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Returning to St. Eligius: ST. ELSEWHERE, 30 Years Later, Part 2

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by Edward Copeland
November 5, 2012 8:00 AM
5 Comments
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St. Elsewhere also rewarded the attentive viewer with inside jokes and callbacks to previous storylines, even if the callback took place in the past before the incident occurred, such as the great one in the classic season four two-part episode “Time Heals” (arguably the series’ masterpiece) where Auschlander advises a maintenance man in 1965 to put plenty of insulation in the ceiling, when in Season Three, in the present, the hospital treated that same character for fatal asbestos exposure 20 years later. I will attempt to do the same for the careful reader. Those with limited attention spans should pop a Ritalin (or two) or proceed to the nearest exit in an orderly fashion. Admittedly, part of my love for this series stems from my own enjoyment of cracking wise for a mere handful of patrons in the back row. In the first season, G.W. Bailey’s character, psychiatrist Dr. Hugh Beale, attempted to lift the spirits of Dr. Westphall, overwhelmed by trying to manage the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak while coping with administrative headaches from the hospital’s city overseers. “As Coach Bum Phillips once said of Earl Campbell, ‘You may not be the only one in your class, but it sure wouldn't take long to call roll,’" Beale tells Westphall. That certainly applies to St. Elsewhere as well.

THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW BEFORE AND AFTER

Before moving on, in the rush to complete Part 1, I failed to include some crucial points relating to St. Elsewhere’s first season. Most egregiously, I omitted Bonnie Bartlett’s introduction as Ellen Craig. Bartlett originally auditioned for the role of Helen Rosenthal and expressed reluctance at taking the recurring role of Mark Craig’s wife, but her real-life husband William Daniels encouraged her to take the part of his fictional wife. “They put me in, and I was just a little tiny part, and I didn’t even really want to do it, but Bill wanted me to do it because he thought it was funny,” Bartlett said. “She was a cigarette smoker, and he thought that was very funny, and he taught me to smoke because I don’t know how.”  Ellen Craig’s introduction proves to be quite memorable as she confronts David Birney’s Dr. Ben Samuels, who has been driving Craig crazy by leaving him messages from a phantom doctor supposedly interested in purchasing his car. “It was really good company of people to work with. They were all really talented people,” Birney said. “We stuck together sometimes, an ensemble cast.” Terence Knox, the hospital’s troubled resident Peter White, reminded Birney of a particular example. When driving to the set one day, a policeman pulled Knox over, and Knox didn’t have his driver’s license. Birney happened to drive by. He stopped and asked Knox if he should tell the show that he’d be late to the set. The officer, recognizing Birney, was impressed enough to let Knox off with just a warning.

Jennifer Savidge 2

I also neglected to include this anecdote from Jennifer Savidge about the scene she felt made her character of Lucy Papandrao begin to stand out in the first season. “It was a very nice scene. It was just one scene, but I was on the phone the whole time, helping Ed Begley run some medical stuff for a test, and . . . Bill Daniels comes in to look at the schedule and starts yelling at Ed while Ed’s trying to recite this stuff and I’m yelling at someone on the phone,” Savidge said. However, behind the scenes, a bit more had transpired off camera. Savidge had been hospitalized with a severe concussion after a horse riding accident. Although blood was still pouring from her ears and nose and she was disoriented, her agent told her she better get to the set or they’d hire someone else. “So the next group of interns came in, or residents, or whoever, and I said, ‘Oh, I’m just feeling great. I feel fine, no headache, nothing.’ So they said, ‘OK, you’re good to go,’ and they released me. I spent that whole day leaning up against the wall with my head back, praying that the blood didn’t start pouring out of my nose again. This is the stuff actors will do. It was a stupid thing to do, an insane thing to do. I could have had a clot or something in my brain,” Savidge recalled. She managed to avoid any gushers and after her scene was done, Knox came over and told her, “’You know Bruce Paltrow just came down to the set, and he was watching you do the scene, and he was asking about who you were, and he was saying that’s what we need, that attitude, that kind of abrasive, clipped kind of attitude,’ and Terry said, ‘Think about that. You’ve got to find your niche here, because if you do, then you could go along with the show. And you have, by doing this, already established some kind of a niche. Develop it,’” Savidge said. “That was the hardcore, kind of bitchy attitude of this nurse, who knew everything and felt the doctors basically knew nothing. That’s, I think, why I started to develop in that character, and if I had scenes with Begley, there was that sort of combative relationship that we have, and my sort of sarcastic way of dealing with him. It was something that wasn’t anywhere else on the show, and that just developed.”

Birney and Dr. Samuels departed St. Eligius after the first season, as did Bailey’s Dr. Hugh Beale. No explanation for the fictional characters’ departures was given, but interestingly enough, Samuels’ final scene took place at the nurses’ station just as Cynthia Sikes’ Dr. Annie Cavanero’s final scene would, upon her departure at the end of the third season. Perhaps the nurses’ station served as St. Eligius’ Bermuda Triangle. Birney admits disappointment in leaving the show, but his departure afforded him the opportunity to take over the role of Salieri in the original production of Amadeus on Broadway. Of course, Bailey and Birney weren’t the only St. Elsewhere staff members that left after that first season—co-creators and producers Joshua Brand and John Falsey exited as well. “It was a great opportunity. We had a great time doing it,” Brand said. “I was a much younger guy. It’s nice to try to do something special, to do something different. I’m always astounded when people still react to it and a lot have very strong-held opinions about the show and remember things about the show. I’m a lucky guy that I got to do it. I’m very appreciative.” As for Sikes’ later exit, she said, “I didn’t feel that it was going to continue on, the character, the way I thought it would, so we parted ways.” 

That first season might have been all St. Elsewhere viewers ever saw (and they’d never have met Tommy Westphall or learned he was autistic). In fact, in the ratings-challenged first season’s last episode, “Addiction,” Fiscus asks the sexually voracious pathologist Cathy Martin (Barbara Whinnery) to perform an autopsy on a man named Nielsen who “died on his couch watching television.” After NBC officially cancelled the show and cast and crew began looking for work, they received a last-minute reprieve. ”The show was dropped after the first season and Brandon Tartikoff liked the show, liked the demographics of the show, and that’s how it went on,” Daniels said. That’s also the way the show progressed from season to season—always teetering on the edge of extinction. Tartikoff entered the executive ranks at NBC in 1977 and in 1981, at the age of 32, became the youngest president of network programming in history under Fred Silverman at the floundering network. The year after Tartikoff’s ascension, Silverman exited his role as chairman and CEO of NBC, replaced by the head of MTM Enterprises, Grant Tinker, father of Mark and John. To accept the job, Grant Tinker had to divest himself of his interest in MTM. What St. Elsewhere didn’t earn in Nielsen numbers that first year, it made up for in Emmy nods, grabbing 10 nominations, including nominations for best drama series and individual nominations for Daniels, Flanders, Begley, Pickles and guest stars James Coco and Doris Roberts (in the supporting categories, since the Emmys lacked separate awards for guest performers then); Flanders, Coco and Roberts won. Another NBC show that marks the 30th anniversary of its debut this year performed weakly in the ratings that season but won renewal and Emmy love, and even happened to be set in Boston as well—Cheers. For all the perceived darkness of the show's initial year, the period ended on a celebratory note as the St. Eligius staff celebrated the birth of Jack and Nina Morrison’s son, Pete. That would be one of the few moments of joy that the writers allowed Jack to experience for the rest of the show’s run.

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5 Comments

  • Alexandra | May 12, 2013 2:27 PMReply

    Your articles on St. Elsewhere have been so enjoyable and informative. As new graduate nurse at the time that the series first aired, I watched it religiously every week. Today, I am swept back to this wonderful time in my career, everytime I watch a rerun and especially when I hear the opening theme song. Those were the halcion days of medicine in spite of the new big challenges like AIDS, financial cutbacks and the pioneering of tranplant surgery. This wonderful ensemble cast captured the true essence of the day beautifully in their performances. Thank your for such your wonderful article!

  • Joe | December 26, 2012 10:48 AMReply

    Thanks for a fantastic article. I was lucky enough to get the entire series on DVD recently and am up to season 5. What a great show. I saw it when I was 20 and now at 50 it brings back great memories. I do have great sadness regarding Ed Flanders. What a great actor - to know he committed suicide is heartbreaking.

  • Manel | November 11, 2012 9:23 AMReply

    I suggest you change the article's name to "Everything you always wanted to know about "ST Elsewhere" but couldn't because of the lack of a proper DVD release". I can't really thank you enough for this fantastic series of articles about one of the greatest TV shows of all time. It really advanced some stuff that shows like "The Wire" or "The West Wing" developed almost 20 years later. The acting was truly phenomenal, excellent writing, cast development, the unforgettable WTF ending...
    Thanks again for the articles, deeply appreciated

  • Paul F | November 5, 2012 7:41 PMReply

    Thanks for these articles, they've been great. I watched the entire series a few years ago, and you're making me want to do it again. Thankfully, being in Ireland, I can watch the entire show on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/show/stelsewhere

    It baffles me that they can have the show easily available for UK/Ireland people and completely unavailable in the US.

  • Edward Copeland | November 6, 2012 12:05 AM

    I wonder if somehow the British company that original bought MTM retained the U.K. rights before they sold it to Pat Robertson's company who eventually sold it to Rupert Murdoch's or if Murdoch just gets out of paying residuals to the artists by showing it through his interests over there instead of here. It's puzzling. It's been a true international effort to obtain the non-season 1 and final episode clips that we've been using.

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