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

Press Play 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.”
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DAVE’S BIG WAVE

I still feel fortunate that David Morse spoke with me for this tribute. He seems like a quiet family man who doesn’t like to talk about himself but loves the craft of acting and feels fortunate to have made a career out of it, one that keeps him quite busy. He just finished playing the title role in an independent film called McCanick that filmed in his hometown of Philadelphia. The next day, he was heading to Vancouver for a small part in the film Horns, starring Daniel Radcliffe, before returning to New Orleans to conclude his role as police Lt.. Terry Colson in  the criminally shortened final season of HBO’s Treme, which gets a whopping five episodes to wrap up all its stories. Morse stood out among the members of the St. Elsewhere ensemble as the conscientious Jack Morrison, and NBC executives loved him for it. “He is such a lovely, talented actor. The minute he came in to audition, it was so obvious that he was a special guy,” Brand said. “We loved writing for him.”

Other St. Elsewhere writers, particularly after the first season, however, loved to flip off people who pissed them off, and Morse and his character became part of the collateral damage from that impulse. “After those first two seasons, there’s not a lot that stands out for me. I loved directing on that last year and there are some things . . . the dream episode was really fun to do. Just sort of as an experience, [I loved] those first two seasons because of a lot of what my character was going through but also what he represented. That really was what I thought of as the character,” Morse said. “I thought he was fighting his fight in a strong way and coming out a single parent, losing his wife, all the things he was dealing with in the hospital.”

The second season death of his wife, Nina (Deborah White), provided one of the most memorable and touching moments not only of St. Elsewhere, but of television in general. That was particularly dramatic material but, after that, Jack’s traumas began piling up. His medical license proved to be invalid because he went to a shady school overseas. His brief romance with a woman named Clancy (Helen Hunt) ended after she cheated and aborted a pregnancy. Jack got temporarily paralyzed. His young son Pete was abducted. The clincher came when, while performing required volunteer duty at a prison, Jack was raped by an inmate. As if rape of any sort calls for puns and mocking, that episode bears the name “Cheek to Cheek.” Later, when that inmate, Nick Moats (John Dennis Johnston), gets out of prison and tries to find Jack again,  little Pete, unbeknownst to his father, swaps his cap pistol for the real gun Morrison purchased for protection. When Jack aims to kill Moats, he’s unarmed. Thankfully, the oblivious toddler wanders in and plugs the bad guy himself, leaving Jack to complain that he was “impotent again.” No wonder Morse felt compelled to play so many bad guys later in his career.

Jack Morrison Suffers

I asked Morse if at any point he talked to the producers or the writers about the nonstop barrage of suffering placed on Morrison’s shoulders. “I never really talked to them. No. I have my own theories about it and my own thoughts about it, but it’s kind of like talking about your own family,” Morse said. “I don’t really want to express it because we never really have talked about it. I think it’s more complicated than just what was on the screen.” I believe clues to the reasons behind the onslaught have been in plain view for a long time, though I can’t prove my hypothesis definitively. First though, a shaggy dog story.

How many remember the NBC series Here’s Boomer, that began in March 1980 and whose final episode aired a few months before St. Elsewhere’s premiere? That small number would be a lot smaller if Mark Tinker didn’t remind everyone repeatedly that the show about a mixed-breed terrier, a sort of canine Lone Ranger who traveled from town to town helping those in need before moving on, led to Jack Morrison’s nickname “Boomer” on St. Elsewhere. As Tinker has said since at least a Dec. 1, 1986 article in Us magazine by Mark Morrison, on the 2006 DVD commentary track of the “Cora and Arnie” episode, and to me personally, “The network was quite enamored of that program. On that show, they would tell the producers, they wanted more Boomer. On our show, they wanted more Morrison. Somehow we turned that into wanting more Boomer, and so we gave [Jack] the nickname Boomer.” Tinker says the same network executives sent those notes, and the Us article specifically refers to Here’s Boomer and St. Elsewhere having a common director who shared that story—the only common helmer being Victor Lobl. The Us article also quotes St. Elsewhere writer-producer and Tinker’s co-developer, John Masius, as admitting that by the end of the first season, Jack’s self-righteousness began to bore some of the writers and “we chipped away at his façade.” Funny. Watching the first season again, while I realize that Morse was playing a character, I had no inkling that Jack Morrison himself was some kind of phony putting on a show. He appeared genuinely sincere to me. The Us story and another one in People magazine the same year promoted Morrison’s wedding in the fifth season to Bonnie (Patricia Wettig), pushing the notion that Jack’s suffering might be over. One sentence in the Sept. 29, 1986 People story by Suzanne Adelson read, “’It's definitely going to get better for Jack,’ promises co-producer John Masius, ‘but it isn't going to be Miracle on 34th Street.’” Morse was quoted then as skeptically saying, “I think they're having too much fun with Jack for things to get better.” His instincts proved correct, since marital bliss ended up hampered by a former husband, Bonnie's departure for Seattle, and the eventual return of Nick Moats and his encounter with pistol-packing little Pete. If I’m correct at what lay behind the tormenting of Morse and Morrison, its impetus truly was nothing short of juvenile. Of course, it’s all speculation on my part, combined with bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence, though it might be telling to look at which members of the behind-the-scenes St. Elsewhere team Morse worked with again and which ones he didn’t.

Whatever prompted that nonsense, it doesn’t change the fact that Morse persevered and made Jack Morrison one of many great performances in his career. Pickett, whose character briefly hooked up with Jack in the final season, remembers “how shy David Morse was and I was shy, so we were shy together.” The ensemble welcomed Nancy Stafford in the second season as Joan Halloran, the person assigned by the city to oversee St. Eligius’ budget, as well as the love interest for the hospital’s new plastic surgeon, Dr. Bobby Caldwell (Mark Harmon). She remains proud of the success her co-stars have achieved. ”It sure did launch some great on-camera people. Howie Mandel is still doing stuff. He proved in that series to be a very underrated actor. David Morse is such a great actor, and I've always wanted to work with him again. I'm sorry I haven't had that chance over the years, but he proved to be just this amazing guy. Of course, then you get Mark Harmon and Denzel (Washington). So proud of those guys.” Still, Jack’s first tragedy in that second season provided Morse and Morrison with that indelible television moment.

The excerpt above can’t quite do justice to the convergence of storylines that led to that remarkable ending. It was the fourth episode of the second season. Stafford’s Joan Halloran had just been introduced as the “bad guy” because her job description made her ever-watchful for St. Eligius’ expenditures, which received a large added expense in the first episode when Alan Arkin’s Jerry Singleton decided to redecorate the E.R. with his car. At the same time, Dr. Craig was determined to perform a heart transplant on a longtime and otherwise healthy patient, the near saint Eve Leighton (the late Marian Mercer). Morrison’s main patient was Piper Laurie’s recovering stroke victim Fran Singleton. Then tragedy strikes in the form of a freak accident that takes Nina Morrison’s life. She becomes the heart donor for Eve Leighton, leading to an unforgettable scene, as Jack quietly listens for a connection to the wife taken from him so suddenly. “I’ve had so many people talk to me about that over the years,” Morse said. “Of course, everybody thinks they’re the only one who remembers it and they’re the only one it meant so much to—I can’t even give a number to the number of people who have talked to me about that episode. It’s an iconic moment in television, I think.” So iconic that more than a decade later, the soap opera General Hospital essentially ripped it off when the young daughter of one of its doctors died and her heart saved another child’s life, sending the daytime doctor to listen to his late daughter’s heart as well. “Steal from the best,” Morse said. Despite all of Jack Morrison’s trial and tribulations, he (and Morse) did receive a quite appropriate on-air gift in the show’s final episode.

This article is related to: Television, video essay


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