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Ellwood ‘Bud’ Kieser; Priest Used Media to Deliver Message

TIMES STAFF WRITER

(Editor’s Note: The following obituary appeared in some editions of Sunday’s Times.)

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Father Ellwood ‘Bud’ Kieser, who chose to work within Hollywood as a television and movie producer rather than condemn it, as have so many other clerics, has died.

Kieser died of cancer at Cedars-Sinai Hospital on Saturday evening. He was 71.

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A Paulist priest who liked the limelight and the entertainment industry, Kieser headed Paulist Productions for four decades.

Among his works were “Insight,” a public-service television series that earned six Emmys during a 23-year run ending in 1983, and the TV specials “The Fourth Wise Man” and “We Are the Children.”

He also produced the feature film “Romero,” about the assassinated Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero.

In 1974, Kieser created the Humanitas Prize, cash awards of as much as $25,000, to encourage entertainment that projected “human values and brings the insights of the Judaic-Christian vision of man to bear on our contemporary situation.”

“Father Kieser’s contribution is unique,” said Father Frank Desiderio, his associate. “No other Catholic priest has made such a lasting contribution, both as a producer and a pastor, to the entertainment community.”

Longtime friend Karen Danaher-Dorr said Kieser would often joke that he was a religious man giving away cash prizes when Hollywood gave away statues.

“He had an enormous influence on so many writers,” Danaher-Dorr said, recalling that he understood how tough it was for writers to inject moral strains into their scripts.

Amid mounting criticism of Hollywood’s fondness for sex and violence, Kieser struck a less strident tone.

“The problem is going to have to be faced and dealt with,” he wrote in a 1999 Calendar piece in The Times. “And eventually, I believe, the industry will responsibly rise to the challenge.

“The problem,” he continued, “is not with media violence as such but with the superficial, distorted and exploitative way that violence is so often presented. Such a portrayal desensitizes its viewers to the horrors of real-life violence.”

In a 1993 Times piece, he made it clear that he thought censorship was not the answer to criticisms of increasingly gory and graphic Hollywood fare.

“We in the creative community do not need the government to tell us what we can or cannot put into our stories,” he emphasized.

The industry, he argued, needed to delve more complexly into the dark side of humanity, showing the true consequences of violence and exploring the “fear, isolation, self-hatred, despair and cowardice” of the violent. He said it also needed to promote nonviolent ways of handling conflict.

While conceding that “there’s an awful lot of junk . . . in both feature films and television,” Kieser said this year that “the best has never been so good.”

He was 6 feet 7, wore a safari jacket over his Roman collar and confessed in his autobiography, “Hollywood Priest,” that he had an unconsummated love affair with a nun who eventually left the convent.

He possessed a personal style that led some friends to say he was “full of himself"--albeit sincere and a good producer.

Born in Philadelphia in 1929, Kieser graduated from La Salle University in 1950. That same year, he joined the Paulist Fathers, an order dedicated to serving those outside the Catholic Church.

John Furia Jr., a longtime friend who produced and wrote many of the early “Insight” programs, said that Kieser turned to the media as a young priest as an extension of his preaching.

“He quickly realized that if he was going to have an impact, he would need to dramatize his preaching,” said Furia, who is also chairman of the Division of Writing at the USC School of Cinema and Television.

“He knew the media was a powerful instrument and if Christ were alive today he would have used it.”

Throughout his career, Kieser was critical of the lack of religion in the media and made it his business to put God on the airwaves.

“He understood that there was no contradiction between speaking our most profound beliefs and our spiritual beliefs and entertaining drama,” Furia said.

Kieser is survived by a sister, Shirley Hoberg; two brothers, Bill and Don; and 21 nieces and nephews. A wake will be held at 7:30 p.m. today at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood. The funeral will be held at the same location at 7:30 p.m. Friday, and burial services the following day at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City.

The date and time of an October memorial service at the Writer’s Guild of America West will be announced later.


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