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Humanitas Prize eyes ‘Mash’ writer

Kieser Award: Larry Gelbart

What: Humanitas Prize
When: Noon, June 26
Where: Hilton Universal Hotel, Los Angeles
Who: 28 finalists in eight categories; $145,000 prize money

For all the good work the Humanitas Prize has engendered over the past three decades, 2007 may go down as the year it finally entered the cultural lexicon. Of course, that entry may be tainted with the mispronunciation — hu-man-EYE-tas — given it by Christopher Moltisanti, seconds before he uses the statuette to bludgeon screenwriter J.T. Dolan in an episode of “The Sopranos” this year.

But the Humanitas Prize dates back to 1974, when it was established by Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser, a Paulist priest who produced the long-running syndicated religious series “Insight.” In both his life and work, Kieser embodied a fierce brand of Catholic activism, as evidenced in his feature films “Romero” and “Entertaining Angels,” about Catholic lay worker Dorothy Day.

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The Humanitas Prize org extended that advocacy to Hollywood’s downtrodden: Since its inception, it has disseminated more than $2.8 million to writers of feature films (including a Sundance category), children’s programming and television, as well as a comedy fellowship.

This year, Humanitas’ Kieser Award, launched after Kieser’s death in 2000, will be presented to Larry Gelbart, co-creator of “MASH,” screenwriter of “Tootsie” and “Oh, God!” and book author of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” on Broadway. “MASH” remains the most-honored series by Humanitas, having won four separate awards, and Gelbart himself was singled out for “The Interview,” a 1976 episode structured as an Edward R. Murrow-style documentary.

“Well, I know it’s prestigious,” Gelbart says of the award. “It certainly came out of the blue, which is where the best awards come from. I guess they picked me because I lived long enough.”

In addition to his credits, Gelbart is being honored as a “passionate advocate for writers.” The latter he credits to his work with the Writers Guild, which he sums up in one word: “Gratis.”

“I go back farther than my back can bend these days,” says Gelbart. “I think I was a member of the Radio Writers Guild, if you can believe that. I’m one of the old old-timers.”

Frank Desiderio, president of the Humanitas Prize, believes that Gelbart is a practitioner of a lost art.

“Here we are in 2007 in an undeclared war halfway around the world that’s unpopular,” Desiderio says, “and it just doesn’t seem to be much of an issue (on television). … And here were these guys during the Vietnam War who were writing this 30-minute show, which was supposed to be a comedy, but really took things seriously and had well-developed characters and attacked significant storylines.”

On this latest fortuitous confluence of Catholic activism, his own particular strain of Jewish liberalism and the time-honored defense of writers, Gelbart is succinct:

“In the beginning there was the word, not the close-up.”

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