Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

HOLLYWOOD PRIEST: How Father Bud Brought God to Television—And Vice Versa

Quick! Name the longest-running anthology show in television history. The Twilight Zone? Alfred Hitchcock Presents? The Outer Limits? Nope—it was a modest, low-budget series launched by a Catholic priest, who wrangled some serious stars into working for scale. And even then, some were guilted into giving their checks back.

Created by Paulist Productions, Insight ran in syndication from October 1960 to January 1985, with guest stars such as Jack Albertson, Ed Begley Sr. and Jr., John Astin, Elizabeth Ashley, Albert Brooks, Martin Sheen, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bill Bixby, Louis Gossett Jr., Celeste Holm, Ron Howard, June Lockhart, Joseph Campanella, Carol Burnett, Ann B. Davis, Marty Feldman, Vincent Gardenia, Peter Fonda, Michael Learned, Jack Klugman, Mark Hamill, Irene Dunne, Anne Francis, Bob Newhart, Barbara Hale, Walter Matthau, Juanita Moore, Carroll O’Connor, Ricardo Montalban, William Shatner, Cicely Tyson, Jane Wyman, Nichelle Nichols, Keenan Wynn, Marion Ross, Jane Wyman, Dick York, Tim Matheson, Ed Asner, John Amos, Brian Keith, Elisha Cook Jr., Catherine Hicks, Harvey Korman, James Cromwell, Vera Miles, Jerry Lewis, and Ann Sothern. At the helm were directors like Lamont Johnson, Arthur Hiller, Norman Lloyd, Delbert Mann, and Jay Sandrich.

Now Paulist’s founder, Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser, is the subject of a fascinating new documentary by the company he launched: Hollywood Priest airs on PBS stations August 8 and 9 and streams at through January 6.

In the film, those who knew Father Bud attest to his good-natured tenacity. “He was fearless—he knew how to ask for things he had no business asking for,” recalls Father Eric Andrews, CSP, president of the Paulist Fathers. “People were afraid when they saw his name on their call sheets in Hollywood!”

“Ed Asner had forewarned me,” laughs John Amos. “I said I got a call from a Father Kieser, and he said ‘Oh, he’s got you!’”

Father Bud seized on the FCC’s requirement for public-interest programming to gain a coast-to-coast foothold for Insight, which featured half-hour plays centering on love, compassion and the search for meaning through drama, comedy and even fantasy. But the message went down gently. “He didn’t beat people over the head with how they should react or how they ought to feel,” recalled Martin Sheen.

Insight was wonderful because they had none of the problems the major studios had—they could write about what was important, universal topics that are still relevant today,” said Christine Avila, who starred in three episodes covering issues such as immigration, the treatment of rape victims, and the loss of a child. “And everyone really cared about the show—there was a great desire for quality actors, writers, and directors. They gave creative people free rein, without having the burden of producers or the corporate world on their backs.”

Father Bud saw writers as the driving creative force behind both television and film, and in 1973, he galvanized a group of artists and producers to launch the Humanitas Prizes, honoring writers whose work inspired and enhanced the lives of viewers. “Whatever we can do to empower, enrich, and support writers, we should do because it is writers who show us where we’ve been and where we are going as a culture,” he said.

But as the 1980s closed in, the television landscape became harder to navigate. During the Reagan era, FCC public-access rules were decimated, and in many markets, huckster-style TV evangelists paid for airtime that had previously been donated to Insight. By the time the show folded in 1985, Father Bud was already using his media clout to shine a light on global issues such as the starvation crisis in Central Africa, making numerous trips to the region and reporting widely on the horrors he found. “He was a trailblazer in efforts that culminated in worldwide efforts like USA for Africa,” said Father Tom Gibbons, co-producer of Hollywood Priest, who ministers to Father Bud’s old parish in Los Angeles. “He understood that we serve the Church by serving those outside the Church.”

That included the plight of those living under a violent military regime in El Salvador, which would ultimately take the lives of more than 75,000 people. In 1980, agents of the government assassinated Cardinal Oscar Romero, who had led peaceful protests against the brutality. As a priest with strong ties to the entertainment community, Father Bud was in a unique position to tell the cardinal’s story and call attention to the cause he gave his life for. In 1989, Paulist became the first Catholic company ever to co-produce a major film when it released Romero, starring Raul Julia in the title role.

“Father Bud’s life seemed to be one of those perfect confluences of the right person for the right era, to help open up the Church and use his natural curiosity and passion to inspire that in others,” said Father Gibbons. “It was very much a case of a seeker and a church that was open to seeking, and they pushed each other further.”

Having explored the life of this much-loved priest, Paulist Productions is now taking on a more controversial one: Statue of Limitations will examine the issues surrounding the canonization of Father Junipero Serra. “People on all sides feel very passionate about it, and we’re going to really dig deeply,” said Maria-Elena Pineda, who also co-produced Hollywood Priest. “It think Father Bud would approve of that approach.”

In the meantime, if you’d like to delve further into Insight, here’s the archive.

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