“Ed was such a good actor that there was no difference in his behavior before the camera or just in life talking to you. He was so natural, so real,” Christina Pickles said about Ed Flanders. In that brief scene above from the famous crossover between St. Elsewhere and Cheers in the last episode of the third season, Flanders actually spoke both as Donald Westphall and himself. It wasn’t clear that Flanders wanted to return for another season of St. Elsewhere. In fact, when Flanders decided to return, everyone scrambled to fit Westphall into the fourth season premiere at the last minute. As Norman Lloyd said in Bill Zehme’s 1988 article on the end of St. Elsewhere in Rolling Stone, “He personified the spirit of St. Elsewhere. There is no finer actor in America.” Sadly, as often happens with the most talented of artists, Flanders’ ample gifts came wrapped with darkness that eventually led him to commit suicide in 1995.
Stories abound of the difficulty of working with Flanders at those times, but when everything flowed smoothly, the results proved remarkable and the praise pervasive. “Ed, oh, Ed was troubled, but he was this wonderful actor. He was sort of the patriarch of the show. It was difficult at times working with Ed, but he was such a seasoned, wonderful actor that it was, well, that part was a gift,” Cindy Pickett said. “The part where he was having a hard time with everything in his life—it actually gave his character more depth, but I was very grateful to have had the time to work with him that I did.” When Pickett joined the show, writers originally intended to make her character of Dr. Carol Novino a potential romantic interest for Dr. Westphall. “He had his demons and to be romantically inclined with him on the show, I got a lot of those demons in my face and it was hard. Whenever you work with somebody, sometimes when things don't go smoothly it creates a dynamic that's good on screen. So, it worked. I had great respect for him.” The most widely reported incident related to Flanders’ return for the last episode where he was to give a highly emotional speech after Dr. Auschlander’s death to the staff, but Flanders went off script, first in rehearsal where, according to the 1988 Rolling Stone article, he said, “The only reason I’m here is $118,000 a week! The truth is I’m not going to miss any of you!” When the time arrived to film the scene itself, he again strayed from the words on the page, only this time into what Zehme described as a “meandering dirge” with Flanders “faltering repeatedly as he said, ‘I don’t think there are any words for love.’” Bruce Paltrow and the rest of the behind-the-scenes team had grown used to reshooting his scenes or fixing them in editing, though they considered refilming the speech as intended with William Daniels delivering it as Mark Craig. Instead, they did film it again with Flanders saying part of it to an empty room. If you watch the scene, it’s pretty obvious that Westphall’s words and the staff’s reactions aren’t happening simultaneously. “We were used to that with Eddie. Eddie had his demons but such an outstanding, brilliant actor that even the crap was pretty great,” Tom Fontana said.
“The scenes that we loved were anything with Ed Flanders and Bill and I together. Whenever we had a scene, it was absolute heaven on the set, I was playing with my two favorite actors,” Bonnie Bartlett said. “They were the most giving actors, never egotistical, always what’s best for the scene never thinking about the close-ups. “ No one disagrees on that point—or that Flanders had little use for performers who felt the need to immerse themselves into character. Edward Herrmann worked with Flanders previously on the famous Eleanor and Franklin series and admired him immensely. “He had little patience for actory actors. I remember one time talking to him about Shakespeare and I brought up A Midsummer Night’s Dream because I’d done a production of it in Lincoln Center. I played Flute the bellows-mender and they have this play within the play, Pyramus and Thisby, which is one of the looniest, daffiest, funniest, stupidest plays ever written because it’s played by amateurs and Shakespeare had a wonderful time sending it all up,” Herrmann said. “Eddie started laughing and said, ‘You know, every actor should do Pyramus and Thisby once a year just to blow out all the crap. It’s so funny and so silly that you can’t be pretentious playing Pyramus and Thisby.’ He’s absolutely right. I hadn’t thought of it that way. Get rid of all the New York method pretention. Get rid of all the English pretention and the French pretention and the Russian pretention and have a ball and be goofy.”
Despite any hassles, those behind-the-scenes sat in awe of Flanders’ talent as well. “One of the tremendous pleasures of the show was getting to work with these terrific actors. Each of them had a different style, different background in acting. They excelled in different ways. Ed Flanders was a truly amazing actor,” Channing Gibson said. “He wasn’t putting anything on in a visible way the way some actors do. He was very naturalistic in that way. He could bring it out in take after take after take. He was really phenomenal.” Paltrow cast Flanders again in another series. “(Flanders) was a wonderful actor. We did a series called The Road Home for Bruce Paltrow. Ed Flanders, when you looked at him in character—he just was that guy,” said Terence Knox, who had the lead role in the short-lived series.
Nancy Stafford particularly remembers a scene with Flanders when her character, Joan Halloran, has to take the fall with the city for the costs of repairing the ER. “I do remember there was really a wonderful scene between me and Ed Flanders in the dining room where basically, it's one of the first times where Halloran is vulnerable and sort of allowing her heart to get exposed,” Stafford said. Sagan Lewis, who played Dr. Jackie Wade, recalls how most of the younger actors stuck together out of respect, not just for Flanders but all of the acting veterans on the series. “The younger actors did seem to cling together, but I always attributed that to a respect for the veterans (like Billy Daniels, Bonnie Bartlett, Norman Lloyd, Ed Flanders and Christina Pickles—all theater legends),” Lewis said. “There was a clear delineation between who was accomplished in the acting world and who were beginning their careers. The veterans were supportive and excellent role models for us. For the most part, they were true pros. We younger actors wanted to get it right.” The true youngest member of the cast has the most distinctive recollections about Flanders since Flanders was the main actor he played opposite. “Ed and I were close. I remember to this day—it sounds funny—what it smelled like to be held by him because he spent a lot of time with his arms around me controlling me or holding me,” Chad Allen said. “I remember that very clearly. He was an amazing actor. He was dedicated to his work. I learned to respect the craft a lot from that early work with Ed.”
Despite the bumps and conflicts and the constant threat of cancellation, Lewis continues to remember her time on the show fondly. “The St. Elsewhere world was filled with people being people. Perfect environment? Probably not. Great work? Yes. I do recall Ed Flanders addressing some of us younger actors in the makeup room one morning. We were talking about our fairly low ratings. He got up from his makeup chair and grinned. ‘You kids better enjoy this gig while it lasts because I'm tellin' ya, it don't get better than this!"
[This piece will be concluded Thursday, November 4.]
Special thanks to Daniel Butterfield of The St. Elsewhere Experience and Peter Labuza for finding that 1988 Rolling Stone article for me.
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.