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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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That exclamation of fear that you hear coming from the residents when they see that perpetual patient Florence Hufnagel has returned lets you know instantly how much the doctors thought of the old woman as one giant pain in the ass. “It was the quintessential story of the patient who drives the medical team crazy and is dropped through the cracks due to annoyance, dying from negligence. It was filled with the beautiful black humor so prevalent in the show,” Jennifer Savidge said. With longtime comic actress Florence Halop in the role, Mrs. Hufnagel turned into comic dynamite. “She was hired to do one episode and she lasted for 18,” said Stephen Furst, whose Elliot Axelrod ended up having the most complex relationship with the woman. “What a pleasure to work with her. She used to always say, ‘I’m so sorry I’m mean to you’ and I’d tell her, ‘That’s OK.’” When I told Savidge about Furst’s story of Halop always apologizing after a scene, she said, “I should have probably apologized to her!” the actress who played caustic Nurse Lucy Papandrao said. “She did relish the line she had asking me if I was a Cretin, since my name was Greek.” Hufnagel delivered another classic rejoinder to Sikes’ Dr. Cavanero in her final season, warning her, "Don't you dare put the hands on me, Butch." Savidge admits, “I often thought of that character whenever I have been hospitalized. I often thought of MY character whenever hospitalized.” That’s understandable. I might not be able to revisit those classic Mrs. Hufnagle moments, but decades and many tours through the U.S. health care system later, I understand her a lot better. Recalling her, I almost feel like gathering victimized and wronged patients across the country and having us one by one shout, “No, I’m Mrs. Hufnagel!" in an homage to both her character and Spartacus.

Halop, whose brother Billy was one of the original Dead End Kids, began her show business career at the age of 4 and worked on Orson Welles Mercury Theater Radio program (I should have asked Norman Lloyd about that.) In a Sept. 25, 1985, Los Angeles Times article about Mrs. Hufnagle’s demise by Morgan Gendel, Halop spoke about the fan mail she received from real patients. "Listen, I got more fan mail that said, 'Thank God you talked about the hospital bill!'" Halop said in the article, referencing a scene where Mrs. Hufnagel challenges a $6.50 charge for rubbing alcohol and complains that she could “buy a bottle of Chivas for that.” True then, true now. If you know what blue pads are, check out what you can buy them for and then ask why a not-for-profit hospital charges $27 for three, The medical adviser on St. Elsewhere advised the writers that, for realism, either she had to get well or she had to die and so she did – suffocated when her hospital bed snapped into a V, though ultimately it turns out a rare surgical mistake by Dr. Craig caused her death. People remember her though. In a 2010 article by Cheryl Clark for HealthLeaders Media, she wrote about Mrs. Hufnagel and about the dangers of readmissions, and how changes under the Affordable Care Act won’t allow Medicare to pay for them, taking those poor suffering hospitals off the gravy train. My heart bleeds. I guess their administrators will have to make less, but I know it will just mean that they’ll understaff nurses on purpose even more than they do now. “I felt very proud to represent the nurses,” Pickles said. She should. Most of a hospital’s burdens fall onto them and they get overworked and underpaid for it. Meanwhile, for the paper pushers at the top, patient care will slip further down on their list of priorities.

Channing Gibson reminded me of one of his favorite Mrs. Hufnagel bits. In her video will, we learn that her maiden name was Gluck and the same law firm had represented the Gluck family since Goody Gluck stood accused at the Salem witch trials. What always tickled Gibson was what Hufnagel told Axelrod in the video was the family motto: “It is better to be despised than forgotten.” After Halop left the show, she won the role of the new bailiff on Night Court when the great Selma Diamond died. Sadly, Florence Halop only had one season there before she died herself at 63. Mrs. Hufnagel wasn’t solely piss and vinegar though as she had a tentative romance with retired vaudevilian Murray Robbin (Murray Rubin). Furst cites the scene where he tries to comfort Mrs. Hufnagel as one of his favorites—it definitely showed a different side of the patient.

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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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