Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The 29th anniversary of the first episode of St. Elsewhere

Twenty-nine years ago today -- on October 26, 1982 -- the first episode of my favorite television show of all time aired on NBC.1 St. Elsewhere ran for six seasons (137 episodes); featured the work of some of this generation's greatest writers, directors, producers and actors; represented a seismic change in approach for television medical dramas (and one that many shows today still owe a debt to); and had one of the most controversial and discussed endings in TV history.

In the 1996 book "Dictionary of Teleliteracy," critic David Bianculli sums up the show in a way I agree wholeheartedly with:
"For what it did, when it did it, and even how it ended, St. Elsewhere gets my vote as the best dramatic series in the history of television. It was more ambitious, playful, intense, and unpredictable than anything else around..."2
I used to have a dozen or so original St. Elsewhere scripts, having collected them in the late 1990s thanks to the then-newfound wonders of eBay. Around the same time, TV Land3 was re-airing the entire series, in order, and I was recording them all onto VHS tapes. I have since winnowed the collection of scripts, keeping only photocopies of St. Elsewhere's first and last episodes. I've also winnowed down the 30+ VHS tapes onto which I had recorded the entire series. I wish, though, someone would make more than just Season 1 of St. Elsewhere available on DVD and/or Hulu.

Pictured at the top of today's post is an excerpt from the first page of the script for St. Elsewhere's pilot episode. In the show's first scene, we are introduced to Dr. Jack Morrison (portrayed by David Morse), an exhausted first-year resident physician at St. Eligius in Boston.

The first episode also introduces many of the series' mainstay characters -- doctors Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders), Daniel Auschlander (Norman Lloyd4), Mark Craig (William Daniels), Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel), Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley Jr.) and Phillip Chandler (Denzel Washington), among others.

Now, flashing forward, here's the final scene from the script for St. Elsewhere's last episode, which originally aired on May 25, 1988.

Robert J. Thompson describes the final scene, and its setup, in the wonderful 1996 book "Television's Second Golden Age":
"The last scene in the hospital shows Westphall and his [autistic] son Tommy in the just-deceased Auschlander's office. Westphall is listening to opera music, as he and Auschlander had often done in the past. His son Tommy is staring out the window at the late spring snow. ... The episode's final scene follows, but it takes place in a very different setting. Tommy is no longer gazing at snow through a window, but at a glass snowball toy. ... Tommy sits on the floor of a grim urban apartment. Sitting on a stuffed chair reading the newspaper is Auschlander; no longer dead and certainly not a doctor. Westphall walks in wearing a hard hat and we learn that he is a construction worker, that 'Auschlander' is his blue-collar father, and that Tommy is his son."
Westphall bends down to Tommy and laments to his father, "I don't understand this autism thing, Pop. Here's my son. I talk to him. I don't even know if he can hear me, because he sits there, all day long, in his own world, staring at that toy. ... What's he thinking about?"5

And that's where the script excerpt shown above kicks in:
TOMMY shakes object in hand, then stares at it. REVEAL GLASS SNOWBALL with snow eddying inside.

Come on, son, let's wash our hands.

TOMMY shakes snowball again. WESTPHALL takes snowball from TOMMY, places it on mantelpiece.6 WESTPHALL, TOMMY, and AUSCHLANDER exit.

On C.U. of SNOWBALL, model of St. Eligius inside, snow swirling about,


Much has been written over the years about the meaning and ramifications of the final scene. One interesting intellectual spin-off is The Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis, which "makes the claim that not only does St. Elsewhere take place within Tommy's mind, but so do numerous other television series which are directly and indirectly connected to St. Elsewhere through fictional crossovers and spin-offs, resulting in a large fictional universe taking place entirely within Tommy's mind."

That fictional universe, in all of its flowchart insanity, is described in detail at "Tommy Westphall's Mind -- A Multiverse Explored." And the hypothesis was refuted in 2004 with "Six Objections to the Westphall Hypothesis."

But admiration for and discussion of St. Elsewhere has persisted over the years for reasons beyond just the finale and for how it helped to boost the early careers of actors like Washington, Morse, Mark Harmon, Alfre Woodard, Helen Hunt and Bruce Greenwood.

From February 1997 through June 1999, Longwood Communications, headed by James L. Longwood Jr., published seven issues of On Call, the official newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club.

I was fortunate enough to find out about this newsletter soon after its inception and have copies of all of them. They are a true labor of love and a treasure trove of information about St. Elsewhere and what happened to its creators and stars. The strength of the newsletters is within the interviews that Longwood conducted with so many of the show's key figures. Some examples:
  • Norman Lloyd discusses the filming of the pilot episode and the original casting of actor Josef Sommer as Dr. Westphall: "The pilot was stopped in mid air. Bruce [Paltrow] was unhappy with the way it was going and he was unhappy with some of the casting. For one thing, Auschlander had originally come from Vienna and had a Viennese accent. We had to drop that. He was also unhappy with the photography which was too pretty -- too romantic ... The cameraman was very good, but it didn't have the roughness Bruce wanted. ... Joseph [sic] was a very good actor, but the quality was not what Bruce wanted, so he got Ed Flanders who, in my view, there was no finer actor in America."
  • William Daniels discusses the production of "Time Heals," a fabulous two-part episode that aired in the show's fourth season and delves into the history of the hospital and characters in a series of flashbacks: "It took six or seven days to shoot the episode and I would say at least three or four days was spent in the flash backs. They dyed our hair, and they pulled our skin back and clamped it in the back, the way I understand Lucy Ball used to do. It was the most painful thing in the world, I mean you couldn't move your head without it hurting."

1. Also on my list of favorite shows: Sports Night, Cheers, NYPD Blue, Star Trek, Monty Python's Flying Circus, Newhart, Friends, Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Office (British version). If miniseries are included, Band of Brothers makes the cut. Honestly, I have watched little television the past 8-10 years, so I have no basis on which to judge The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Lost or Breaking Bad. (I did, however, enjoy the first two seasons of Six Feet Under.) Currently -- and this should come as no surprise to readers who have come to know me -- the one TV show my wife and I now watch together is The Walking Dead.
2. What I don't know, of course, is whether Bianculli would rank any television show from the past 15 years ahead of St. Elsewhere. It's probably safe to say, though, that it hasn't been surpassed by $#*! My Dad Says.
3. Back then, TV Land had a much cooler lineup, airing the likes of St. Elsewhere, Hill Street Blues, The White Shadow1, Cannon and Mannix. Now, the mix of reruns on TV Land is much more geared toward the 1990s and a different generation of viewers. (Isn't it strange to be nostalgic for a different era of programming from a cable channel that panders to viewers' appetites for nostalgia?)
4. I've mentioned this before on Papergreat, but Norman Lloyd is still around! Lloyd turns 97 early next month. He and his wife Peggy celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary on June 29, 2011.
5. There used to be a video clip of St. Elsewhere's final scene available on YouTube. But it has been removed because of a copyright claim by 20th Century Fox, which now owns the series. Maybe if Fox would make the entire series available, we wouldn't have to go searching for our St. Elsewhere fix on YouTube or via other avenues!
6. Instead of a mantelpiece, as scripted, the snow globe is placed, much more appropriately, on top of a television set in the final scene.

Secondary footnote
1. The White Shadow, by the way, has a direct connection to St. Elsewhere. It was produced by the late Bruce Paltrow, who went on to produce St. Elsewhere. And Warren "Cool" Coolidge, a character on The White Shadow who was portrayed by Byron Stewart, resurfaced as a hospital orderly on St. Elsewhere, tying the two series together.


  1. Bravo on an excellent post. But who is Bruce Greenwood?

  2. A pleasure to read this... from someone who loves
    "St. Elsewhere" as much as you do.

    Great job.