By Edward Copeland | Press Play November 5, 2012 at 8:00AM
Your ears didn’t deceive you. In the clip above, Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel) takes a verbal walk down Memory Lane as his residency at St. Eligius comes to a close in the final episode of St. Elsewhere’s six-year run and says it lasted “three years.” In the series’ original airing, I didn’t catch on immediately that each season only represented about six months and it took two seasons to complete a year. Don’t follow that timeline too closely—contradictions abound. Some units of measure adhere to that three year span—Norman Lloyd’s Dr. Daniel Auschlander began the series in 1982 at the age of 72 and, in the final episode that aired May 25, 1988, Auschlander tells Luther (Eric Laneuville) that he’s 75. Despite the fact that St. Elsewhere brought a new level of realism to the medical drama on TV, the show’s other elements weren’t bound by those same rules of logic and continuity. Tom Fontana and John Masius, the show’s longest-running writer-producers, penned an ending during that sixth season much different than the one viewers ended up seeing (and that the world still debates to this day). That unfilmed ending leaped 25 years into the future—to 2013—with Auschlander, dying of liver cancer since the show’s debut Oct. 26, 1982, still alive at 101. I’ll let readers work out the logical flaws in that math. (More on that ending in Part 3. I know we said a two-part series, but we changed our minds.) On the other hand, I don’t recall the first season explicitly stating 1982 was its starting point—perhaps St. Elsewhere took place in the future from the get-go. Certainly in many respects, the series often was ahead of its time.
Television shows routinely kill off major characters now, often at unusual points in a season, but St. Elsewhere knocked off or wrote off regulars right and left. Kim Miyori’s Dr. Wendy Armstrong became the first regular to take the fall near the end of season two. After escaping an assault by the rapist terrorizing St. Eligius, secretly suffering from bulimia and misdiagnosing a patient with dire results, Wendy took her own life and became the first cast member in the opening credits to leave as a corpse before the year was over. She wouldn’t be the last. Other series killed off characters, but usually that coincided with an actor’s decision to leave the show at the end of a year or a performer’s unexpected death in real life. “I was lucky I made the first and the last episode,” said Christina Pickles, who played four-times wed Nurse Helen Rosenthal, who would go through a mastectomy and breast reconstruction after a bout with breast cancer, as well as drug addiction, through the course of the series. “It gave me five Emmy nominations and a career in this town, and it’s still having an effect,” she said. While not thought of as a particularly issue-oriented program, many topics passed through St. Eligius’ corridors that had little to do with medicine—apartheid, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, domestic terrorism, racism and bigotry, accompanied by the language of hate that comes as a shock to hear 30 years later on a prime time network show, even in context. The show touched on controversial medical issues such as medicinal marijuana, euthanasia, abortion—both the decision on whether or not to have one and the politics that can grow out of control surrounding it—as well as the then-new scourge of AIDS, which eventually infected one of its major characters (through heterosexual sex no less, stomping on the myth that only gay men and drug addicts need fear the disease). It even beat NYPD Blue in the prime time race to the moon when Ed Flanders’ Dr. Donald Westphall left the show in the third episode of the final season, dropping his drawers and telling Ronny Cox’s Dr. John Gideon, the new boss installed by the HMO that buys St. Eligius, that he can “kiss my ass, pal.” Cox shared a story relating to that scene I’d never heard before. “The NBC censor resigned over that,” Cox said. “(T)hat was back in the days when they still had Standards and Practices. I had a conversation with him once and he was so incensed by that, his sensibilities, that he actually quit over that.” That scene lived up to St. Elsewhere’s willingness to indulge in the downright wacky, always making us aware we were watching a TV show without explicitly breaking that fourth wall. Executive Producer Bruce Paltrow and his talented staff of writers and producers always walked a tightrope high above the floor below (often without a net). Still, as with The Flying Wallendas, sometimes the show didn’t make it to the other end of the wire. More often than not, the results proved thrilling rather than tragic.
Even with the decision to continue this tribute in two more parts instead of one, much ground remains to be covered. Channing Gibson began as a freelance writer on St. Elsewhere with his writing partner Charles H. “Chic” Eglee in the second season before they joined the staff as story editors with John Tinker, younger brother of producer Mark Tinker, the show’s co-developer, in the fourth season. When Masius and Fontana stepped down from their producing posts in the sixth season (though Fontana remained a “creative consultant”), the producing reins were handed to Gibson and the younger Tinker. (Eglee departed the show in 1986 to work on Moonlighting.) During my conversation with Gibson, he mentioned a formula that guided most installments. “St. Elsewhere always broke down, in almost every episode except for the stand-alone episodes . . . (into) four storytelling elements,” Gibson told me. “There was always a universal theme . . . which dealt with who we are as people, what life is about, that sort of thing. There was always a personal story that picked up on the thread of one of the characters and their personal lives and delved into it more deeply than we might get in an average episode. There was always a medical story, which was absolutely about medicine in the classic style, whether it’s Dr. Kildare or any other story, any other good medical show. Then there was always the humorous story. We built every show to have those four elements in them. At the same time, you’re passing people through and keeping the plates spinning on whatever they’re about.”
Cindy Pickett joined St. Elsewhere at the end of the fourth season in 1986 as Dr. Carol Novino, a former nurse who entered medical school at the urging of Dr. Westphall and returns to St. Eligius as a resident. “I've never and haven't since been in an audition where you had to make them laugh and make them cry in one room in one audition,” Pickett said. “Because St. Elsewhere was a show that would make you cry and then make you laugh. So much of it was absurd. So much of it was very human and real and heartwrenching. Then this scene would be highly realistic and tragic and the next scene would be something completely surreal and funny.” Pickett had a pretty good 1986. Though she began as recurring, her role was upgraded to regular status by the fifth season in the fall. In between, she played Matthew Broderick’s mom in the summer smash Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.