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The Humanitas Prize:
Encouraging Hollywood's Best

The Humanitas Prize
Photo by Ron Rack

 

 

Launched by a Catholic priest 25 years ago, the Humanitas Prize has encouraged Hollywood writers to explore the best instincts of the human spirit.

By Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

 

 
 
The Impact of the Prize

 The Humanitas Prize: Its Origin and Aim

 Humanitas Keeps Growing

 Where Does Humanitas Go From Here? Violence Tops the Agenda

 Other Winners of the 1999 Humanitas Prize

 

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 Delaney).

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 $25,000 award.

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 journey home.’”

(Full information on the other 1999 Humanitas Prize winners is found at the end of this article.)

The 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 yet.

“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 hand.”

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 the races.

The 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 dignity.

“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.

Father Ellwood 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.”

Humanitas Keeps Growing

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 person.”

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.”

 

Where 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 years ahead.

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 streets.

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 violence.

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 attention?...

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.

Other 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 Universal Studios
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 is 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.

 

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