One November night in 1998, millions
of Americans sat glued to their television sets as they
watched Detective Bobby Simone (played by TV star Jimmy
Smits) breathe his last in ABC-TV’s popular NYPD Blue.
The richly human episode conveyed the sacredness of life’s
closing moments—as infection doomed the TV hero and his
10-day-old heart transplant. Viewers were gripped by the
intense human relationships played out between the dying
detective and his TV wife Detective Diane Russell (Kim
Totally distraught, Simone’s crusty partner and best
friend, Detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), struggled
with grief. “My new friend is gonna die,” a shaken Sipowicz
confided to his TV wife Sylvia (Sharon Lawrence); “he
told me in his eyes.” Other distressed NYPD co-workers,
including Lieutenant Arthur Fancy (James McDaniel, interviewed
in this article), tearfully bade their fallen hero good-bye.
This special 90-minute NYPD Blue episode, titled
“Hearts and Souls,” was a top winner of the 1999 Humanitas
Prize, announced on July 8 during the awards luncheon
at the Sheraton Universal Hotel in Los Angeles. The writers
of the episode (teleplay by Nicholas Wootton, story by
Steven Bochco, David Milch and Bill Clark) received a
|Photo Courtesy of Steven Bochco Productions
The citation from Humanitas explained why: “This episode
of NYPD Blue showed Detective Bobby Simone’s courageous
battle to die with integrity. The judges praised the episode
for ‘its profoundly moving depiction of the impact of
a dying man on those who love him most, and of his struggle
to look back over his life, reflect on what he has done
and failed to do, and say a resounding yes to it all,
all of which enables him to let go and begin the long
(Full information on the other 1999 Humanitas
Prize winners is found at the end of this article.)
Impact of the Prize
One of the key creators and writers of the winning NYPD
Blue episode was David Milch. He had won the Humanitas
Prize two other times, as a writer for NBC’s Hill Street
Blues back in the early 1980’s. Before this year’s
awards luncheon, he discussed with St. Anthony Messenger
the effect the Prize has had on his work.
Milch’s writings explored human values and dignity before
they won any Humanitas Prizes, he said, but winning the
actual Prize “has raised the bar” for him, encouraging
him to reach higher. “The spirit of the Prize was working
in my life before I understood it,” he observed. But he
also suggested that his ongoing awareness of the Prize
and its ideals has influenced his spiritual journey.
During his acceptance speech on behalf of the NYPD
Blue team of writers, Milch poignantly expressed a
personal thanks to Father Ellwood (“Bud”) Kieser, C.S.P.,
president and founder of the Humanitas Prize organization.
Milch confessed, however, that his attitude toward the
priest was originally a bit hostile—even though the first
TV script he ever wrote won for him the Humanitas Prize.
“You know,” Milch said, “there’s a particular type of
person who rubs you the wrong way—a person who looks at
you, however kindly, with the sense that he knows something
about you that you don’t yet know. And given my personality,
I react very badly and perversely to that type of situation.
“And I recall almost going out of my way to be ungracious
in my response to having won that award. I think we won
it again the next year, and I remember the second year
saying something about having used the money from the
first year to buy a racehorse!
“Typically, I was sort of mystified by my own lack of
grace. But over the years, I have found it necessary [despite
Father Kieser’s graciousness] to be provocative toward
him. And all, I suspect, because of that look in his eyes
which said he knew something about me that I didn’t know
“I’m grateful,” Milch concluded before the hushed audience,
“to have lived long enough now to have come to believe
that the shadow—in which I believe I must inevitably reside,
as well as all of my characters—is cast by God’s protective
NYPD actor James McDaniel was a first-time guest
at the Humanitas luncheon. He was asked how the values
and ideals of the Humanitas Prize might relate to his
part (Lieutenant Fancy) in the NYPD series. The
Washington, D.C., native told St. Anthony Messenger
that, while acting, he is not necessarily focused on human
values or any abstract ideas at that point. He is concentrating
rather “on the present moment and doing the scene well.”
McDaniel added that later, however, he is more tuned in
to the human depth of a given script.
|Photo by Gary Wintz
|(From right to left) Before the
Humanitas Prize luncheon, St. Anthony Messenger
Editor Jack Wintz converses with NYPD actor
James McDaniel and writers David Milch and Bill Clark.
A case in point was “Raging Bulls”—an NYPD episode
that was nominated for the Humanitas Prize in the 60-minute
category (but did not end up the winner). The episode
began with an accidental shooting by a white cop of a
black undercover officer. The incident triggered a violent
explosion of the racial tension simmering between Detective
Sipowicz and Lieutenant Fancy. The two characters even
came to blows before reaching some level of reconciliation.
“I very rarely watch an episode a second time,” McDaniel
said, “but the other night I flipped on the ‘Raging Bulls’
episode. I got wrapped up in the episode as a spectator.
From that more detached perspective, I saw how excellently
this episode was written and produced—and how it landed.”
While not concentrating on the story’s full “human impact”
while performing the episode, McDaniel indicated that
he saw later how well the episode served the cause of
improved human relations and better understanding between
Humanitas Prize: Its Origin and Aim
For nearly 30 years, Father Ellwood Kieser has worked
hard to find a niche for solid human and religious values
in the Hollywood entertainment community.
The towering 6’6” priest, a native of Philadelphia, moved
to Los Angeles in 1956. In the 1960’s he began using television
in his popular adult education classes at St. Paul the
Apostle Parish in Westwood. He eventually became executive
producer of Paulist Productions, making over 100 half-hour
Insight films, which in the 70’s and 80’s were
seen on some 150 television stations across the country.
Father Kieser enlisted the help of Hollywood’s top stars,
writers and directors in producing these dramatic episodes,
which probed tough human issues like troubled marriages,
alcoholism, sexual equality and the arms race.
More recently, Father Kieser produced two Hollywood feature
films, Romero (1989) and Entertaining Angels:
The Dorothy Day Story (1996). His latest major project
is The Twelve Apostles, a two-hour documentary,
narrated by actor Martin Sheen. The 1999 documentary (produced
by Paulist Productions) traces the activities of the Twelve
Apostles from their first meeting with Jesus to their
deaths. It will air nationally on the History Channel,
December 20 at 9 p.m.
In 1974, the energetic priest launched the Humanitas
Prize, with the help of cofounders John Furia, Arthur
Hiller, Jim Moser and Charles Champlin. The Prize offers
sizable cash awards—and coveted recognition—to film and
television writers whose scripts convey “those values
which most enrich the human person.” Writers, of course,
are the key determiners of a show’s moral vision and tone,
whether humanizing or dehumanizing.
Humanitas is the Latin word for “humanity.” The
Prize seeks to promote the full realization of humanity—the
best instincts and values of the human spirit. “The fundamental
value is the sacredness of the human person,” affirms
Father Kieser. “Each of us is a replica of God. Each of
us is a dwelling place of God and that gives us tremendous
“The Prize also propels us on a search for meaning,”
he adds, “for freedom, for love, for human dignity, for
unity with all our fellow human beings.”
For 25 years, the Prize has encouraged authors to examine
these kinds of values.
Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.
Keiser (center) stands with two NYPD Blue
writers after they received the Humanitas Prize.
Nicholas Wooton (left) wrote the teleplay and Steven
Bochco was one of the story writers.
As Nicholas Wootton, who wrote the teleplay for the winning
NYPD Blue episode, told St. Anthony Messenger
at the awards luncheon, the Prize encourages writers “to
reach deep into our souls” in exploring human situations.
As a Paulist priest, Father Kieser is motivated—in the
spirit of St. Paul the Apostle—to communicate the good
news of God’s abundant care for all humanity. “The special
mission of the Paulist Fathers,” he says, “is to take
the gospel into the secular world and help nonbelievers
feel loved by God.”
In the nonsectarian context of the Humanitas Prize, Father
Kieser sees a close link between humanization and evangelization.
The gospel is “the fullness of human values,” he asserts.
Any progress in bringing true human values to men and
women through the entertainment media, in his view, is
really a step to bringing the gospel into their midst.
“It’s not so important to tell people about God as to
help them experience God,” explains Father Kieser. “Our
whole approach is incarnational; we want them to experience
God in the human, in the people around them and in themselves.”
Over the years, says Father Kieser, the Humanitas Prize
has “grown from three prizes totaling $50,000 to seven
prizes totaling $120,000.” And next year, an eighth prize,
developed by Humanitas in collaboration with the Sundance
Institute, will be added. A $10,000 Humanitas Award will
go to “the writer of the independent feature film which
most fully communicates those values that enrich the human
The Humanitas Prize, adds Father Kieser, has also “grown
from being dependent on yearly grants from the Lilly Endowment
to having an endowment of its own provided by the entertainment
industry.” In addition, it sponsors Master Writer Workshops
to help writers become more aware of “human values that
enrich people and help them grow.” The workshops “feature
many of the brightest lights in the writing community,”
says Father Kieser. “In the last 10 months, more than
1,800 writers have attended these workshops.
“Humanitas is now more than a Prize,” insists Father
Kieser. “It is a movement, a sizable group of committed
men and women working in our industry to enrich as well
as entertain viewers.”
Does Humanitas Go From Here? Violence Tops the Agenda
(Excerpts from Father Ellwood Kieser’s keynote
address to his colleagues in the entertainment industry,
July 8, 1999, at the Humanitas luncheon)
As you are well aware, the tragedy of Columbine
High has provoked a great deal of soul-searching
in the country and it has created a crisis of conscience
in our industry. I think it is pretty clear that
violence must top our agenda in the months and perhaps
No informed person would maintain that television
and motion pictures are the sole, or even primary,
source of violence in our society. Parents, teachers,
the gun lobby, the police and politicians on both
the local and national levels must all own up to
their share of the responsibility. (I would feel
a little better about all this if there was any
indication the NRA was also having a crisis of conscience.)
But neither do I think any informed person would
deny that the entertainment industry has, on occasion,
contributed to the problem.
Let’s be honest. Programs and pictures have been
made that should not have been made. They have been
written and shot in such a way that the most basic
standards of taste and morality have been violated....The
problem is with the superficial, distorted and exploitative
way that violence is so often presented. These pictures
desensitize their viewers to the horrors of real-life
violence, arouse the aggressive and violent impulses
that lie dormant in every human heart and convey
the impression that violence is an acceptable way
to resolve conflict....
You and I who work in this industry know that the
vast majority of our colleagues are responsible
human beings. As a group we do care about the truthfulness
of what we write. We do care about our viewers.
And we do care about the kind of world we are bequeathing
to our children. We are committed to human values,
human growth, human solidarity. Humanitas is proof
of this. And we are not the only ones in our industry
with a conscience.
For years, films and TV shows reinforced racial
and gender stereotypes. But then the industry became
aware of what it was doing and responded responsibly,
with the result that Hollywood is now a significant
force in demolishing stereotypes and promoting racial
and gender equality.
For decades, movies and TV promoted cigarette smoking.
But then came the surgeon general’s report, and
the industry again responded responsibly. As a result,
anyone who now smokes in public feels like a pariah.
If, as studies contend and a subsequent surgeon
general’s report states, American media are 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
How? As writers and producers committed to human
values, what can we do to create shows that would
diminish the level of violence in our society?
First, we can probe the psyches of those who initiate
Why do they decide to hurt, maim and kill? What
is going on in their minds, hearts and souls? Are
these people so filled with self-hatred that they
feel they must pick up a gun and threaten other
people in order to feel good about themselves? Do
they feel so rejected, so cut off that they feel
they must be violent to get other people to pay
Good questions. No easy answers. But the sickness
which afflicts them is apparent. We need to look
at this sickness and we need to help our audiences
look at it too....
Second, we can look at the lethal effects of violence,
not only on the victim, but also on the victim’s
family and on the perpetrator....
Third, we can explore the necessity—and the rigors—of
nonviolent conflict resolution....
The struggle to get rid of violence in American
society will be a long and arduous one. Equally
arduous is the challenge to depict the sickness
from which it comes, its lethal consequences on
all those involved and the practice of nonviolence.
Winners of the 1999 Humanitas Prize
Feature Film Category ($25,000):
October Sky (Universal), written by Lewis Colick.
The film is based on the true story of Homer Hickam, Jr.
(described in his book Rocket Boys). He is a teenager
growing up in a small mining town in West Virginia, whose
destiny is forever changed when he sees Sputnik
passing overhead one night in October 1957. The film was
cited for “its portrayal of a young man’s determination
to march to his own drummer, despite the disapproval of
his equally determined father; for the vision of hope
and reconciliation it projects and for its depiction of
the allure of rocketry and space travel and what they
symbolize: the hunger for the transcendent.”
|Photo by Deana Newcomb, ©1999
|In October Sky, Homer (Jake
Gyllenhaal) receives affirmation from high school
teacher Miss Riley (Laura Dern), who supports him
in realizing his dreams to be a rocket scientist.
90-Minute or Longer PBS/Cable Category ($25,000):
Thanks of a Grateful Nation (Showtime), written
by John Sacret Young. It’s the true story to find and
publicize the truth about Gulf War Syndrome. It was cited
for “its incisive look at the moral depravity involved
in lying to mask the truth and evade responsibility; at
the Pandora’s box of high-tech warfare and at the horrendous
effects of Gulf War Syndrome on the brave soldiers—and
their families—who deserved much better.”
60-Minute Category ($15,000):
“Shades of Glory,” Homicide: Life on the Street
(NBC), teleplay by T. J. English, story by Julie Martin
and David Simon. In this episode, a white bus driver,
after accidentally striking a pregnant black woman, is
beaten to death. It was cited for “its perceptive probe
of the anatomy of an urban riot, for its delineation of
the horrors of racism and for its dramatization of the
shortcomings of both sides.”
30-Minute Category ($10,000):
“The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee Tech,” Sports
Night (ABC), written by Aaron Sorkin, Matt Tarses,
David Walpert and Bill Wrubel. It is the story of a managing
editor of a sports network who is forced to choose between
the security of his job and standing up against racial
prejudice. The judges praised the episode for “its witty
story of the courage it takes to jeopardize one’s security,
look evil in the eye, call it by its name and say ‘enough
Children’s Live-Action Category ($10,000):
“Degas and the Dancer,” The Artists’ Specials
(HBO), written by Heather Conkie. This story sketches
a chapter in the life of the French painter, Edgar Degas,
who finds unexpected artistic inspiration from an aspiring
young ballerina. It was cited for “not only illumining
the arduous process by which beauty is created but also
by giving its young viewers an experience of it.”
Children’s Animation Category ($10,000):
“Hand Me Downs,” Rugrats (Nickelodeon), written
by Richard Gitelson. It is a witty animated tale of a
brother learning the value of sharing old toys with his
baby brother. It was cited for “its whimsical depiction
of the infinite dignity of each individual, not because
of what that individual has, but because of who he or
she is, a dignity that is best expressed in generous sharing.”
Jack Wintz, O.F.M., is the editor of this publication
and author of Lights:
Revelations of God’s Goodness, an inspirational
book exploring the spirit of St. Francis in the context
of the author’s life journey.