When I asked Tom Fontana if he had a particular favorite episode among the many in which he contributed during his six years writing and producing on the show, he replied, “I don’t think we ever made a perfect St. Elsewhere episode, but maybe that’s the nature of episodic television.” I found myself instinctively defending the show that transformed Fontana from a struggling playwright to a television success when I responded reflexively, “Time Heals” comes pretty damn close.” Fontana agreed somewhat about what to me clearly stands out as St. Elsewhere’s crowning achievement. Thankfully, the ambitious, amazing two-part episode from the fourth season happens to be the other St. Elsewhere episode that I managed to store on video all these decades. “Time Heals” manages to astound you just as much now as when it first aired on back-to-back February nights in 1986. In 1997, TV Guide ranked it No. 44 in their 100 best episodes of all time. I don’t have that full list handy, but I imagine that some of those 43 ranked above it were overrated. “Time Heals” uses the premise of the 50th anniversary of St. Eligius in 1985 (yes, despite this episode’s greatness, it does flout the show’s own time laws) to tell the back stories of Auschlander, Craig, Rosenthal and Westphall (and even a young Luther) in 10-year increments going back to the hospital’s opening in 1935 as a Catholic hospital by a priest named Father Joseph McCabe (played in an Emmy-nominated guest turn—the Emmys finally added that category—by Edward Herrmann).

Herrmann creates a remarkable character in McCabe from those opening moments of “Time Heals, Part 1,” where we just see him dancing his way through the empty hospital, preparing it for its opening, while an instrumental version of Ain’t Misbehavin’ plays through the loudspeakers. Viewers never have met McCabe before, yet without a word, Herrmann manages to evoke someone that you’d swear you’d known your whole life—or at least the entire run of the series. With just a bit of dialogue at the end of the gorgeous black-and-white sequence, Herrmann leaves an indelible impression—and it only grows in strength from there. Herrmann had been a friend of Bruce Paltrow and Blythe Danner for many years through work at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Herrmann credits Paltrow for making McCabe such a vivid creation from that opening scene. “Bruce had a very good idea about the kind of man (McCabe) was and I just sort of built on that. I’ve known a number of priests and it’s grand to break stereotypes,” Herrmann said. “The church was very strict in the ‘20s, the ‘30s, the ‘40s—basically until Vatican II in the early ‘60s—but that did not mean that priests could not be lively and full of humor. The idea that religion is in the trenches, that it’s not just in the church.” McCabe can be appropriately peeved when an adolescent Donald Westphall (Michael Sherrell) expresses prejudice, and suitably annoyed when a parishioner interrupts his trip to the bathroom stall to transform it into a makeshift confessional.

McCabe Makeshift Confessional

We get to see McCabe in 1935, 1945 and 1955. Ed Flanders not only plays younger incarnations of Donald Westphall in 1955, 1965 and 1975 sequences, he also takes on the role of Westphall’s father in the earlier decades as we learn the tragedies that always struck the Westphall family. Norman Lloyd gets to play Auschlander from 1955 on but when the Jewish doctor arrives on the scene in 1945—and almost immediately faces blatant and ugly anti-Semitism—James Stephens takes on the role. Viewers get to see Daniel’s courtship of young Katherine (played by Devon Ericson before she ages into Jane Wyatt). William Daniels gets a lot of the laughs as we see that in his younger days, Mark Craig basically behaved like Ehrlich to his mentor Dr. David Domedion (played in the 1955 scene by Jackie Cooper, 64 at the time, though at the end of the previous season, i.e. 30 years later, I guess, an 83-year-old Dean Jagger turned up as the ailing Domedion). It even turns out that the medical instrument which was given by Craig to Ehrlich, after saying that Domedion presented it to him, was actually purloined by Craig. When Christina Pickles arrives from England in 1965, Nurse Helen just has logged her first marriage and her last name is Eisenberg. We also get to follow the story of one family through those decades and how learning a medical secret from the past solves a medical mystery in the present.

Written by John Tinker, Masius and Fontana and directed by Mark Tinker, “Time Heals” also is a technical knockout. For a series always in danger of cancellation and a limited budget, spectacular production values pervade the entire two hours with each time period using color and variations on the familiar musical themes to evoke the decade being portrayed. Of the 14 Emmy nominations that St. Elsewhere received for its fourth season, six came from one or both parts of “Time Heals” and it won for costuming, art direction, sound mixing and writing, Separately that year, Daniels won his second consecutive Emmy as lead actor and Bonnie Bartlett won her first as supporting actress, the first time spouses won Emmys on the same night. “They just got very involved in our personal life and I came up with the idea of us having the grandchild and the son dying, whom Bill took to Bruce Paltrow, and those are very powerful episodes and that’s what got me the first Emmy,” Bartlett said. “It was the writing. It was great.” Another nomination that year went to Alfre Woodard who garnered a lead nomination when she joined the ensemble as ob-gyn Dr. Roxanne Turner, though she didn’t appear in the opening credits. In one of the very best scenes of “Time Heals, Part 2,” the church sells St. Eligius to the city and makes plans to transfer McCabe elsewhere. The priest explains to Auschlander why he named the hospital after that particular saint. I’m surprised more people didn’t make that connection when the show’s ending came around.