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He was God’s agent in Hollywood

On Oct. 3, a memorial service was held for Paulist Fr. Ellwood “Bud” Kieser at the theater of the Writers Guild of America in Beverly Hills. Kieser, 71, died of complications following cancer surgery Sept. 16.

Kieser produced the feature films “Romero,” the story of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, and “Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story.” For television, he produced from 1960 to 1983 the syndicated series “Insight,” as well as the holiday special, “The Fourth Wiseman.” Kieser also created the Humanitas Prize 26 years ago to reward television and film writers who best portray human values in their scripts.

Speakers at the Writers Guild memorial included John Wells, writer of “Entertaining Angels,” and executive producer of “The West Wing” and “E.R.”; Tom Fontana, executive producer of “Oz” and “Homicide,” who wrote “The Fourth Wise Man”; and other Hollywood luminaries from the Writers Guild. One of the speakers was Kieser’s successor at Paulist Productions, Paulist Fr. Frank R. Desiderio. What follows are his remarks.

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Most mornings, when I was in the rectory courtyard doing Tai Chi, I would hear a loud click and then the scrape of wood on wood. At first the sound startled me. Then it comforted me when I figured out what it was. It meant that Bud had come into the chapel and opened a window to let in some air. Every morning Bud spent an hour, sitting in the same chair, doing contemplative prayer.

Some people said that he used that hour to tell God what to do. There may have been some of that. You could always tell whom Bud was trying to get to agree to do something because later in the morning, at our community prayer time, he would pray for that person. I can’t tell you how many times we prayed for Tom Fontana.

The sound of the window was comforting to me because I knew Bud was praying, and I knew that I was praying, so I figured that things would work out.

A couple of years ago, Bud called me and asked me if I would come out and be his understudy and take over when he retired. I didn’t think he would ever retire so I told him no. As we all know, Bud doesn’t take no for an answer. For the past two years I worked with him, never expecting that the trajectory of the transition would be so steep.

Bud’s idea of mentoring was to launch into snippets from Humanitas speeches or tell me war stories from the production set. I figured out his arcane algebra of favors. Bud thought that if you had said no to him once, then you owed him a favor the next time. He couldn’t believe that anyone could say no to him and not be wracked with guilt so he wanted to give you the chance to absolve yourself.

My idea of being mentored was to watch what he did, especially the fine points of the craft of priesthood.

Keeping vigil at the hospital during Bud’s last days, I was privileged to hear some extraordinary tributes. Visitor after visitor talked directly to Bud in his coma or told me their story of Bud: how Bud brought their spouse into the church, how Bud baptized their children, buried a parent, did a wedding. Someone said, “I did my best work for Bud. He forced me to write better.”

Many people said Bud had taught them about God, introduced them to a God they didn’t know. Bud became a storyteller because Jesus was a storyteller. Jesus told parables. Stories with a twist, a trick ending that made you rethink what you thought you knew. That’s what Bud always wanted people to do, think in new ways about God.

Bud loved to introduce people to God. He wanted people to open themselves to God, to go deeper into the mystery of God. Bud was God’s agent in Hollywood. How many of you heard his line about getting 10 percent of the grace?

One legacy Bud leaves is the Humanitas Prize. For Bud, great writing that celebrated and ennobled the human spirit was fundamentally a religious act. His other legacy is the example of how to live a spiritual life.

In going through Bud’s things, I discovered his journals. He started a new one each year, a large spiral bound notebook. Just about every entry closes the same way, “Lord, I am all yours.” The only variation I found was on difficult days he wrote, “Lord, you gotta help me.”

I didn’t think surrender was in Bud’s vocabulary. He was so full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes -- he brought new meaning to the phrase from our Paulist training “zeal for souls.” Despite how driven and self-possessed he was, at the end of every day he wrote to God and ended with words of surrender and each morning he started the day with that comforting sound of a window opening as he opened himself to God.

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2000