[ back ]                   [ Act 1 ]

Author's notes on The Fourth Wiseman

I wrote The Fourth Wiseman during the second season of St. Elsewhere. The previous year, 1983, I had been nominated for the Humanitas Prize -- a St. Elsewhere script called "Rain" -- and I went to this awards luncheon, where I met the head honcho of the Humanitas, a Paulist priest named Ellwood "Bud" Kieser. I lost the award (and the $15,000 prize that went with it) to David Milch's brilliant Hill Street Blues script "Trial by Fury". But I had a nice meal and felt good mingling with my peers.

The next day, Kieser called to ask if I'd be interested in adapting Henry Van Dyke's "The Story of the Other Wise Man" into a teleplay. I was stunned: I had loved the story as a kid, but I had never written a MOW before and we were very, very behind on St. Elsewhere, since the entire writing staff consisted of John Masius, John Tinker and myself. I didn't know what to do. Kieser said he'd pray. I thought: "Pray? He's gonna pray to God for Tom Fontana to write a script? The man's insane!" And immediately said, "Okay, I'll do it."

In the original story, Artaban, the most brilliant Magi, sets out to see the newborn Christ along with the other three Magi, but he gets delayed, doing a corporal work of mercy, and gets left behind. By the time he reaches Bethlehem, Herod is already slaughtering the Innocents and, thus, Artaban starts a thirty year journey, searching for Jesus. The journey, in the Van Dyke version, is a solitary one.

My major contribution to the tale is the addition of Orontes, Artaban's slave, who is a mixture of Sancho Panza and Pseudolous. His presence in the piece gives Artaban someone to articulate his passions and desires to, as well as, hopefully, providing a needed dose of humor.

Father Kieser, Michael Rhodes (our director), and I struggled through several drafts to find the right tone for the film, a balance between homily and entertainment. Working with Father Kieser was, at times, frustrating and confusing, inspiring and joyous. No matter what, he always had more notes: "We can make this better!" We Catholics and our need for perfection.

ABC greenlit the project -- except they only wanted a one hour version. So, Father Kieser, being P.T. Barnum in a clerical collar, decided to shoot the entire teleplay, then cut down a version for ABC and keep the longer version for syndication/foreign/video sale.

Shooting began at the Warner Ranch, outside Los Angeles, with a great cast, including Martin Sheen (in his pre-presidential days), Alan Arkin (in his pre-judicial days), Ralph Bellamy and Eileen Brennan. Harold Gould, Adam Arkin and Charlie Sheen also appeared, in uncredited cameo roles. Father Kieser paid the actors SAG minimum and then made them donate their salaries back to the Church.

The production turned out well, the reviews and ratings were good. And, in writing the script, I had burned off some time in Purgatory.

In 1999, Father Kieser called and asked if I was interested in writing a teleplay about the relationship between Judas and Jesus. Once again I was too busy, once again he said he'd pray -- I knew I was doomed. I mean, it wasn't fair: I couldn't pray and say "God, please make Father Kieser leave me alone." I again said, "Okay, I'll do it."

On a Monday in June of 2000, Father Kieser gave me notes on a draft of Judas. The next day, he went into a coma. A week later he died.

I thought the project might die, too, but Kieser's successor, Father Frank Desiderio, was adamant that we keep going.

Sometime this season, Judas will air on ABC. I don't care about the reviews or the ratings. I just hope Father Kieser is up in Heaven, watching. And I hope to hell he doesn't have more notes.


"The Story of the Other Wise Man" by Henry Van Dyke was originally written in 1895.

The version I based the adaptation on was published in 1920 by Harper and Brothers Publishers.

Years after I finished the teleplay, I stumbled upon two different stage adaptations.

The first script, "The Other Wise Man" was dramatized by Van Dyke himself, published in 1927 by Harper and Brothers.

The second version, "Christ’s Comet" was written by Christopher Hassall, published by Harcourt, Brace and Company in 1938.

Since I found all three in used bookstores, I am assuming they are all out of print.

Someday, I will do my own stage adaptation, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.