Many TV studios resemble a bedraggled ghost town at high noon. The weekly series are coasting into summer reruns, and no one has begun canning next season’s programs. But for Father Ellwood Kieser, a Paulist priest and television producer, the spring hiatus is an opportunity to grab idle studios, actors and technicians at budget rates. Much of the talent will be gently prodded to return paychecks uncashed. Father Kieser explains without embarrassment that his Roman collar lets him ask favors another producer couldn’t even suggest.
Stars like Ed Asner, Carroll O’Connor and Jack Albertson cooperate in part because Kieser’s half-hour episodes of Insight are a worthy cause; more important, these weekly morality plays constitute one of television’s few regular outlets for experimental drama.
Since Insight began in 1960, the show has won awards for its open-minded dramatizations of issues ranging from troubled marriage to abortion, alcoholism, suicide and homosexuality. Father Kieser can take an unfettered approach because he is not beholden to any network or sponsor. “One of the advantages of being poor is that you can do what you want,” he says.
“The first 15 years television was used by businessmen,” reflects Father Kieser. “The second 15 years it was used by the politicians. The next 15 years will belong to the people.”
Kieser’s is not an idle prediction. Along with other religious leaders, he has brought suit against the FCC to free more air time for community-minded programming such as Insight, now shown on 250 stations.
Kieser, 47, was graduated from La Salle College in Philadelphia, and spent a summer at Good Shepherd Church in New York before being transferred to Los Angeles. While serving as hospital chaplain at UCLA, he began teaching a class at the university designed, as is the Paulist order itself, to introduce nonbelievers to Catholicism.
“I was reaching 1,500 people a year through my class,” recalls Kieser. “But I wanted to reach all five million in Los Angeles. The answer was television.” His first show was “just me, a 6’6″ host in a collar pointing to a blackboard, preaching. There were other religious shows on the air doing the same thing. We were all boring.” It was an approach Kieser soon abandoned in favor of Insight.
“Theater is the best way to illuminate a situation,” believes Kieser. Still, he makes time each day for an hour of meditation mixing Zen, yoga and traditional Western prayer and says Mass in Westwood before settling in by 10 at Paulist Productions. The offices are on the Pacific Coast Highway in a converted speakeasy with an inspiring view of the ocean.
Kieser admits that “when it comes to really feeling God, TV is too impersonal. We need rugged bodies to reach out and touch each other.” But this does not dissuade him from striving to make religion a prime-time factor in American life. “God knows,” he observes, “the liturgy makes good theater.”