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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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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.

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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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