In the video above, for the first time, the St. Elsewhere credit sequence, set to Oscar-winning composer Dave Grusin’s memorable and infectious theme, unites all 26 regular cast members who graced its opening credits for varying lengths of time, ranging from a single season to its entire six-year NBC run, which began 30 years ago tonight. G.W. Bailey’s psychiatrist Hugh Beale never actually passed resident Seth Griffin (Bruce Greenwood) in the corridors of St. Eligius, but now Press Play has brought them together as fellow alumni of this groundbreaking, one-of-a-kind medical series. If the theme sounds different than you remember it, that’s because the original version of Grusin’s tune wouldn’t run long enough to squeeze in all the performers. On the occasion of the series’ pearl anniversary, I’ve been fortunate to speak with many of those who participated in making St. Elsewhere a show that tugged at your heart, tickled your funny bone, made your jaw drop at the chances it took and, ultimately, evolved into a program whose secret subject was television itself, camouflaged as a medical series–assuming that any of the stories contained in its 137 episodes actually happened at all, given the controversial series finale.
Premiering more than a year and a half after Steven Bochco’s Hill Street Blues changed television’s idea of what a cop show could be and brought a large ensemble to a prime time series, St. Elsewhere arrived from MTM Enterprises, the same company that made Hill Street. (MTM’s original pitch to NBC actually referred to St. Elsewhere as “Hill Street in a hospital.”) Created by Joshua Brand and John Falsey, developed by Mark Tinker and John Masius, and executive produced by the late Bruce Paltrow, St. Elsewhere didn’t have an easy birth. “The genesis of the show came from my oldest friend who was a resident at The Cleveland Clinic,” Brand said in a telephone interview. Like St. Eligius Hospital itself, which teetered on the brink of disaster throughout the series run, so did the show.
NBC wouldn’t agree to let St. Elsewhere begin production until the network saw 10 scripts for the show. Cancellation seemed possible at the end of every season. Production started on the pilot while Paltrow completed work directing the movie A Little Sex. Actor-director Lou Antonio began helming the first episode. To play Dr. Daniel Auschlander, who originally hailed from Vienna, the magnificent and amazing actor Norman Lloyd employed an Austrian accent. Additionally, the great actor Josef Sommer, especially memorable as the leader of the corrupt cops in Peter Weir’s Witness, portrayed Dr. Donald Westphall, and the wonderful David Paymer, whose body of work includes a subsequent Oscar nomination for Mr. Saturday Night, filmed scenes as Dr. Wayne Fiscus.
”When (Paltrow) got back and he saw the rushes, he didn’t like the look of the show at all, so he closed down. He fired the cinematographer. He put in a ceiling on the show so it wouldn’t look like Dr. Kildare – a sparkling hospital. We had to go to MTM to get permission to do that because they took quite a hit financially,” said William Daniels, who won two Emmys for playing chief of surgery Mark Craig. The changes extended further. Thomas Carter, who made his directing debut while playing Hayward on Paltrow’s previous series, The White Shadow, replaced Antonio in the director’s chair, and Sommer and Paymer’s roles were recast. “In the recasting, Ed Flanders came in. In Ed Flanders, you had one of the very best actors in America – one of the very best actors, underappreciated. There was none better than Ed Flanders,” Lloyd said. There were other changes as well, which Lloyd described: “They repainted the set to a color that was easier to take than the color that existed. In general, they changed everything. They decided that they didn’t want [Auschlander] to come from Vienna and [he became] a New York guy brought up in lower Manhattan. That saved the pilot, and the pilot came out very well indeed.”
Still, the production shutdown proved nerve-wracking for some, particularly the younger performers whose excitement at being cast turned into a fear of being fired. Cynthia Sikes, who played Dr. Annie Cavanero during the first three seasons, recalls, “A lot of us, we were sweating it out (thinking), ‘Are we going to get the axe?’ Because he didn’t tell us. He said, ‘We’ll see. We’re rethinking things.’ We thought, ‘Oh great.’ So we went from the high of ‘I got it! I got it’ to ‘Oh my God! I may not have it! I may not have it.’ It was a roller coaster, but I got to stay and that was good.” Terence Knox, who portrayed resident Peter White, whose character’s downward spiral began with adultery before ending in the third season with a literal bang, said, “I worked one day because I had one scene and then we shut down. I remember I heard there was going to be a shakeup in the cast. I was afraid I was going to get a call from Bruce Paltrow saying they were going to find somebody else for my role. I sat around for a couple of weeks, wondering what was going to happen and then my phone rings one night about 8:30 and the voice says, ‘This is Bruce Paltrow.’ I said, ‘Please Mr. Paltrow, don’t fire me. Give me a chance. I’ll get better.’ He just started laughing. ‘No no no. You’re fine. I just wanted to let you know we’re going back into production in another week.’ I started crying I was so relieved.’”
David Morse, who has accumulated quite a body of work since his days as Dr. Jack Morrison, still recalls exactly where he was when informed of the shutdown. “I remember being in The Sportsman’s Lodge when I got the call from Bruce saying for me not to worry, that he was happy with what I was doing, but they were going to shut down for awhile and retool, recast and think a little bit,” Morse said. “It’s a hard call to get, because even though we had only done a few days of shooting, you’ve already started to bond with that group of people, David Paymer especially. Josef Sommer was older, so we really didn’t have that kind of relationship, but you knew yourself that there already was a team coming together, and that was gone. It’s not easy to go through a kill patch with people. Obviously, good things came out of it—Howie (Mandel) or Ed Flanders, but . . . it’s not a great thing to go through for anybody. I’m sure it stung at the time, but (Sommer and Paymer have) both had pretty good careers.”
Even once the pilot resumed production, characters’ status remained very fluid, something that remained the case throughout the series’ run; some roles made a steady rise from the end credits to regular status, while other parts originally intended to be prominent slipped to “recurring” status, if not disappearing altogether. Many characters marked for an early exit or a limited appearance organically grew once Paltrow and his writers saw a spark of something in them, as was the case with both Ed Begley Jr.’s Dr. Victor Ehrlich and Daniels’ Dr. Craig, who was planned as a minor role.
“I had tried out for Terence Knox’s part, Dr. Peter White, and I didn’t get it. Instead of the regular part, the plum role that I wanted, Peter White, I got this other part, Ehrlich, that they merged with another character,” Begley said. “I thought, ‘Well, they threw me a bone, but I’ll make the best I can out of this part’ and Ehrlich turned out to be one of the best parts in the run of the show.” The role that Begley initially sought wasn’t supposed to last as long as Peter White did for Knox. Knox said, “They couldn’t decide what to do with me so they kept bringing me in for auditions . . . I got a call at my home from the casting director at NBC, Joel Thurm. He said, ‘They’re not sure what they’re gonna use you as, but they want to use you for something. Would you be interested in the part of Peter White?’ I said, ‘Sure, sure.’ He said, ‘Now, they’re probably gonna kill him off at the end of six episodes.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. I don’t care. I’ll take it. I’ll do anything.’ Originally he wasn’t supposed to be on that show very long because he was a screwup, you know, but that turned out to be a good storyline and they kept writing more stuff for me.”
The onscreen pairing of Daniels and Begley proved crucial to the expansion of both characters. “There was chemistry there. They liked the interplay between us, so there was a certain amount of humor between us,” Daniels said. Begley said, “My part was just in one or two episodes and then they said, ‘Well, we’d like you to do three.’ I was elated. Then they said, ‘We’d like you to do six.’ I was over the moon. Then very shortly thereafter, they made me a regular and I died and went to heaven.” Jennifer Savidge, whose character, Nurse Lucy Papandrao, would be Ehrlich’s wife by the show’s final season, started on the show as an unnamed, uncredited character in the pilot before rising to become one of the show’s most memorable characters. “That was due basically to Jeffrey Tambor, who was friends with the original director, Lou Antonio . . . He just called him and said you need to use this girl, and he just basically hired me for it, and I think I just went in and met him, and he said, ‘Here, we’ll give you something on it. It was a very small thing in the operating room. You couldn’t even see my face because I was behind the mask,” Savidge said.
The newest face to series television that first season wasn’t one you saw on the screen. Paltrow and his wife, actress Blythe Danner, brought to the show many friends and colleagues they had met while working at The Williamstown Theatre Festival each summer. One happened to be a struggling New York playwright named Tom Fontana. “I was a starving, unsuccessful playwright here in New York City when Bruce Paltrow plucked me from obscurity and said, ‘I’m doing this new medical show. You want to come to California and write one?’” Fontana said. “‘I said, ‘Sure.’ I was flat broke, even though I had sort of an attitude about television at the time. I didn’t sort of have an attitude—I definitely had an attitude about television. My income as a playwright for the previous year, which I believe was 1980, was three thousand dollars, all-in. When he said to me I could make 12 thousand dollars, which was Writers Guild minimum at the time, I thought, ‘Oh boy. I could live for four years off this St. Elsewhere money.” Fontana figured he’d write one episode, then return to New York with his payday and resume his playwriting career. “He had enormous patience, though he was brutal in his criticisms. He really sat me down and taught me. They asked me back to do a second script, then they asked me to be a story editor. Of course, being completely naïve, I said, ‘What’s a story editor?’” Fontana’s wife at the time, actress Sagan Lewis, also ended up with a small role on the show as Dr. Jackie Wade who, as in the case of Savidge, by the end of the series’ run, had ascended to the opening credits with the other regulars.
THE SHOW STARTS
“Donald, do you know what people call this place? Not St. Eligius. St. Elsewhere—a dumping ground—a place you wouldn’t want to send your mother-in-law.” – Dr. Mark Craig, “Pilot” (Written by Joshua Brand and John Falsey)
When St. Eligius officially opened its doors to the general public on Oct. 26, 1982, its initial slate of regulars consisted of Flanders, Bailey, Begley, Knox, Mandel, Morse, Sikes, and Daniels, as well as Christina Pickles (Head Nurse Helen Rosenthal), David Birney (Dr. Ben Samuels), Kavi Raz (Dr. Vijay Kochar, anesthesiologist) and a certain young actor, cast as first-year resident Philip Chandler, by the name of Denzel Washington. By the time the show ended its sixth and final season, only Begley, Daniels, Mandel, Morse, Pickles and Washington had held a spot in the opening credits from the pilot to “The Last One.” (Flanders departed memorably in the third episode of the sixth season, though he did return as a guest star for two more episodes that year.) As integral a part of the show as Lloyd’s Auschlander became, his character also had been marked for an early exit in the first season, introduced as an expert on diseases of the liver who found himself suffering from terminal liver cancer. Lloyd and Auschlander both proved too precious to let go.
The digital clock that would appear periodically in the corner of the screen read 9:03 p.m. at the beginning of that first episode. (Craig later references the new clocks he’s managed to acquire for the hospital, which are all supposed to say the same time.) The first recognizable face we see belongs to Eric Laneuville as Luther Hawkins, wheeling a maintenance cart and checking pay phones for loose change. Laneuville, another White Shadow alumnus, would also evolve with the show; he eventually made it to the opening credits and started a burgeoning directing career which continues to this day, as his character went from being a cleanup guy to studying to be a physician’s assistant. Characters came and went throughout the run. St. Elsewhere, despite some performers’ names listed beneath “starring” or “also starring” credits, truly worked as an ensemble. No one person stood out as the lead or the main character.
“I thought the star of the show was the actual St. Elsewhere, the building, the hospital,” Pickles said. “The story was really about the heart and soul of this extraordinary, crumbling, generous place, filled with people trying to do their best work against all odds. When we left the hospital and went to somebody’s home . . . I thought it was never as exciting as staying in those halls and corridors and nurses’ stations.” Looking back at the first season now—which is all most people in the U.S. can see, since 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment holds distribution rights to the MTM library and only released the first season on DVD or for streaming—the initial 22 episodes of St. Elsewhere come off as rather straight-forward by comparison with some of the more surrealistic and flat-out wacky aspects that came along in later years. ”The first season was sedate compared to the others,” Begley said. That first year definitely lifted medical dramas on television to a higher, more realistic level that separated it from past medical series such as Ben Casey or Marcus Welby. “Our intention was to make it feel real. That was pretty much our guiding principle,” Brand said, referring to himself and co-creator Falsey. “We got a lot of reviews from medical journals and doctors and it was very gratifying to see how they felt that it was by leaps and bounds that it was much more reflective of what reality was than what had been projected on television prior to that.”
At St. Eligius, patients didn’t always recover. According to Brand, “A lot of people seemed to have felt the first year was darker. Some people might have found it depressing. There was humor, but it was black humor for the most part. I think that Falsey and I were somewhat affectionately called Dr. Death and Mr. Depression because we didn’t think you were going on vacation or going to The Love Boat when you went into a hospital. There was sort of a high body count that first year.”
The laughs extended beyond dark comedy though, especially through the interplay between Craig and Ehrlich. Daniels and Begley’s chemistry rivaled that of any of the romantic pairings that the show created over the years. Those two actors together guaranteed gold, though both got to display more dramatic sides by themselves as well. Even though Birney’s Samuels departed after the first year, he also received his share of comedy and tragedy, including his memorable entrance in the pilot episode: Samuels, one of the hospital’s lotharios, finds that he’s contracted gonorrhea and proceeds to try to remember all the female staff members he has slept with, so he can advise them to be tested (he was a conscientious lothario). Samuels informs one nurse about his condition, only to learn that, though they did go out, he fell asleep and they didn’t have sex, befuddling him further. “That was such a funny way to start in the first show. That sense of comic bewilderment,” Birney said.
A lot of other characters provided a mix of humor and pathos over the years, especially that of Mandel’s Fiscus, which extended behind-the-scenes as well. “It was always very hard to work with Howie and Ed (Begley) because we would always start laughing, and Howie was a big practical joker,” said Stephen Furst, who appeared three times in the second season as medical student Elliot Axelrod before becoming a regular and a resident in the third season. Still, for all six years, the interplay between Begley and Daniels kept matters from becoming too dark. “He’s got a mean head butt,” Begley said, referring to Daniels in their first surgery scene as Craig and Ehrlich. “He nailed me pretty good and it got my attention. It was wonderful. It woke me up, which I think was the stated purpose.”
The first season focused more frequently on issues in health care, beyond diagnosis and treatment, than later years did (if memory serves—I’ve been deprived of access to the rest of seasons two through six since TVLand stopped airing reruns around 13 years ago). Keeping the hospital open and fighting administrative penny pinchers always remained issues on the series, but that first season also dealt more openly with scalpel jockeys, the high costs of fruitless tests, and doctors on the take. “We were sort of influenced by the Paddy Chayefsky movie The Hospital. I think the tone did shift, and I think it was probably the desire of a lot of people to have the tone be a little lighter and the surrealistic aspect of it might have been something that might or might not have been related to that,” Brand said. “I have a deeply emotional reaction to the idea of a St. Elsewhere because of the health care system in this country,” Pickles said. A British native and naturalized citizen, Pickles came to the U.S. in 1958, though her character Helen arrived in 1965, as we learned in the fourth season episode “Time Heals.” “If you go to England and you cut your finger," she said, "you’ll be taken care of automatically for no money. This country is absurdly behind the times, which creates awful stories of people waiting around in emergency rooms.”
The first season episode “Cora and Arnie” (story by Brand, Falsey and Neil Cuthbert; teleplay by Cuthbert; directed by Mark Tinker) stays with original viewers mainly due to the Emmy-winning performances by guest stars Doris Roberts and the late James Coco as a homeless couple who wander into the ER because of Cora’s various problems, which she doesn’t want to face because she’s mentally disabled Arnie’s sole protector. However, another storyline within that episode that I had forgotten until I rewatched it struck even more of a chord with me. Bernard Behrens and Anne Gerety portray a couple visiting Boston; the trip takes a strange turn when she passes out in their hotel room. As Fat Tony once said on The Simpsons, “It’s funny ‘cause it’s true” and we’ve made it the centerpiece of this montage.
As Brand says, “Thirty years on, the problems are still there. They’ve only become more pronounced. You’ve got a lot of very powerful groups that are sort of feeding at the trough. Nobody wants to give up their piece of the pie.” At the end of the first season, Brand and Falsey moved on from St. Elsewhere. The team would go on to create the short-lived but critically acclaimed and award-winning series A Year in the Life and I’ll Fly Away as well as another show involving a doctor–this one practicing in tiny Cicely, Alaska, in Northern Exposure. “There were a lot of chefs, and it just seemed like it was the best thing for everybody, for myself individually and for the show, to pack our bags and move on . . . There was the genesis of the show and how the show evolved,” Brand said. “At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do. Looking back, I think it was the right thing to do. Certainly, for me.”
In that first season, you can spot many up-and-coming actors such as Ray Liotta and Michael Madsen in small roles, and Tim Robbins in a multi-episode arc as a heartless sociopath turned domestic terrorist that Morse’s Jack Morrison had to treat, despite his misgivings. Robbins and Morse reunited years later in different capacities, when Robbins directed two episodes of Morse’s current series, Treme on HBO. “[Robbins’s role was] certainly one of the most memorable characters that I got to work with on that show, but I don’t know if it was because of what Tim became after that or how vivid a character that really was. Probably a combination,” Morse said.
The top-notch writing soon attracted many big name performers—some of whom rarely did television—to check in to St. Eligius. “The writing was so strong that very good actors who were not on the show would request to be on the show because they knew they’d get very good scenes to play,” Daniels said. In the second season premiere, two of them memorably came crashing literally through the emergency room as Alan Arkin (as Jerry Singleton) plowed his car through the hospital walls after his wife Fran (Emmy nominee Piper Laurie) suffered a stroke. Laurie, who last year published her memoir Learning to Live Out Loud to much critical acclaim and success, had known Arkin for years but never worked with him before St. Elsewhere. “With Alan Arkin, it was really exciting because I’d never worked with an actor on film who had such freedom in terms of the actual dialogue,” Laurie said. “He just took it. I never quite knew what he was going to say. It was an interesting and exhilarating experience for me.”
Morse’s Jack not only treated Laurie’s character, years later she would play his mother in the films The Crossing Guard and Hound Dog. Patricia Wettig, who eventually played Jack’s second wife on St. Elsewhere, also crossed acting paths with Morse frequently, which is what the actor says is one of the things he loves best about his job. “I worked with Alan Arkin and since then, I’ve become friends with Adam, his son. I’ve worked with everybody in his family at one point or another over the years. Working with Patty (Wettig) over the years, working with Piper Laurie over the years—this just happens with more and more actors and it’s one of the things I really, really love about this business, if you’re lucky enough to keep working, is just touching on these people’s lives over the course of a lot of years,” Morse said. “To me, there’s something very touching about it and very gratifying to have these connections. At one time, it feels just like we have a job together and ‘See you later,’ then 15 years later, you’re doing something together again. Like I said, it’s one of those things that really means something to me.”
(Special thanks to Daniel Butterfield of The St. Elsewhere Experience.)