With his imposing 6-foot-6 stature, steely jaw, and a heart on fire for the Gospel, Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser, lovingly known as the “Super Priest,” once cut a larger-than-life figure from the pulpit of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Westwood. The stars in the pews included Jerry Lewis, Jane Wyman, and Ricardo Montalbán, in a time when much of Hollywood still went to church.
But 20 years after his death, a new documentary details how Father Kieser also brought the church to Hollywood: Paulist Productions’ “Hollywood Priest: The Story of Fr. ‘Bud’ Kieser” takes audiences to the center of the limelight, with insights into Father Kieser’s influence on show business and how he navigated an industry that grew away from the moral compass of the Catholic Church.
Father Kieser landed at St. Paul the Apostle, a few miles from Beverly Hills and Hollywood, after arriving from Philadelphia in the 1950s. A Paulist priest, he had been formed to evangelize through media. The film recounts how while teaching his popular adult inquiry classes for Catholics and curious non-Catholics, he captured the attention of one attendee, Joe Connelly, the writer-producer behind “Leave It to Beaver.”
With support from his Tinseltown parishioners and a passion for engaging the popular culture, Father Kieser’s anthology TV series “Insight” debuted in 1960 under his Paulist Productions banner. With nearly 300 episodes, it was at one point the longest-running syndicated weekly show on television.
Father Kieser was also outspoken in his criticism of Hollywood’s use of gratuitous sex and violence, but didn’t favor government censorship. Instead of ignoring the dark, despairing ways of the world, Father Kieser challenged his writers to examine the issues closer, with heart.
In a 1999 PBS interview, Father Kieser expounded on this further: “If American media is a contributing cause of violence in our society, I think in the future, television and motion pictures could become just the opposite, a significant contributor to the decline of violence in our homes and on our streets.”
In “Hollywood Priest,” we meet a man who was not immune to the murky trappings of humanity himself. The film explores the spiritual crises, loneliness, and pain Father Kieser faced in his role as priest, including during his close relationship with a nun. In a moving segment, we learn he eventually found healing after traveling to Africa with “Roots” actor John Amos, helping the communities affected by famine.
These stories are told against the backdrop of Father Kieser’s battles with the FCC, a Church trying to implement the reforms of Vatican II, and the shifting political and social mores of the turbulent ’60s and ’70s. Tastefully animated photographs, charming personal anecdotes with his acclaimed collaborators, and archival footage help bring Father Kieser’s story to life.
“Hollywood Priest” is an honest portrait of a man of God who had the gravitas of a philosopher and the sharp wit of a movie mogul. Enlightening the entertainment industry and holding its players accountable seems like an impossible task. But Father Kieser was able to disrupt the Hollywood machine and help redefine what it means to tell human stories.
Full story at Angelus News.