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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SHIRLEY’S GOT A GUN

Since Peter White needed to be killed off, someone had to do the killing. They could have had him killed in a police shoot-out or perhaps let the traumatized Cathy Martin take out her revenge. Barbara Whinnery never moved up to regular status. They always could have simply sent White to jail. Someone had a different idea in mind, though I can’t say with certainty where it originated, but I believe I know with whom and why. Ellen Bry portrayed Shirley Daniels, a feisty ER nurse and recurring character in the first season who briefly dated Fiscus until the siren call of Cathy Martin lured him back. Shirley disliked Cathy so much that when she first heard about her rape, she actually told her that she deserved it. In real life, Bry was dating writer-producer John Masius, and they eventually wed—after she’d been written off the show. Daniels lures Peter White to the morgue and, in one of the show’s most infamous scenes, pretends to seduce him before pulling out a gun and executing him—making sure to shoot him first in a place that guarantees his raping days are over.

Writer-producer Tom Fontana and actress Sagan Lewis, who played Dr. Jackie Wade, were married throughout the run of the show but it took quite a while for Wade to grow in prominence. (She didn’t make it to regular status in the opening credits until the final season, when Fontana had left for New York but still worked on the show as a “creative consultant”). Shirley did return twice to St. Eligius for various reasons but, coincidentally, that’s the same number of return appearances that Terence Knox made as Peter White in an episode devoted to dreams and in “After Life,” when a comatose Fiscus takes a tour of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory and encounters several departed characters. Bry cites her last appearance as Shirley in the Season Five episode “Women Unchained” as her favorite. “The last scene of that show is a very dramatic scene between me and David Morse, where I’m being led off in chains again to jail. We have a heart-to-heart conversation in the emergency room,” Bry said. “I had really grown into my character and, I feel, really grown into my acting ability as well. I just felt that I improved as an actor during the course of the show.” Bry and Masius later divorced.

Pittsburgh viewers eagerly awaiting White’s comeuppance didn’t get to see Shirley fill Peter full of holes, as most NBC affiliates across the country did. It seems Pittsburgh station WPXI pre-empted the episode where White gets shot for “a Halloween treat” in the form of the horror movie Burnt Offering, so St. Elsewhere fans became somewhat confused the following week, when the episode started with Peter falling to the ground, shot, according to a Nov. 9, 1984, story in The Pittsburgh Press by Barbara Holsopple. The story quoted WPXI program director Mark Barash as saying, “I took about 10 calls from St. Elsewhere fans. You can’t please everybody.”

WHERE FISCUS DOESN’T KNOW YOUR NAME

On Jan. 9, 1985, the first nonfictional person entered St. Eligius’ emergency room complaining of a possible injury while jogging. Dr. Fiscus dutifully took the name, but "Michael Dukakis" didn’t seem to ring a bell. When Fiscus asked for the jogger’s occupation and the man answered, “Governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Fiscus dropped his pen in disgust and abandoned his station, leaving Elliot to take care of the patient. Fortunately for Gov. Dukakis, Axelrod recognized him. Even more fortunately, Dukakis agreed to talk about his St. Elsewhere cameo 27 years later from his office at Northeastern University in Boston, where he serves as a Distinguished Professor of political science. The former presidential candidate just turned 79 on Saturday.

“I was very committed to developing a very strong film office here in Massachusetts. I thought we had great potential—and we do. I’m not a fan of tax breaks for moviemakers, and we didn’t have any, but I thought this place was a great venue to do TV and movies,” Dukakis said. “I decided early on that I would go to Hollywood and talk to studio heads and spend two or three days there, which I did, because the one thing that was slowing us down was some difficulties the studios were having with some of the local unions, particularly the Teamsters, and I wanted to see if I could straighten that out and get that back on track and convince them we were film friendly.”

 During the trip, the head of the Massachusetts Film Bureau at the time, Marylou Crane, informed the governor of the opportunity to film the St. Elsewhere cameo. “I said, ‘Fine.’ So, early one of those mornings, I showed up and did my little cameo,” Dukakis said. The appearance as himself became the first in a long line of cameos that eventually included Cheers, Spenser for Hire, Lateline and Robert Altman’s Tanner on Tanner. Overall, the visit proved to be a success both for the governor’s state and Dukakis personally. The state’s ranking in film and TV production rose from near the bottom of the list to No. 5 in the U.S. during his tenure. On the trip, he also encountered a distant relative for the first time.  “I met John Cassavetes for the first time, who, it turns out, was about my fourth cousin. His father was a first or second cousin of my mother’s,” he said.

Prior to his St. Elsewhere experience, Dukakis already had logged many hours of television production experience beyond campaign commercials since he served as the moderator for the national current affairs show The Advocates that aired on 200 stations between 1971 and 1973. “I was probably a good deal more familiar with studio production and delivery on camera than most candidates so this wasn’t a particularly novel thing for me,” Dukakis said. “I also knew about doing take after take after take, which we did in this case.”

Boston proved to be a particularly popular setting for TV shows. “At one point, we had four major national series going, all set in Boston. We had St. Elsewhere, Cheers, Spenser for Hire and Paper Chase,” Dukakis said. “At the same time, I was trying to beef up our tourism promotion campaign . . . and people started pouring in here, and they haven’t stopped coming. The Cheers bar continues to be the single most-visited attraction, if you can believe this, in Boston.”

As for the Franklin Square building that stands in for St. Eligius, Dukakis says that it remains and still provides good housing for seniors, though the elevated train seen in the opening credits disappeared long ago when Boston built a subway. While the South Boston neighborhood depicted on St. Elsewhere tended to be depressed and crime ridden, Dukakis reports that isn’t so much the case any longer. Once the overhead transit line was removed and the subway went in, the neighborhood surrounding Franklin Square grew to be quite prosperous and very expensive.

Since Dukakis, at the time St. Elsewhere aired, kept himself busy being governor and laying the groundwork for his 1988 presidential run, he missed the episode a few weeks after his where the writers had some fun by having an actor portray a homeless man who came into the ER and repeated the exact same dialogue to Fiscus that Dukakis did.

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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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