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Returning to St. Eligius: ST. ELSEWHERE, 30 Years Later, Part 1

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by Edward Copeland
October 26, 2012 8:00 AM
4 Comments
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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.

ROUGH BEGINNINGS

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.’”

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4 Comments

  • James | December 4, 2013 3:57 PMReply

    Just one word - brilliant!

  • Alan | October 15, 2013 5:36 PMReply

    This visit down the St. Elsewhere memory lane is fantastic. The opening theme song grabbed my attention from the get-go, and Dave Grusin's ability to capture the essence of St. Elsewhere through this opening theme is much applauded. The show was to become my all-time favourite television drama. It remains my all-time favourite!!!!!! Thanks heaps :-)

  • Arthur Greenwald | October 27, 2012 4:30 PMReply

    Thank you for this article. I enjoyed every word! Wouldn't it be great if Tom Fontana wrote a St. Elsewhere reunion movie!

  • AW | October 26, 2012 7:42 PMReply

    This is fantastic. Thank you.

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