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Returning to St. Eligius: ST. ELSEWHERE, 30 Years Later, Part 3

Returning to St. Eligius: ST. ELSEWHERE, 30 Years Later, Part 3

Even more than 24 years after that final episode of St. Elsewhere aired, dividing viewers and cast members on its meaning and whether or not someone had yanked a rug from beneath their feet in some way, it was foolhardy to think I’d pull off an appropriate anniversary tribute to the show in a single installment, even without access to about 82% of the episodes. Too many memories. Too much material. Too many characters. Once this concluding chapter ends, it still will feel incomplete, knowing how much I omitted. On the other hand, fortune allowed this tribute to stretch to today, so my necessary and welcome salute to Norman Lloyd falls on this astounding artist’s 98th birthday.

Welles. Dassin. Hitchcock. Milestone. Renoir. Chaplin. Weir. Scorsese. Those just include directors he's worked with (though several acted as well). He’s also been a director and producer himself. That list doesn’t include his co-stars on stage, screen and television. Lloyd appeared with Jane Wyatt in Milestone’s 1948 comedy No Minor Vices and later directed and became good friends with the actress before she eventually turned up as Katherine Auschlander on six episodes of St. Elsewhere, beginning in the second season. On both Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock  Hour, he produced installments featuring Geraldine Fitzgerald, who would turn up twice at St. Eligius as Dr. Daniel Auschlander’s former lover, who bore him a son he never knew he had. From here on out, I’ll be able to say that for about 25 minutes, I spoke with a man who worked with them all. The purpose of my call was to discuss the 30th anniversary of St. Elsewhere and his role as Auschlander, but I desperately wanted to say to him, “Let’s start with the Mercury Theater and work our way up.” Unfortunately, we couldn’t – he’s too busy. He just finished a role in the movie A Place for Heroes that filmed in Iowa, and he says there’s another film he’d like to make but it needs financing. Two years ago, it was a great surprise to see him pop up on an episode of Modern Family. “That was great fun,” he said. This year marks many significant career anniversaries: the 80th anniversary of his Broadway debut with Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre, the 70th anniversary of his film debut in Hitchcock’s Saboteur and the 60th anniversary of Chaplin’s Limelight. I hope none of the other talented people I interviewed take this as a slight, but of everyone I spoke with, Lloyd retains the best memory. “He can tell you what he paid for taxes in 1937,” Tom Fontana told me, and part of me doubts he was joking. “That’s what’s so astonishing about Norman. The stories he will tell. He doesn’t forget anything,” Blythe Danner said. “People half his age or not quite, but who have known him that long, never, ever could hold a candle to that mind.” To think that when the character of Auschlander appeared in the first episode, the plan had him dying of liver cancer by the fourth show instead of being felled by a massive stroke 136 episodes later. Jennifer Savidge shared the story of what Danner told her late husband, Executive Producer Bruce Paltrow, about Lloyd and his role. “(Danner said) ‘Don’t let him die, he’s too good a character on the show’ and so they kept him alive,” Savidge said. Savidge is married to the actor Robert Fuller, best known to me for playing Dr. Kelly Brackett of Rampart Hospital on Emergency! and for teaching me the first medical term I memorized, “Start an IV D5W with ringer’s lactate.” Don’t know what the hell it means (well, I do now), but I’ve had it memorized for about 35 years now. “Bob and I used to, after (St. Elsewhere) was over, have dinner with him and his wife, who we adored. There was a man on the set named Eric Harrison, one of the dressers on the show, and he was actually the dresser for Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. He had these amazing stories,” Savidge said. “He would have a dinner party once a month, and invite all these people like Vincent Price and Coral Browne, and all these other actors. There was just a great group of characters that would be there. And Norman would be there, and he always had these fantastic stories. He had such a wealth of different experience behind him in different areas. It was just wonderful to work with him.” Lloyd’s wife, Peggy Craven Lloyd, passed away last year at 98. The Lloyds had been married for 75 years, which many believe sets the record for their business.

Both scenes from St. Elsewhere in the package above came from the show’s sixth and final season, the focus of this final post after a couple of brief side trips, such as this look at Lloyd who, in the course of one season, soars out of rubble in a superhero’s costume and resumes his normal duties at director of education at St. Eligius. The previous season had ended with a true cliffhanger. The hospital had been closed, the patients transferred, the staff fired and the building slated for demolition. At the last minute, Auschlander’s cancer kicked in and Westphall (Ed Flanders) and Luther (Eric Laneuville) set him up in the empty St. Eligius until he stabilized enough to be moved. Luther fell asleep on the job and a disoriented Auschlander began wandering the halls, looking for his toys, until he saw the wrecking ball heading toward the window. The season ended with the tool of destruction about to pulverize both St. Eligius and Auschlander. According to an article by Monica Collins in the May 27, 1987, edition of USA Today, Arthur Price, who headed MTM Enterprises at the time, asked Fontana and John Masius, who co-wrote the script, “How do we get out of this?” Of course, both the building and Auschlander survived, but I have a feeling that either Lloyd or Auschlander would have made it out anyway.

Ronny Cox joined the St. Elsewhere ensemble in its final year as Dr. John Gideon, put in charge of St. Eligius by the corporate HMO Ecumena that bought the hospital. “(Lloyd) is an amazing man,” Cox said, recalling how fun it was to play tennis and hang out with him. Cox marks a significant anniversary of his own in 2012: the 40th anniversary of the film Deliverance, which Cox chronicled in the book Duelin’ Banjos: The Deliverance of Drew released earlier this year. (We interrupt this tribute to St. Elsewhere because an injunction has been sought against the remainder of this paragraph by the real health insurance conglomerate Humana, which fears that the mention of the name of St. Elsewhere’s fictional Ecumena might tarnish the reputations of HMOs and health insurance companies with reminders of the way St. Elsewhere represented its industry. Lucky that Humana and its business brethren dodged that bullet with its 1987 lawsuits, huh?) While Humana did not succeed in getting the episodes with the Ecumena name taken off the air, as the company sought, they succeeded in forcing St. Elsewhere to carry a disclaimer in every episode, reminiscent of when NBC aired the network premiere of The Godfather and had to assure audiences that not all Italian Americans cut off horses’ heads and put them in the beds of Hollywood producers. (That’s something people  from any ethnic background should aspire to do. I kid—I love horses.)  Ecumena eventually became Weigert, which happens to be the maiden name of Bruce Paltrow’s mother. True to the show’s style, when the change occurred, the Ecumena sign crashed to the ground, and at the end of the episode “A Couple White Dummies Sitting Around Talking,” Ed Begley Jr.’s Ehrlich doll (go back and read this page of Part 2 if that puzzles you) comments, “You know, I’m glad the company has to change its name. Ecumena always sounded like a disease, a rash, a growth. He was disfigured by a severe case of Ecumena.” Nancy Stafford, whose character of Joan Halloran began as the city’s bean counter for St. Eligius before becoming Auschlander’s assistant during the nurses’ strike, wasn’t surprised to learn about Lloyd’s power of recall. “Norman is scary. The guy is absolutely brilliant and totally charming and sharp as a tack, and the nicest man on the earth,” Stafford said.

Part of Lloyd’s gifts includes sharing stories of his incredible career with audiences, though many of the cast members and guest stars got to hear the tales for free. “Norman Lloyd, I just love dearly. He and Peggy were such mentors to me. They were from that era of old Hollywood,” said Cynthia Sikes, Dr. Annie Cavanero for the first three seasons. "He always had the best stories about Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock. I could just sit enthralled by his stories. Every time we worked, I’d always say, ‘Norman, what else? Tell me another story.’ He was so fascinating and always so supportive of me. He’s a walking history book.” Edward Herrmann got to work closely with Lloyd during the three episodes in which he appeared as St. Eligius’ founder, Father Joseph McCabe. “He’s a walking encyclopedia with the stuff he’s done. He’s been at it since he was knee-high to a grasshopper and he’s worked with some of the most extraordinary people,” Herrmann said. “I had so much fun talking with him on the set because he’s worked with so many famous people and has so many wonderful stories and is such a generous fellow.”

Sagan Lewis, who played Dr. Jackie Wade for all six seasons, found Lloyd’s verbal memoirs just as remarkable. “I loved working with Norman Lloyd! He was always so complimentary, sensitive and such a pro. A true inspiration. I was enthralled with his stories of Brecht, Orson Welles and John Houseman. What a life!” Lewis said. Cindy Pickett, who joined the St. Eligius staff at the end of the fourth season as former-nurse-turned-resident Carol Novino, saw Lloyd demonstrate the way he tells his tales to a public audience. “I went to see a show of his. He did nothing but tell stories about his life. He's a good storyteller. He's a real gentleman,” Pickett said. Channing Gibson, who began his association with St. Elsewhere as a freelance writer and ended it as the main writer-producer alongside John Tinker in its final season, doles out praise for the show’s elder statesman as well. “He’s a miracle. That guy is something else, and what a pleasure to work with,” Gibson said. “I love him in A Walk in the Sun, Lewis Milestone’s World War II movie.”

Ever since Press Play’s co-founder Matt Zoller Seitz reviewed the documentary Who Is Norman Lloyd? for The New York Times back in 2007, I’ve longed to see the film, but it never played near me or received a DVD release. Now I know why. “The picture hasn’t played because the people who had it made did everything except get the rights to the film clips,” Lloyd told me. “When it came time to get the rights to those, the costs were so prohibitive that they couldn’t release the picture. It’s a very good documentary, if you can ever see it anywhere.” Sigh . . . if only I could. Commerce trumps culture again. “Welcome to the modern age of releases of anything,” said Mark Tinker, who co-developed St. Elsewhere, as well as serving in practically every other key behind-the-scenes position at some point on the show.

“I would say that St. Elsewhere was a success for three reasons: 1. It was well produced; 2. It was written beautifully; and 3. It was cast very strongly with very good actors.”  – William Daniels

REASON NO. 1

Paltrow, in his role as executive producer, made the crucial decision, at great cost to MTM, to stop the pilot mid-production and then start over. Were it not for those decisions, who knows what type of St. Elsewhere viewers might have seen? Granted, 10 scripts had been written before NBC gave the series the green light, so the characters and situations for the first season likely would have played out the same, but the sets and the new style of filming for television might not have been as groundbreaking. “Bruce had an extraordinary vision,” said Christina Pickles, who played Nurse Helen Rosenthal for all six seasons. Since Paltrow also observed the qualities of people originally set for small roles, Ed Begley Jr.’s Victor Ehrlich grew from a one-show part to a six-year mainstay, and Daniels’ lesser role of chief of surgery Mark Craig rose to prominence. A minor character such as Savidge’s Nurse Lucy Papandrao caught Paltrow’s eye in an early scene, and by the end of the show’s run, Lucy had become one of the most memorable characters. Originally given a death sentence set for the fourth episode, Terence Knox’s resident Peter White became too interesting a character not to keep writing material for Knox to play—until they wrote White into a corner by making him a rapist, at which point they had to kill him off. “Bruce Paltrow was one of the finest men I’ve ever met. To him, I’m most indebted on this planet,” Knox said. Danner said, “I’ve had this message from so many people. It’s just extraordinary. Bruce changed so many lives. I think the thing he was proudest of was his Diversity Award from the Directors Guild, for helping minorities and women in our business.” 

Paltrow’s shepherding of the show through its six seasons allowed issues outside the medical realm to sneak into the halls of St. Eligius, much as his previous series, The White Shadow, covered much more than the win-loss record of an inner-city high school basketball team. “They were so ahead of their time with so many things, as was The White Shadow in talking about STDs and birth control,” Danner said. “Bruce was fighting the network all the time about what could be said and couldn’t be said.” In fact, three of the regulars on The White Shadow who portrayed players on the South Central Los Angeles Carver High School team, two of them African Americans, turned to directing careers. One, Thomas Carter, directed for the first time on St. Elsewhere. He directed the pilot and has since won three Emmys for drama series direction. Kevin Hooks made his helming debut in the second season of St. Elsewhere and is an executive producer of the current series Last Resort. Timothy Van Patten stayed with acting longer—even appearing on an episode of St. Elsewhere—then made his directing debut on Paltrow’s short-lived series Home Fires. Van Patten won the Emmy for directing in a drama series in September for Boardwalk Empire’s second season finale. Many of the members of the behind-the-scenes team on The White Shadow followed Paltrow on to St. Elsewhere. Joshua Brand & John Falsey wrote a dozen episodes. Mark Tinker wrote three episodes, directed 10, and served as a producer. Victor Lobl helmed 16. John Masius wrote three episodes and worked as a coordinating producer in the final season. Even Jackie Cooper, the 1955 incarnation of Mark Craig’s mentor Dr. Domedion in “Time Heals, Part 2,” directed five episodes. The most interesting connection between the two series is how St. Elsewhere managed to continue a character’s story almost in the background. Byron Stewart starred on The White Shadow as one of Carver High’s main stars, Warren Coolidge, already the target of pro scouts before he graduated. Somehow, between the last episode airing March 15, 1981, and May 16, 1984, the airdate of the last episode of St. Elsewhere’s second season, Coolidge appeared as an orderly at Boston’s St. Eligius. We heard hints of an injury ending his career, but how he got to Boston from L.A., I don’t know—unless perhaps he briefly attended college at his high school coach’s alma mater, Boston College. The clip below shows Warren the rising star and Warren the orderly.

While Paltrow’s primary responsibility on St. Elsewhere was as its executive producer, he also co-wrote two episodes, including the finale; provided the story for another; and directed 15 episodes. Danner also said that he often took their son, Jake, to the set. He was 7 when the show premiered and 12 when it ended; he himself directs now. “He used to go into the editorial room with Bruce and say that was a better take than that one, and Bruce said it was amazing that he was always right,” Danner said. Paltrow, as many of the actors said about the writing staff, took things from the performers’ real lives and inserted them into the show. “Bruce Paltrow said to me, ‘It’s so unhealthy to be overweight. Why don’t you lose weight?’” said Stephen Furst, whose character of Dr. Elliot Axelrod died in the final season’s 19th episode following emergency heart surgery. “I said, ‘First of all, that’s easier said than done. It’s an addiction just like alcohol. The thing with alcoholism is the cure is to stop cold turkey. You don’t want to tempt yourself with one glass of wine a day. With eating, you have to eat to stay alive, and three times a day we get tempted.’ About four weeks later, I have a scene with an alcoholic in the hospital where I tell him, ‘Why don’t you stop drinking?’ and he says, ‘Why don’t you stop eating?’ and I say, ‘I have to eat to stay alive. You don’t have to drink to stay alive.’ Art imitates life.” Furst’s praise extends to some of the other writers as well. “Paltrow was great. Tom Fontana was fantastic. John Tinker was fantastic,” Furst said.

Bruce Paltrow died Oct. 3, 2002, of pneumonia and a recurrence of throat cancer. He was 58.

REASON NO. 2

“The writers were very good about wandering around on the set and just picking up dialogue from people and getting ideas about relationships from the ways the actors were actually interacting off camera,” Savidge recalled when asked whether she enjoyed fighting more as Lucy with Pickles’ Helen or Begley’s Ehrlich. It wasn’t a contest. “Begley and I sort of had that relationship on the set, off screen, and so that was developed, not the romantic side of it, but just the barbs and the conversations we would have. It was out of a good friendship, so I was delighted that that storyline was developed.” Time and time again, as I spoke with the actors from St. Elsewhere, not only did they point to the writing as the key to the show’s quality, nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned how the scribes liked to take things overheard or observed when performers weren’t in character. “We had wonderful writing. We were so blessed to have that good writing,” Bonnie Bartlett said, referring to the scenes between Ellen and Mark Craig that she and her husband of 51 years, Williams Daniels, played. “They picked up on a lot of stuff between Bill and me that was real, and they stuck it in there. It was so much fun.”

”The way those scripts developed was, we would all do something, then we’d put it all together and then we would help each other rewrite it,” Fontana said about the teleplay for the sixth season’s best episode and one of the finest in the series’ run, “Weigh In, Way Out.” “I could say I wrote that segment, but I couldn’t tell you every word of it was mine, any more than Channing would say that every word of his was in the script.” The teleplay by Fontana, Gibson, and John Tinker, and directed by Mark Tinker, who won an Emmy for his work, was a departure for the series. Each of the four acts of the episode stood alone, almost as short stories, instead of cutting between the characters and plots as in a more typical installment. “I was given good material and I didn’t drop the ball. That’s what you’ve got to do. Honor the material,” Mark Tinker said. The four stories told in “Weigh In, Way Out” concerned Fiscus' plan to pull one last big prank on Gideon before his thirtieth birthday. “There’s some really incredible writing that was going on in that show,” said Ronny Cox, who played the victim of Fiscus’ tomfoolery. In another story, Jack Morrison (David Morse) and Novino raced to be the doctor who delivered the 100,000th baby born at St. Eligius. “(Fontana) was the best,” Pickett said. In the third story, Craig decided to put on boxing gloves for the first time in a long time and do some sparring in the boxing ring. The final story provided the most power of the episode and gave Savidge her some of her most tender moments of the series as Lucy as she “walked” a dying veteran (played by the late, great longtime character actor Charles Lane, who just died in 2007 at the age of 102) down the Freedom Trail a final time. “(Lane) was such a lovely, lovely man. It took a long time to shoot that because he was having some memory issues with the lines, but Mark Tinker directed that, and he was very patient,” Savidge said. “It was very moving for me because my grandfather had recently passed away. It was tough, being there in the scene and watching this man go down memory lane. Helping him through the dying process was very touching and moving for me as a person, to be able to act something like that.”  

Gibson admits that with the way the writing process worked on the show, “It’s very hard for us to remember specific episodes that we wrote.” When he served as a story editor, the process, as he described it, meant rewriting scripts penned by freelancers, not because they were bad but because things might have changed in terms of story or character nuance that an outside scribe couldn’t possibly know. At the same time, he’d be writing or co-writing his own teleplay. Once he cleaned up the freelancer’s work—and Writers Guild regulations at the time required that a certain number of scripts a year be written by freelancers—he’d send it up to producers Fontana and John Masius who would do their own drafts before publishing the script. It involved “long hours,” Gibson said. He actually left the television business a long time ago and then made a living as a script doctor for movies. He and his family moved to Western Massachusetts three years ago, and Gibson says he hasn’t written anything since. “I haven’t ever considered myself retired, but you wouldn’t know it from following me around,” Gibson said.

Though Mark Tinker wrote on St. Elsewhere and The White Shadow, those two series offer the only credited examples of his work as an author, as he’s concentrated since then on producing and directing. I asked if he misses writing. “I do to a degree but what happened with me was that when you’re working with so many people that are so much better than you, you eventually look for other avenues to try to be your creative best,” Tinker replied. “With guys around me like Bruce and Tom and (Steven) Bochco and David Milch—it became pretty clear to me that I wanted to concentrate on the directing and not the writing.” As William Daniels cited three reasons for the success of St. Elsewhere, Tinker offered three of his own, explaining how the writers penned such good, often off-the-wall material. “The writers on our show A) were smart; B) were creative; and C) may have taken a fair amount of illicit substances in their previous years,” he said. Of course, as great as those words could be to speak, the cast also knew that some lines should be not crossed. “As a team, what they wrote was just extraordinary. I was once saying something about something that I didn't like—I won't go into that—it was something that I was feeling uncomfortable about. [Other cast members] said, ‘Well you can go in and tell them but they might fire you,’" Pickett said. "I said, ‘Well, but I need to talk with them about it.’ Of course, I thought, ‘Well, whatever.’ I went in to talk to them and they changed it for me. I guess maybe it was the way I approached it. There are many stories about people that came and went there. The writers did enjoy watching us go through what we went through as the characters. It was a real family. It was probably the best, most consistently fun job I think I've ever had. Certainly on television.” Sagan Lewis, who was married to Fontana during the show’s entire run, acknowledged some skittishness at times in the cast. “There was a very clear awareness that these writers were unique, radical and (yes, I'll say it, eccentrically brilliant),” Lewis said. “The Emmy nominations in those years reflected that the writing was groundbreaking. I'm sure no one relished the idea of making a fuss when some of the material seemed over the top.”

When Fontana and Masius departed in the sixth season, missing New York played a big part for Fontana. “I decided that I wanted to come home, and I was writing the show, and I was going back and forth. I just wasn’t doing the day-to-day—I think my title was creative consultant or something like that on the last season—but I was still involved in the script work, and all the story beats, and all the actual scripts, but I just didn’t want to be in L.A. full-time anymore,” Fontana said. “Again, Bruce was very generous to me in letting me write my own job description. Plus, it was time for Channing and John Tinker to step up. They were ready creatively to take over the show. You can only hold talented people down for so long and then you have to give them their opportunity.”

Norman Lloyd certainly has worked with many of the best writers in his long career, so you have to accept this assessment with some authority: “The writing was vastly superior to almost anything that was on the air. It’s one of the great shows. It was an important show . . . St. Elsewhere was one of the great shows in the history of television.”

REASON NO. 3

Only one member of the original St. Elsewhere ensemble truly turned into a superstar—he's in a hit movie, Flight, in theaters now. Denzel Washington, despite his burgeoning career, honored his commitment to the series, only exiting his role as Dr. Philip Chandler one episode early in the sixth season. Washington scored his first Oscar nomination for supporting actor (for Cry Freedom) before St. Elsewhere left the air. A little more than a year later, Glory opened, winning Washington an Oscar for supporting actor. He received three more Oscar nominations, all for lead actor, winning for the most recent, Training Day, in 2001. In 2010, he won the Tony for best actor in a play for his first Broadway stint in the revival of August Wilson’s Fences. He only has two Emmy nominations and both come for producing, directing and/or writing documentaries. “When (Paltrow) died, Denzel Washington gave him such a great tribute. Bruce did something that no producer would do—and I know from experience,” Danner said. “St. Elsewhere was a big enough cast, luckily, that he could arrange for some actors to disappear for awhile. He allowed Denzel to leave for every single movie he was offered during those six years. He just didn’t want to hold anyone back.” While Washington always gave a good performance, a lot of the time it seemed as if the show didn’t know quite how to use his character. The most story he got was in the last few years, when Alfre Woodard joined the cast as a semi-regular in the role of ob-gyn Dr. Roxanne Turner, and she and Chandler shared a stormy romance because she hailed from the Deep South and Chandler carried a bit of elitism within him. “I have so many great memories of Denzel and how much fun he was to work with,” Pickett said, referring to the off-screen camaraderie she shared with Washington. Edward Herrmann, who met most of the modern-era cast members when he returned as the aged Father Joseph McCabe, suffering from ALS, in the fifth season episode “Where There’s Hope, There’s Crosby,” recalls a moment with Washington. “I remember him coming up, very respectful. He walked up and gave me a compliment, and I said, ‘Oh, thank you very much. Your work is terrific,’ and he walked away,” Herrmann said. “That was the only interaction I’ve ever had with Denzel. In retrospect, I wish I had gone over to try to establish a relationship, obviously for selfish reasons since he’s so successful. I love his work. Bruce really put together a cast of terrific players and it shows. I’m very, very proud of that show.” When it came time for Chandler’s exit from the series, it involved the surprise return of Dr. Turner who talked him into leaving with her. Chandler not only decided to do that—he decides to give up medicine as well. Washington himself has practically given up playing physicians, only playing a doctor once since the end of St. Elsewhere—and he played a psychiatrist in Antwone Fisher, which he also directed.

The youngest actor from the St. Elsewhere cast, Chad Allen, who played Donald Westphall’s autistic son Tommy, has decided to step away from acting. “When you’ve been an actor your whole life since you were 5 years old, and it’s something that’s a deep part of who you are, it’ll probably never go away completely,” Allen, 38, admits. “I had some other dreams. I never went to college and that was a dream, so I stopped at least long enough to pursue that dream and see what else I’m good at. We’ll see what happens. I have a toe in still. There are people talking to me about a couple projects, but I really want to finish school. That’s a goal of mine.” For the cast members who have had longer careers, they find it easier to take breaks. “That was such a wonderful show, such a wonderful ensemble cast. It was just a joy going to work every day,” Cox said. “These days—and I’m not trying to be cavalier about this—I know how difficult it is for actors to get jobs these days. Truthfully, I turn down about 90 percent of the jobs I’m offered. The acting jobs have to be something I’m really interested in doing and something I can fit in around my musical schedule.” Bartlett and Daniels understand Cox’s position, admitting they’re lucky to have found success early in their careers. “We’re fortunate, in that we can say no if it’s terrible,” Bartlett said.

Stafford regretted having to leave St. Elsewhere, but she realized her character didn’t have much of a purpose once Joan broke up with Mark Harmon’s Bobby Caldwell, and he ultimately left the show in such a dramatic fashion. “I didn't choose to leave. I was sorry to leave. I wish I'd been able to stay longer, but I think so much of my storylines centered around Mark—and that relationship. It didn't make as much sense for me to still be there, but they were great years,” she said. “We were lucky to work with such great people,” Pickles said, not only about her castmates but the many guest stars that passed through, such as Dick Shawn as one of her ex-husbands and Herb Edelman, as a strike mediator that Helen ends up having an affair with while still married. Savidge explained why fighting with Pickles didn’t provide the fun that sparring with Begley did. “Christina was a good friend of mine during those years. We’ve lost touch but . . . it was a little more difficult, just not as much fun to fight against her, although we really enjoyed working together,” Savidge said, mentioning a scene where Helen slaps Lucy during her drug addiction. “I make some comment about a hormonal mood thing she’s going through, and she hauls off and whacks me one across the face. I think that was hard for both of us, because we were good friends and it was just a little difficult, but we did it, and we did enjoy that relationship too.” Despite the dark turn his character of Peter White eventually took, Terence Knox still values his time on the show. “There is a certain amount of accumulated time in front of a camera that is irreplaceable for an actor learning how to do it. [The show] gave me time in front of a camera to get relaxed and to feel and to actually be, to do what I could do on stage, or in an acting class. In front of a camera, it’s a little different. You have to learn to pinch that in between 'action' and 'cut,'” Knox said. “It’s a different technique. Some people come to it naturally, some don’t. I needed a certain amount of time in front of a camera, and St. Elsewhere gave me that time. I owe them that and I’ll never forget them for that. It was a great experience. I have nothing but fond feelings for the good people of St. Elsewhere. To top that off, I went to work knowing I was part of the best damn show on television.”

THIS IS THE END/BEAUTIFUL FRIEND

This is the end
My only friend, the end
It hurts to set you free
But you'll never follow me
The end of laughter and soft lies
The end of nights we tried to die
This is the end

What an ending it turned out to be. “The Last One,” with a story credited to Fontana, Gibson and John Tinker and a teleplay credited to Paltrow and Mark Tinker, despite an even higher number of references than usual, appeared to be a relatively normal finale—until those final moments that arguably created the most debated series ending until David Chase wrapped The Sopranos more than 22 years later. Now, the lyrics of The Doors’ The End doesn’t exactly match the conclusion St. Elsewhere came up with, though preceding The Beatles’ short track The End on side two of Abbey Road is the lyric “Are you gonna be in my dreams tonight?” Then again, Tommy Westphall wasn’t dreaming—he apparently was imagining everything that transpired on the show prior to those final moments. Then again, maybe it’s like others argue, that the entire series actually happened, and only that final scene takes place in Tommy’s head as he stares out the window, realizing that Dr. Auschlander has died and imagining a different world away from hospitals where the kindly older doctor was his grandfather and his father had a different job.

That wasn’t the ending that John Masius and Tom Fontana tried to get past Bruce Paltrow, which Rolling Stone detailed in a sidebar to Bill Zehme’s story on the filming of the final episode in its June 2, 1988 issue, titled “The Show That Won’t Go On.” The episode, set 25 years in the future in the year 2013, envisions a world where only two TV networks exist—NBC and Fox. St. Eligius now is owned by a conglomerate known as Hospitals of America. Auschlander, 101, has conquered his liver cancer and has bionic organs. In a particularly prescient part of the script, Howie Mandel’s character of Wayne Fiscus is completely bald. The residents come from the offsprings of residents past: Pete Morrison now is a young thug (well, he did shoot a man to death as a toddler after all) and rapist Peter White’s son Timothy is an insecure mess. The Craigs’ granddaughter Barbara now works as a nurse. Ehrlich has lost his medical license in a malpractice suit, and he now runs a restaurant in L.A. Also, a war rages between U.S. Inc. and Corporate Africa. Another fun touch: Richard Nixon has been cryogenically frozen, awaiting a cure for phlebitis, which Auschlander admits they cured years ago, but no one wants to thaw the President out to let him know. None of the actors seemed aware of this proposed ending, presumably because Paltrow nixed it for being too outlandish and too expensive. “That was actually supposed to be in a giant bowl of salad. When Fontana described it to me, I thought they were kidding. They were in this giant bowl of salad and people would slide into it. I remember that,” Mark Tinker said. “I tried to find that script—I’m a compulsive hoarder, but I guess all hoarders are compulsive,” Fontana said. “In any case, someone asked me for a copy of it and I looked everywhere for it and all of my papers are at my college in Buffalo so I had the librarian over there going crazy looking for it, but it has somehow gotten swallowed up by time. It was a pretty stupid episode. John Masius and I laughed our balls off writing it. We sort of knew we had gone too far, and Bruce was like, ‘No, you’re not doing this.’”

Since the show always seemed at risk of being put on permanent hiatus, the writers constantly thought about ways to wrap the series. “Because we always thought we were going to be canceled every season, we kept a running list of final episodes, just in case . . . and so each year that we didn’t get canceled, the list just got longer and longer,” Fontana said. One ending they didn’t go with was one predicted by The National Enquirer, as reported in the Rolling Stone article. The headline read, “‘ST. ELSEWHERE’ TO KILL OFF EVERY MAJOR CHARACTER.” When shown the story in 1988, William Daniels responded, “True to their record. If they ever had anything right, I suppose they’d fall apart.” In fact, NBC actually offered St. Elsewhere a seventh season, but MTM more or less pulled the plug itself. Much of the creative team planned to go to New York to launch a new series called Tattingers, which did not end well, and MTM wasn’t having much luck selling the show in syndication. Determined not to keep operating St. Elsewhere at a loss, MTM asked NBC for a price steeper than the network was willing to pay and so the sixth became the last.

“That was the period when there was The Brady Bunch reunion show, the My Three Sons reunion show, and The Partridge Family reunion—and Masius and I just hated all of those things so we were just like, ‘We’re gonna make sure that they never make a fucking reunion of this fucking show,’” Fontana said. “We both assumed that we’d both be dead by the time they’d want to do it, and we didn’t want anyone else to take our characters and go running amok with them.” What I find fascinating is that out of the five writers credited for the story or the teleplay of “The Last One,” I can’t speak to Paltrow (obviously), three of the others claim they “can’t recall” who came up with the idea for it and the last, John Tinker, apparently disappeared into the Witness Protection Program as soon as I submitted my request for an interview. Masius, who isn’t even on the credits for the episode, replied in a terse email,  “The idea for the ending is shared by the credited writers of the last episode.” It goes further. Everyone gives a different answer as to whose idea it was to make Tommy autistic in the first place. Fontana and Masius point to Brand and Falsey, while Mark Tinker points to Fontana and Masius. Tommy wasn’t introduced until Season Two, and when mentioned in season one, Westphall makes no allusions to his having any difficulties, expressing regret that he missed his 10th birthday party. On the infamous Cheers crossover episode that ended the third season, I was surprised to see how long a scene it was and how much actually transpired in it, including this scene of Westphall expressing regrets about the relationship he can’t have with his son.

For the record, when the creators were directly asked who came up with the fabled ending, the responses broke down this way. “The idea came at the 11th hour. It wasn’t planned far in advance,” Mark Tinker said. “I’m not 100 percent sure because Masius and Fontana might have made a comment about it at some point in the life of the show when they were there. I don’t remember exactly,” Channing Gibson responded. “I do know as we approached the end of the show, that idea came up in a conversation with John Tinker and Tom Fontana—between the three of us—I just don’t remember exactly what kicked off the concept. I remember the day that we talked about it, and it started to spark for us, and I remember John Tinker and I looking at each other and thinking, ‘This is what we want to do.’ We talked to Tom about it and it sparked a lot of conversation, that’s for sure.” Before I asked Fontana a single question about anything, he warned me that he had a terrible memory. Several people also told me that John Tinker apparently possesses an amazing memory for details, which may explain why he was forced to go into hiding. “I don’t actually remember the person who said, ‘What about a snow globe?’ That was the nature of the writers in that building. It was not like, ‘I had an idea. It was my idea.’ I would have an idea, and someone would say yes to it, and then it became an idea,” Fontana said. “The truth is I don’t have an answer to the question. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. It could have been me. It could have been Masius. It could have been the cleaning lady.”

My attempts to determine the identity of the cleaning lady for the writers’ room at St. Elsewhere and her location today ultimately proved fruitless.

Fontana elaborated a bit on his need to drive a symbolic stake through St. Elsewhere’s heart. “Let me explain something. When you’re doing a television show, especially something as intense and as joyful as St. Elsewhere was for me as a writer personally, you get so into it, you live it every day. You wake up and you’re dreaming about it, and you go to bed and you’re thinking about it, and you’re having a meal and you’re thinking about a scene, you’re thinking about a character,” he explained. “It was as much for me to be able to kill the show in my own head and my own heart as to say to the audience, ‘This is just a TV show. Let’s all move on from this. It was very helpful to me to be a part of that last episode and be able to say, ‘As much as I love this show, it’s over now.’” Gibson wonders if he’d choose to end the show the same way now. “We certainly couldn’t go out conventionally. Were we too clever by half? I don’t know. Some people think so. Would I do it differently as a more mature, older person? Maybe I would.” Gibson said. Well, it’s probably been a long time since many of you have been able to see it, but here it is, as it aired in 1988 (with its original opera music, not generic theme music dubbed in as in syndication).

WHAT A TANGLED WEB THEY WOVE

Of course, it could have been considerably more tangled in 1988, if the Internet then were more than a little gleam in a relative handful of computer geeks’ eyes instead of what it is today. When I suggested to Fontana that he should be grateful for that, he replied, “Oh my God. I wouldn’t be able to go outside. It whipped up such radical mail, both loving and hating it.” I clearly recall watching the finale live. I just had returned home from my freshman year of college, and as soon as that shaky image of the hospital hit the screen, I knew something was up. In a way, the initial reaction to The Sopranos’ fade-to-black finale reminds me of that, because it dumbfounded me in 1988 when for a few seconds some viewers thought something had gone wrong with the image, just as it boggled my mind how many people truly believed that HBO suddenly blew a fuse at that particular moment. I admit that soon after the show ended, and my mom puzzled over what the hell just happened, one of the first thoughts that popped in my head was, “You know, this means he imagined Cheers too.” I meant it as a joke and had no website to rush and post this revelation on. “It was a choice that had ramifications beyond what we knew at the time,” Gibson said. “Maybe it was more for us than it was for the audience.” After the airing of “The Last One,” Paltrow was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying, “I expect a very mixed reaction” to the ending. “I think some people will think it`s extraordinary, and existential, and quintessential St. Elsewhere. I think other people will find it puzzling, odd, maybe unfulfilling in some way.” Rolling Stone asked Ed Flanders about the scene after he filmed it. His response: “You flash your ass on TV—what does any of it mean?” The only thing I truly felt about the end was that they could have never done it if Dallas hadn't done the “season as a dream” stunt first. Talking with cast members now, they seem as divided on whether or not they liked it as the audience at home was.

Chad Allen had the best reaction, being the central character in the ending and 13 at the time, when he first read that script. “They didn’t tell me what they were going to do. They just sent me the script. I was 13 years old. I read it—I wasn’t sure I even understood it.  It was confusing because nobody told me this was coming,” Allen said “I thought I understood what it meant so I ran down the hall and showed it to my mom and said, ‘You have to read this and tell me if you think it means what I think it means.’ She read it and said, ‘I think it means it’s all happening inside your head. The whole show was happening inside your head.’ I said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I think too. How cool is that?’” Once the episode aired, Allen’s initial excitement waned a bit. “I didn’t know that when I was 9 years old, and started out playing that part, that that is what it would turn into,” he said. “I got to be . . . that character that was sometimes demonized by people who didn’t like the ending of St. Elsewhere but praised by a lot of people who thought it was a perfect show. It’s something I’m very proud of.”

No one may claim authorship of the initial idea, but Bonnie Bartlett points directly at Fontana. ”As I understood it, Tom wanted to end the show so that it could never come back, and that was his way of doing it. OK, it was all a fiction of this boy’s mind, so you can never come back and do St. Elsewhere again,” she said. “My guess would be, and I have no factual knowledge of it, that they struggled on how to end the show, and I thought they ended it very peculiarly with this autistic boy’s memory of all this happening, so that it all was just a dream. I never cared for the [ending],” William Daniels said.

“Very odd, but they wanted to do something bold and different, and in that they succeeded,” Ed Begley Jr. said. Begley did help contribute to the Tommy Westphall universe craziness when he reprised Ehrlich in the Homicide: Life on the Street reunion movie, where Victor suddenly practiced in Baltimore, treating Detective Tim Bayliss (Kyle Secor) for a bad back. “I got a call from Tom Fontana, and he said, ‘Do you want to come do [this movie]?’ I think they got some clearance from somebody to call him Ehrlich. It was a last-minute decision by Tom Fontana.”

Joshua Brand, the show’s co-creator who left after the first season, keeps his cards close to his vest on the ending. “I sort of don’t judge it. I think the show evolved over the course of many years. It changed from what the show was in the first year—for good or for bad or for both. It certainly wasn’t what we were intending,” Brand said. “We were looking for a certain degree of verisimilitude for hospitals and for medicine. I think it changed over the course of many years, and that was the conclusion that those guys reached. Was that the conclusion that I would have reached? Probably it might have been that the show would not have made it that many years if I had stayed with it.”

Ellen Bry, who played vigilante murderess Shirley Daniels, and writer-producer John Masius found unexpected echoes of the series in their private life, well after the show had ended. “(Autism) wasn’t publicized and it certainly wasn’t topical and then, in a very bizarre situation of life imitating art, I married John Masius and we had three children. Two of them turned out to be autistic.”

“I kinda liked (the ending) because everything about St. Elsewhere was sort of iconic unto itself, and I would have hated to have any sort of traditional ending,” Ronny Cox said. “What’s better than to have everyone’s imagination tweaked by that?”

“I didn’t mind it. I thought it was sort of cool. I know some fans felt cheated,” Stephen Furst said.

Sagan Lewis also leans to Fontana—and she was married to him at the time. “I actually thought what was unique about that final episode was that there were several very cool endings—the fat lady singing, the residents meeting new residents, the homage to Mary Tyler Moore . . . and yes, Tommy's autism. I would point to my ex too for that idea,” Lewis said. “At the time, he and I had many metaphysical and philosophical discussions in our home life. ‘What is reality?’ was a question we often pondered and discussed. It makes sense that Tom would have had influence with such a radical idea. I do remember Tom being pleased with the idea that the writers had incorporated several endings into the final episode.”

 “That’s up for grabs, that ending. Some people liked it, some people felt it was a cheat,” Norman Lloyd said.

“When I read the ending, I thought, ‘This could be incredibly cool if they can make this work.’ It surprised me but at the same time it didn’t surprise me, coming from those writers. I thought it was kind of exciting. Then when I saw it, I didn’t think it worked. It was so jarring to see people we had known for six years suddenly be these other people and all in the mind of this kid with autism. It was such a huge leap to have to make—I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t blame any audience member who couldn’t do it either,” David Morse said. “Conceptually, I thought it was amazing. In execution, I didn’t think it really worked, but it was in the spirit of what these men, mostly, and some women had done for six years—to really challenge what television was, and how you could tell stories with a television show. I think that’s one of the great things about the show. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t work, but when it worked it was brilliant. I give those creators, those writers, all of us really, a lot of credit for making that stuff happen.” When I told Morse that most of the other actors seem to point toward Fontana, he said, “I would point to him as well. That’s really hard to believe. It’s such a big moment in that show. Somebody knows the truth. They were all in that room. Somebody’s not telling you. It’s the Code of Silence.”

“I remember so many people were upset with the ending . . . but I thought it was such a great artistic way to kind of end so many stories. I remember Mark Tinker and a bunch of them talking about [how they] just couldn't figure out how to end it. So many different stories, so many different people. How do you do one episode to kind of make all that come full circle? So they came up with that, and I thought it was great. I was one of the ones that really liked it,” Cindy Pickett said. “No one ever copped in person to coming up with it. They just talked about how you know they all figured out an ending, but no one ever said it was so-and-so. I would agree, though, that Tom Fontana was the mastermind. Because he's got the mastermind.”

“There was a lot of reaction to that final episode. People either loved it or they hated it. I still run into people who have very strong passions about the way they feel about that last episode. It really is either for or against, there isn’t any in-between. It’s either, that was great, or boy, was that a rip-off, I never wanted to find out it had all been a dream in the mind of an autistic child, I’d wanted it to be real, etc.,” Jennifer Savidge said. “I thought it was creative. I was so sad the freakin’ show was ending. I didn’t care how it ended, I was just really sad it was ending. That was the way I felt about it.”

Though Cynthia Sikes was no longer there, she places the idea at the feet of Paltrow. “I know a lot of people were upset by it, but Bruce was always turning things on their head. I just think it was the last joke. I think Bruce liked to shock people,” she said.

Nancy Stafford had moved on as well by then, but she suspects Fontana. “It seems Fontana-ish, doesn't it? I'm sure a lot of everybody's collaboration brought that kind of a thing about,” she said. “I don't blame them. I'd probably duck my head too. It's either you loved the ending or you hated it.”

When I informed Fontana that he appears to be the odds-on favorite in the cast betting pool as the originator of the idea, he said, “Well, I appreciate that, but I’m telling you I don’t actually remember. I’ll take their memories over mine.”

No matter where the idea originated, once it got combined with the Internet and mischievous writers on TV shows everywhere, chaotic theorizing and debunking of theories was bound to ensue.

THE TV UNIVERSE REVOLVES AROUND TOMMY WESTPHALL

It actually started with that scene I mentioned right after that last episode aired: the one where Auschlander, Craig and Westphall drop by a local bar called Cheers that Ehrlich recommended, and meet a waitress named Carla, a mailman named Cliff and, in the funniest interaction, Auschlander’s former accountant, Norm Peterson. Veteran comedy writer Ken Levine, who wrote for Cheers among other classics with his partner David Isaacs, pens a great blog called By Ken Levine, and he shared the story of how that crossover came to be. The entire scene lasts 11 minutes, and I’ve shown you relevant bits already, so here is the only really funny part – the encounter of Norm with his former client.

For a while, that was it. Two shows, both set in Boston, same universe. Just happens to be inside a boy’s mind. Wait a minute. Jack Riley appears on St. Elsewhere, playing his Mr. Carlin character from The Bob Newhart Show. Shit. Two years later, Newhart turns out to be a dream of Bob Hartley from The Bob Newhart Show. Things start getting complicated. Cheers characters visit Wings and Cheers spins off into Frasier. Bob Hartley does a cameo on Murphy Brown, trying to get Carol to come back to work. The universe has started unraveling. In the context of Seinfeld, Murphy Brown is a TV show but Mad About You is real because Kramer sublets his apartment from Paul Reiser’s character, who does a documentary on Alan Brady, from The Dick Van Dyke Show. We haven’t started to discuss Fontana’s Homicide: Life on the Street, where Alfre Woodard’s St. Elsewhere character Dr. Roxanne Turner shows up, meaning she crosses paths with Richard Belzer’s Munch, who appears on so many shows that he’s spreading like a flu epidemic.Thankfully, people exist who can sort conundrums like these out, such as the people who put together Tommy Westphall’s Mind: A Multiverse Explored, a site that poses that the busy little 13-year-old’s mind stays busy imagining 282 shows throughout television history, stretching all the way back to I Love Lucy. Personally, I don’t see how he could have imagined shows made before he was born.

“It does create all kind of warps in the space-time continuum,” Gibson said. “That would seem to be a bit tough, but hey—he was a special kid—who knows? Given a few more years, maybe if we’d pursued that premise of that family and that apartment house and Tommy as this visionary genius of fiction, who knows where we could have gone with that?” Man, if only NBC had met MTM’s price. There are a lot of similar sites to the one above exploring all the crossovers, but before I forget, I promised in Part Two of this piece to address the multiple ways St. Elsewhere dealt with M*A*S*H. When John Doe No. 6 (Oliver Clark) first sought his identity, he went alphabetically and selected Alan Alda. On an episode of M*A*S*H, Clark played a character also named Benjamin Pierce. That same season, Mark Craig reminisces about his old drinking buddy from the Korean War named B.J. Hunnicut, implying it’s the same guy and same universe. Then, another time, when asked what TV character he’d like to be, Auschlander picks Trapper John M.D., because he always saves his patients, so it’s a TV show again. Thank goodness there are websites showing concern that people take this much too seriously. For example, this archived site from a college philosophy department goes into excruciating detail about how none of this is possible, explaining all the fallacies in the theory.

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news but YOU ARE ALL WRONG. While the charts of the Tommyverse prove quite impressive and it’s easy to find contradictions aplenty—hell, no wonder the timeline on St. Elsewhere never made sense. Tommy had his own set of rules he could change at will. While many felt that the ending of St. Elsewhere copped out, I think the makers and followers of the Tommyverse cop out in a way that those philosophically inclined should appreciate: They don’t count appearances by real people. Since Michael Dukakis visited St. Eligius, perhaps the 1988 presidential election never happened. “That’s right. We should go back and revote,” Norman Lloyd responded when I suggested that possibility. All sorts of real people visited Cheers: Alex Trebek, Gary Hart, Tip O’Neill, lots of athletes. On Homicide, Tim Russert showed up as a cousin to Megan Russert. See—all of us are inside that snow globe. “I'm surprised we’re not all dizzy, as often as he has probably shaken that thing,” Nancy Stafford said. So in the end, it doesn’t matter which TV shows Tommy Westphall dreamt up, because none of us exist—we’re all figments of his imagination. “Which basically means that Tommy Westphall is the mind of God. Wow. I love it,” Fontana said. At least, I assume that was Fontana speaking.

Thanks again to Daniel Butterfield of The St. Elsewhere Experience and Peter Labuza for tracking down that Rolling Stone. A very special thanks to Mark Tinker for finding us a copy of what lies below, without the annoying NBC voiceover promo.

From an early age, Edward Copeland became obsessed with movies, good television, books and theater. On the side, he nursed an addiction to news and information as well that led him into journalism where he toiled for 17 years until health problems forced him to give up the daily grind of work. In addition to writing for Press Play, he ran the blog Edward Copeland on Film (later renamed Edward Copeland's Tangents and currently in hibernation) and has written for The Demanders on rogerebert.com, at Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, Movies Without Pity, Awards Daily as well as the political commentary site The Reaction.

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Comments

Jess

I really enjoyed reading your articles, they are excellent. I miss St. Elsewhere. I had every episode on tape – and someone stole all of them!

Here's a tidbit for you – in the last clip, Ealynn Voss is listed as playing a character named Brigitta Swensen – a character with the same name later turned up on Homicide as Munch's ex-girlfriend, played by Valerie Perrine (Brigitta was the artist who had a photo of Munch, nude, hanging in her gallery exhibit).

Alexandra

It is obvious that an amazing amount of work went into the research and subsequent writing of this 3-part article on my beloved show, St. Elsewhere. Like the series itself, your work is truly outstanding. Thank you.

Chris

Edward: Fantastic work on the entirety of this three-part series. It took me a long time to get through it all, but it was rewarding and insightful the whole way through. Really pleased to see that someone had this level of interest in a 30-year-old show to go undertake all of the efforts and fresh interviews that you did to pull this together. I think this is now one of the cornerstone pieces of writing/research about St. Elsewhere. I set it on the mantle alongside Robert Thompson's work in "Television's Second Golden Age," David Bianculli's work in "Teleliteracy" and James Longwood's St. Elsewhere newsletter in the late 1990s as the key writings about this amazing TV show. I wrote a short piece about St. Elsewhere last year on my blog — http://www.papergreat.com/2011/10/29th-anniversary-of-first-episode-of-st.html — and I'm planning to put up a post this week directing as many people as possible to come here and read through your whole St. Elsewhere retrospective. Congratulations. I love how many things you uncovered that I never knew. And thank you for posting so many terrific video clips — including some stuff I haven't seen in years and year. The McCabe/Auschlander scene, particularly, from Time Heals really gets to me. And let's just say your section about the handling of the Jack Morrison character has me rethinking a lot of the series as a whole. Making him the whipping boy to such an over-the-top extent that they did really representing a bit of a whiff on what the series and that character could have been. … P.S. — I am firmly in the camp of loving the ending.

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