Love, understanding, compassion--those were the unifying elements among the six programs honored with the 12th annual Humanitas Prizes for television shows that best communicate enriching human values.
The prime-time awards went to the writers of episodes of "The Cosby Show" and "Cagney & Lacey," and of a TV movie about Alzheimer's disease that previously had won an Emmy, "Do You Remember Love."
Other winners announced in ceremonies Thursday at the Century Plaza were "No Greater Gift," an "ABC Afterschool Special"; "Main Street," NBC's news magazine for young people, and the CBS News documentary "The Vanishing Family--Crisis in Black America."
The purpose of the Humanitas Prizes, presented by the Pacific Palisades-based Human Family Educational and Cultural Institute, was summed up by writer-director David Seltzer, who won one in 1975 for "Larry" and another in 1977 for "Green Eyes" and who is now on the institute's board of trustees.
The award, he told the audience of several hundred, is a way of saying, " 'Will all those (television writers) who have contributed something good to mankind please step forward?' I think this is no less than a Nobel Prize, this award."
The top prize of $25,000, for prime-time programs 90 minutes or longer, went to Vickie Patik for "Do You Remember Love," a CBS movie that starred Joanne Woodward as a woman suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
The judges commended her script for "its celebration of the light which is our life and of the devastating consequences of its flickering out, and for its affirmation of love's power to transform tragedy."
In the category for hourlong programs, the $15,000 prize was given to Robert Eisele for his "Cagney & Lacey" episode called "Ordinary Hero," about an illegal alien from Chile who rescues a mugging victim in the United States only to be picked up later and nearly deported.
The judges applauded "its assertion that the individual citizen who assumes his or her responsibilities can right wrongs, correct injustices and truly make a difference, and for its recognition of the energy, courage and verve injected into the mainstream of American culture by the most recent tide of refugees, some documented, some not."
In accepting the award, Eisele noted that his story for the CBS police series was based on the real-life experiences of Oscar Benitez, a refugee from El Salvador who received an award from the Los Angeles Police Department for helping lead them to the killer of a Los Angeles Herald Examiner editorial writer in 1980, then came close to being deported two years later.
"Oscar's story has a happy ending," Eisele said. "He's here with his wife today, and he just sold me some life insurance." Benitez rose to applause, and Eisele dedicated his prize to "other ordinary heroes."
That episode of "Cagney & Lacey" was a double winner Thursday. It also won an Imagen Award from the Hispanic Media-Image Task Force of the National Conference of Christians & Jews for its positive portrayal of Latinos.
For the second year in a row, John Markus won the $10,000 Humanitas prize for 30-minute programs for an episode of "The Cosby Show" on NBC. This one dealt with the parents trying to let their children know that if the kids got into trouble of any kind, Mom and Dad would be there to help--although they might get angry first.
Markus' script was praised by the judges "for its assertion that honest, deep and ongoing communication is of the essence of family living, and for its perceptive exploration of the struggle to love unconditionally."
Markus, co-executive producer of the top-rated comedy series, thanked Cosby for his inspiring contributions to the show and said that what he had tried to demonstrate was that "caring for another person can be ambivalent. . . . If we can accept that ambivalence in ourselves, maybe those we love can accept it also."
In the children's programming category, the $10,000 prize went to Josef Anderson for the teleplay and to Fern Field and Anson Williams for the story of "No Greater Gift," about children with terminal illnesses. It was singled out for its "revelation of our common humanity when confronted with sickness, death and immortality, for its dramatization of interracial friendship, and for its depiction of love's power to heal alienation and effect reconciliation."
Nonmonetary awards went to writers Ruth C. Streeter and Perry Wolff for "The Vanishing Family," and to executive producer Herb Dudnick and writers Bryant Gumbel, William Schechner and Patrick Trese for "Main Street."
The CBS documentary, which dealt with the breakdown of the nuclear family unit among a large segment of the black population, was praised "for its compassionate depiction of one of society's most soul-wrenching problems (and) for its stark, yet hope-filled portrayal of the psychologically lethal conditions created for future generations by irresponsibility on the part of the present one."
The judges congratulated NBC's "Main Street" series "for trusting its young viewers to deal with the realities of their world in a responsible way, and for its consistent exploration of the young person's moral dilemmas from a humanitarian perspective."
The Humanitas Prizes are funded from an endowment established by a group of major broadcasting companies. More than 350 scripts were submitted for consideration this year, the organization said.
Father Ellwood Kieser, president of the institute, had announced previously that it would not be making an award this year in the category of cartoons for children because "we were unable to find shows that sufficiently tapped the humanizing potential of animation."
In his speech Thursday, Seltzer, whose credits range from "The Omen" and "Table for Five" to the recent film "Lucas," told his fellow screenwriters in the audience, "We have more power and responsibility than any writers of fiction in history."
He said he based this assertion on what he called a horrifying conclusion he had come to: "What is seen on TV is believed. TV fiction is often mistaken for truth"--not necessarily by everyone, he added, but always by someone.
Like it or not, Seltzer said, TV writers are educators and should take that role seriously.
"We are the chroniclers, but more important, the shapers of human behavior," he said.
"When we invite our children to identify with guns and people who carry guns," he said, "we'd better hold our ears--because life imitates art."
Like "Cagney & Lacey," "The Cosby Show" was also honored Thursday with an Imagen Award for the positive portrayal of Latinos, but for a different episode, "Mr. Quiet." The other winner was "Maricela," a drama that KCET Channel 28 produced for public television's "Wonderworks" series about a girl from El Salvador whose mother works as a maid for an American family.