with condemnations and threats of federal legislation, followed.

Kieser would not have defended Hollywood's right to sell gratuitous sex and violence to minors, but neither would he have wagged his finger at the industry. Kieser's lifework was everything that a splashy political hearing isn't--tireless, methodical--undertaken by a man dedicated to changing an industry he was drawn to precisely because it was a hotbed of lapsed spiritual belief. By the end, his philosophy appeared to be working, if by small, barely perceptible degrees.

Certainly he was a beguiling figure--a man of the cloth and a moral conscience who ventured into the den and mingled, sans collar, forging long-lasting and complex relationships with actors, writers and producers. His stated aim was to open their eyes to the good work they were already doing as a means of encouraging more, an approach that would have seemed naive had Kieser not been fully equipped with street smarts as well. He flattered writers and performers, and in flattering them carved a unique position of moral leadership.

In the process, Kieser became an insider himself. He ran his own company, Paulist Productions, out of a grand-but-faded former restaurant and cabaret on Pacific Coast Highway once owned by the sometime actress, Lola Lane. And he founded the Humanitas Prize in 1974 to honor TV and film writers for work that promoted human values.

These "human values" were not code words for G-rated content. Among the Humanitas winners were Mike Leigh for his 1997 film "Secrets & Lies," in which a working-class British woman discovers her long-lost illegitimate black daughter, and episodes of "NYPD Blue," the long-running ABC police drama whose characters fight alcoholism and various other demons.

With the Humanitas, which awarded cash to writers, Kieser played on two classic entertainment industry precepts--narcissism and greed--but in the process he set an artistic bar for writers.

"Certainly in TV, the Humanitas award . . . became a way to defend yourself with executives who didn't feel there was a responsibility to do that kind of writing," said John Wells, executive producer of the NBC hits "ER" and "The West Wing" and among Kieser's closest industry confidants.

"He said to us, 'Look, politicians are scoring easy points [over depictions of sex and violence], and parents are concerned,' " remembered Wells.

Of course, over the years entertainment industry figures had girded themselves against the preachings of moral leaders. But Kieser was hard to dismiss. He may have been a priest, but he also possessed the qualities of a producer, the quixotic and self-important tendencies you need to get the attention of the show business world.

He spoke regularly with top television writer-producers like Wells and Tom Fontana, whose credits include "St. Elsewhere," "Homicide" and the gritty HBO prison drama "Oz." To driven men like Wells and Fontana, Kieser was maddeningly stubborn and ego-bound, but also as irresistible as a character out of their own imaginations and guilt complexes. Into their lives walked a 6-foot-6 priest who badgered, cajoled and loved them, promising if they wrote a script for one of his projects that he'd give them "10 percent of the grace."

"As opposed to being some minister somewhere who has never been near a set, he actually had stood on the same stage, and had the same quarrels with networks or studios, so you did feel like he [understood] you," said Fontana, who wrote the script for "Judas and Jesus," a TV movie Kieser had in development at ABC.

"Even when he was convincing you to do something you had no interest in doing . . . I'd say, 'No father I can't,' and I'd give him 10 million reasons [why] I couldn't do it," Fontana said. "And he'd say, 'Well I'm going to pray.' And I'd say, 'Oh don't pray. I got no shot if you pray.' "

Priest Became Hollywood Insider

Sometimes, the most vocal critics of pop culture have a way of betraying their depth of entertainment knowledge. Asked recently to name some top young comedians, for instance, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman--who has made regular swipes at Hollywood--named Bill Cosby, 63, and Billy Crystal, 53.

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