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While overcrowding and understaffing caused Boston public hospital St Eligus to be viewed as a place of last resort and a dumping ground for patients not wanted by the higher-class and more expensive medical facilities in Boston, “St Elsewhere” (as the hospital was known) hung together by virtue of its strong, dedicated staff of professionals.
Dr Westphall (Ed Flanders) was the chief of staff, a seasoned doctor and father figure to the young interns and residents completing their training there; Dr Craig (William Daniels), an egotistical heart surgeon who was a brilliant doctor, but totally oblivious to his patients’ feelings; and Dr Auschlander (Norman Lloyd), a veteran physician who found he must fight his own battle with cancer.
Among the younger doctors, Dr Samuels (David Birney) was a free spirit who had slept with practically every nurse in the hospital; Dr Fiscus (Howie Mandel) was having an affair with pathologist Cathy Martin (Barbara Whinnery), who insisted on making love on a slab in the morgue among the sheet-draped corpses; Dr Morrison (David Morse) was so dedicated to his work that he neglected his young wife, who died tragically in 1983; Cavanero (Cynthia Sikes) tended to become too involved with her patients; Dr Axelrod (Stephen Furst) was constantly fighting obesity, and Dr Chandler (Stephen Furst) was always afraid he did not quite measure up to the high standards of medicine.
Continuing stories included Auschlander’s coming to terms with his own illness, Nurse Rosenthal (Christina Pickles) and her breast surgery, and Ehrlich’s (Ed Begley Jr) gradual progression from a bright but inexperienced young graduate to a confident doctor and new husband. Peter White (Terence Knox) was a particularly troubled young doctor who, after experiencing marriage difficulties, turned rapist and was eventually shot dead by Nurse Daniels (Ellen Bry).
In 1987, St. Eligius was taken over by the huge, profit-oriented Ecumena Hospitals Corporation, subjecting the staff more than ever to the pressures of the “business” of medicine.
The new Chief of Services, Dr Gideon (Ronny Cox), orchestrated a showdown with Westphall, who responded by mooning him and quitting. Dr Craig, meanwhile, pursued an artificial heart project (the “Craig 9000”), but found his marriage to Ellen Craig (Bonnie Bartlett) collapsing.
While earlier medical dramas like Dr Kildare, Ben Casey, and Marcus Welby MD featured god-like doctors healing grateful patients, the staff here exhibited a variety of personal problems and their patients often failed to recover. It was not uncommon for principal characters to die unexpectedly – which happened on no fewer than five occasions during the run of the series.
The series was often aptly compared to Hill Street Blues, which had debuted a season and a half earlier. Both shows were made by the independent production company MTM Enterprises, and both presented a large ensemble cast, a “realistic” visual style, a profusion of interlocking stories, and an aggressive tendency to break traditional generic rules.
As a medical drama, St. Elsewhere dealt with serious issues of life and death, but every episode also included a substantial amount of comedy. The show was especially noted for its abundance of “in-jokes” that made reference to the show’s own ancestry.
In one episode, for example, an amnesia patient comes to believe that he is Mary Richards from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, MTM Enterprises’ first production. Throughout the episode, the patient makes oblique references to MTM’s entire programme history.
Later, in the series’ final episode, a scene from the last instalment of The Mary Tyler Moore Show is restaged, and the cat that had appeared on the production logo at the end of every MTM show for eighteen years dies as the final credits roll.
That final episode (in May 1988) was bizarre. Auschlander saved the hospital from closing, then died of a stroke; Westphall returned; Craig moved to Cleveland; and in a final, surrealistic scene, the entire six-year saga of St. Elsewhere appeared to have been a figment of the imagination of Westphall’s uncommunicative, autistic young son.
St. Elsewhere was one of the most acclaimed of the upscale serial dramas to appear in the 1980s. Often earning comparatively low ratings, the show was kept on the air because it delivered highly desirable audiences consisting of young, affluent viewers whom advertisers were anxious to reach.
In spite of its never earning a seasonal ranking above 49th place out of about 100 shows, St. Elsewhere aired for six full seasons on NBC from 1982-88 and the series was nominated for 63 Emmy Awards (it won 13).
The series also proved to be a fertile training ground for many of its participants.
At the start of the 1992-93 season, creators John Falsey and Joshua Brand had a critically-acclaimed series on each of the three major networks: Northern Exposure (CBS), I’ll Fly Away (NBC), and Going to Extremes (ABC).
Writer-producer Tom Fontana became the executive producer of Homicide: Life on the Street with Baltimore-based film director Barry Levinson. Other St. Elsewhere producers and writers went on to work on such respected series as Moonlighting, China Beach, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, ER, and Chicago Hope.
Actor Denzel Washington, virtually unknown when he began his role as Dr Philip Chandler, had become a major star of feature films by the time St. Elsewhere ended its run.
St. Elsewhere also exerted a significant creative influence on ER, the hit medical series that debuted on NBC in 1994. While the pacing of ER was much faster, both the spirit of the show and many of its story ideas were borrowed from St. Elsewhere.
Dr Donald Westphall
Dr Mark Craig
Dr Ben Samuels
Dr Victor Ehrlich
Ed Begley Jr.
Dr Jack Morrison
Dr Annie Cavanero
Dr Wayne Fiscus
Dr Cathy Martin
Dr Peter White
Dr Hugh Beale
Nurse Helen Rosenthal
Dr Phillip Chandler
Dr V. J. Kochar
Dr Wendy Armstrong
Dr Daniel Auschlander
Nurse Shirley Daniels
Dr Robert Caldwell
Dr Michael Ridley
Mrs Ellen Craig
Dr Elliot Axelrod
Nurse Lucy Papandrao
Dr Jaqueline Wade
Dr Emily Humes
Dr Alan Poe
Nurse Peggy Shotwell
Dr Roxanne Turner
Dr Seth Griffin
Dr Paulette Kiem
Dr Carol Novino
Dr John Gideon