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

by Edward Copeland
November 5, 2012 8:00 AM
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While I disagree mostly with O’Connor’s 1986 assessment, it’s not because I found him completely offbase—I was a senior in high school by then, and lucky if I found a Sunday New York Times, so I didn’t read it when written. My main criticism would be that he’d addressed problems two years too late, after the ship had pretty well righted itself. On Feb. 15, 1984, the St. Eligius rapist first struck in the parking lot. Even at 14, I thought it was an odd move in an up-to-that-point stellar season, especially since the first victim wasn’t a character viewers knew. It didn’t look as if they were embarking on a rape victim’s storyline. The next sexual assault victim turned out to be Cathy Martin, in the morgue, the site of some of her consensual sexual encounters, and she managed to pull off the rapist’s ski mask—as viewers know—but the script the actors originally received just ended with Cathy being attacked. Terence Knox, the actor playing Dr. Peter White, who just had barely escaped punishment over stealing drugs, was appearing in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at José Ferrer’s Coconut Grove theater in Miami during the show’s holiday break. He had given the script a cursory read, but he had other lines on his mind at the time. While in his hotel room awaiting rehearsal, he received a phone call from John Masius. “He said, ‘Listen, you’re going to be the rapist.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You’re going to be the rapist.’ I just shrieked with despair and said, ‘No. No. I won’t do it,’ and I hung up the phone,” Knox told me. “The next day, I called them back and they were pissed off because I’d hung up the phone. They were pissed at me and I was pissed at them, but I was very grateful to them because everything I had as a career was owed to their giving me a shot. I guess it was my vanity more than anything else that was offended by the thought of myself being the rapist. I said I would do it and, as you know, I did.”

Later, Knox said he received assurances that White “was going to get away with it” and he learned that he’d be back for the third season. Between seasons, Executive Producer Bruce Paltrow “told me that they were probably gonna have to kill me off because they can’t have a rapist as one of the main characters on a show. They were probably gonna kill me off after eight or so episodes,” Knox said. “They were very kind to me. They gave me a career that I didn’t have and would not have had otherwise.” Still, the rapist storyline, as skillfully as Knox played the psychotic White, just distracted from the show’s other elements. It almost seemed like a precursor for the week-after-week, year-after-year chamber-of-horror shows such as Criminal Minds or Law & Order: SVU. “You know, [Terence Knox] was scary good in that role,” Nancy Stafford said. “Once he wrapped his head around being the rapist, boy—he totally got into it. He truly was frighteningly good in that part. I think it was a breakout for him, performance wise.”

For season two, St. Elsewhere received four out of the six Emmy nominations in the Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series Category. Three of those came from the first five episodes and only one—a classic disconnected from the rapist storyline—arrived late in the season. That episode, “The Women,” won the prize for the story by Tom Fontana and Masius and the teleplay by John Ford Noonan. It featured Paltrow’s wife, Blythe Danner, Brenda Vaccaro, and theater legend Eva Le Gallienne as the title characters sharing a hospital room. It's unfortunate that the episode provided no interaction between Le Gallienne’s character and Norman Lloyd’s Auschlander since Lloyd began his acting career with Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre in New York, making his stage debut in the company’s production of Liliom in 1932 when Lloyd was 17 and she was 33. “When she was on the set, I brought her flowers and sort of had a welcome reunion with her,” Lloyd said. “I hadn’t seen her in many, many, many years. It was lovely to see her and she remembered me, but I didn’t do any scenes with her.” Danner relishes the memory of working with the acting giant on that episode. “That was a great experience on ‘The Women,’ working with one  of the greatest American actresses, Eva Le Gallienne,” Danner said. “That was an incredible honor because a lot of people think she really is the first lady of the American stage and Brenda Vaccaro was a friend.” Not only did “The Women” allow Danner the chance to act opposite Le Gallienne and Vaccaro, her late husband directed her and she got to speak those award-winning words. “I remember having the great opportunity to work on that great monologue about my nose—that I wanted to make it more interesting, to give it a bump but Tom was so sweet and let me work on that with him,” she said. “It was a great experience.” Le Gallienne passed away in 1991 at 92.

That Emmy win for writing was the sole win for St. Elsewhere for the second season. Daniels and Begley received repeat nominations and Piper Laurie earned a supporting actress nomination. Stafford, who joined the cast as a regular that season, found both her favorite episodes that year. ”I think one of the funniest episodes was ‘Rough Cut.’ It's the one which has a lot of comedy where Dr. Caldwell—you know, Mark (Harmon) and I were about to go off to Paris—and he is telling them he has to rush rush rush hurry hurry and zips up his pants and he catches his (penis),” Stafford recalls. “I have to take him into the ER and he literally has to get uncut from his pants. You know he's in a lot of pain and, of course, the doctor who is assigned to tend to him was Cynthia Sikes. He asks, ‘Is there anybody else who could help?’” That particular episode also included Dr. Wendy Armstrong’s suicide, indicative of how no St. Elsewhere episode devoted all its time to comedy. I do wonder if The Farrelly Brothers were watching. “The other episode that I just love so much that I'm really proud of, because it was such a delight to do while it was hard at the same time, was an episode called ‘In Sickness and In Health’ when my dad died. William Windom was my dad. So awesome working with him,” Stafford said of the actor, who died in August at 88. “Priscilla Pointer played my mom. She was great. I liked (that one) because that was an opportunity for Joan  to get out of her strait-laced, hard-nosed ice queen role and just play being vulnerable.”

Furst 2

That season also marked Stephen Furst’s first appearances as Elliot Axelrod, when Axelrod still was a med student. “I wasn’t working at the time and (my agent) said, ‘There’s a part on St. Elsewhere.’ . . . So I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do the part.’ She said, ‘It’s a small part.’ I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ She said, ‘No no—they want you to audition.’ I said, ‘What?’ and I got on my actor high horse and I said, ‘I’m not going to audition for this—one scene.’ She said, ‘You know, it’s a prestigious show,’” Furst recalled. “So I went and I auditioned and I did the one scene. By the time I drove home, I had already gotten a call that they had added another scene. I don’t think it was because of my performance from the first scene, I think they just had decided to write another scene. So it turned into a nice part with two scenes in it. Then about three weeks later, they had me come back and do the same part, the same character, small part. Then the third time, about four weeks later, they asked me to come back and do another one where the part was the lead. During the filming of that one, Bruce Paltrow came down and asked me if I’d sign a five-year contract and before he finished saying ‘tract’ on 'contract,' I had already signed.”

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  • 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:

    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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