Last year, Paulist Productions released Hollywood Priest: The Story of Father Bud Kieser. The documentary told the life and ministry of their studio’s founder, the late Father Ellwood "Bud" Kieser, C.S.P.
The most compelling part of the film detailed his producing work in film and television. In the late 1980s, he produced the critically acclaimed Romero, about the martyred Salvadoran bishop.
My personal favorite of his was Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story, starring Moira Kelly in the lead role.
But, I felt the documentary focused a little bit too much on a friendship (platonic) Father Bud struck up and maintained with an unnamed nun. His work in Hollywood was far more intriguing.
Recent films support this trend.
As I write this, Mark Wahlberg’s scripted priest biopic Father Stu ranks number one on Netflix. Hesburgh, the 2018 documentary about Father Ted Hesburgh, the president (1952-1987) of the University of Notre Dame, did well in its theatrical run.
And Family Theater Productions’ 2020 documentary PRAY: THE STORY OF PATRICK PEYTON –- profiling FTP’s founder, another Hollywood priest –- continues to play well for the Catholic audience.
Father Mark A Villano, a Paulist priest, wrote Insight, the Series: A Hollywood Priest's Groundbreaking Contribution to Television History. Published in June 2022, the book explores the Insight series, which evolved into a scripted anthology show, featuring many different kinds of storytelling.
The UCLA Film and Television Archives found the series to be such a worthy and unique contribution to American television that they collaborated with the Paulist order to acquire and preserve extant episodes.
Most episodes can be viewed on Paulist’s Productions’ YouTube channel. In his book, Father Villano notes the A-list writers, directors, producers and actors who worked on the series and provides a brief synopsis of each story.
The series began with Father Bud lecturing on topics germane to Catholicism, much akin to talks he would deliver concurrently at the parish where he was in residence.
The early 1960s then marked Father Bud’s most experimental period. The Ecce Homo episode of Insight documented a period of the life of Christ narrated over artworks.
By the mid-‘60s, fictional narratives more subtly brought home the moral and doctrinal lessons, yet Father Bud would begin each episode with a prologue of what to take away thematically.
In a way, his approach was similar to that of Father Peyton, who produced scripted comedy and drama radio plays, starring top Hollywood talent, in the 1940s and '50s.
Each episode of the radio show illustrated themes of faith, family and morality, with Father Peyton appearing briefly to offer a reflection.
The 1970s witnessed the apex of the Father Bud's Insight series, attracting acting talent such as Martin Sheen and Carol Burnett. Sci-fi writer Michael Crichton even penned an episode.
Perhaps, the best of episode of the fictional series came in 1976. Father Villano writes the logline/summary:
“Television game show contestants are picked from an audience to see just how far their greed will take them. The game culminates with an unnerving twist on Russian Roulette.”
At the time, Variety reported viewers complaining to local broadcasters that they thought the game show was real and things had gone too far.
I suppose that’s the best compliment to be paid to a Catholic production attempting to warn audiences of the dark side of reality game shows.
Take a look:
The series came to an end in the early 1980s. It wasn't because of a decline in the quality of Insight, but there were other factors at play.
One was a move away generally from anthology programming on TV. But, primarily, the FCC massively overhauled its "public interest" regulations, freeing local stations from the requirement to air certain shows, including religious shows.
At the same time, some religious broadcasters, especially Protestant preachers, started paying stations to air their shows, which wasn't the case with Insight.
That Insight survived several years beyond attests to the quality of the series. Even Father Bud’s prologues, which began two decades prior more as directives, ended the series as open-ended questions posed to the audience.
In a 2000 obituary, the not-always-Church-friendly New York Times gave the best praise -- or dare I say “insight” -- into Father Bud’s social relevance at the time:
“Father Kieser spoke the lingo of Hollywood producer with the same fervor he used to cite his faith in social activism, nonviolence, and the human spirit.”
In the current time, I think the new Paulist documentary and Father Villano's book continue Father Bud's social relevance.
Image: Paulist Productions
Click here to visit USC film school graduate Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.