Cast grieves, rejoices as NBC pulls the plug
By Bob Strauss
Long-suffering St Eligius finally closes its doors
Tonight, leaving options for Boston’s sick and the nation’s quality-television lovers severely constricted.
For six years, the NBC series St Elsewhere literally set the standard for network programming, offering a consistently high level of realistic writing, ensemble acting, narrative experimentation and outrageous humor. Second only to Hill Street Blues in cumulative Emmy awards, the series was nurtured by NBC despite its mediocre ratings with an eye to future syndication sales. The syndication market for hour-long dramas, however, is at an unprecedented low.
So, NBC decided, St Elsewhere had to go.
For the many actors whose careers were launched, justified or revitalized by the show, response to the immediate end is as varied and individual as the program itself. But whether they’re leaving St Elsewhere with relief or regret, all agree that the past six years have been profoundly rewarding.
As Dr. Mark Craig, the hospital’s brilliant chief surgeon, William Daniels developed insensitivity to a high art form. A poor boy from Brooklyn, Daniels’ exemplary journeyman career led him through a broad spectrum of acting experiences before he settled into the Eligius operating room.
A graduate of Northwestern University (where he met his wife of 31 years and Elsewhere co-star — Bonnie Bartlett), he has played a wimp-turned-superhero on the TV series Captain Nice; John Adams in Broadway’s 1776, the movie version of the play and PBS’ The Adams Chronicles; Dustin Hoffman’s father (though he’s only 10 years older) in The Graduate; and the voice of a talking car for the TV show Knight Rider.
Paradoxically, it’s the mean-spirited Dr. Craig who turned Daniels into a beloved personality. So far, he has won Best Actor Emmys two years in a row for his portrayal of Craig.
“I don’t know why the character got that popular,” Daniels muses in that precise, edgy voice. “He yells at everybody and they love it. Now, I even do that on the street. Personally, I’m slightly withdrawn and rather shy, so I found the best way to deal with this high visibility was to just play the character. People come up and I say, ‘What do you want? You want an autograph? Oh, all right, give it here.’ They just start giggling. They love it.”
Daniels won’t miss it too much, however. Though he and Bartlett were developing series ideas together before the writers’ strike intervened, he’s happily turned down a number of recent film offers. “I get better material on TV,” he says, echoing the sentiments of several Elsewhere alums. For the moment, he’s looking forward to doing nothing.
St Elsewhere opening credits (video from Season 4)
The TV relationship between the demanding Craig and Ellen, his patient, witty wife, is no case of art mirroring life. Bartlett confirms she’s the family workaholic. “Bill’s the lazy bum of the world,” Bartlett laughs, cracking a rare joke. “I’m a driven person. I do the bookwork, laundry, everything. I’m not good at allocating responsibility, whereas he’s content just to rest.”
Ellen Craig offered Bartlett a lot more than the occasional chance to be funny. “I loved the physical part of it! They’ve always made Ellen look very attractive, like she was the best-looking girl at Penn.”
Bartlett never felt that way when she was a schoolgirl back in Moline, Ill. “I didn’t think I could get arrested. It was nice to play someone whom everybody, including herself, accepts as attractive. I never considered myself that when I was young, so it’s fun to do it as a middle-aged woman.”
Bartlett is not pleased that the show’s ending comes just as Ellen begins asserting herself, both at work and romantically. “I wish it could have gone on longer,” she laments. “I had a tremendous feeling of emptiness when I realized it was really going to be over. Even though the writers had a great deal of power and there was a lot of discussion and infighting, there was still no comparison between St Elsewhere and the average TV show. We took some wonderful chances.”
True to form, Bartlett won’t be lounging around waiting for the writers’ strike to end. She’s already found a feature film role to her liking. In Twins, she’ll play both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny De Vito’s mother.
St Elsewhere – Norman Lloyd
If Ed Flanders’ Dr. Westphall represented the hospital’s heart and Daniels’ Craig its ego, Norman Lloyd’s Dr. Daniel Auschlander was definitely St Elsewhere’s backbone. Calm, kindly and almost infinitely wise, Dr. Auschlander quietly fought cancer for years while dispensing good advice to his younger, more distraught companions in healing.
In a similarly grandfatherly manner, Lloyd, 73, regaled the junior actors between takes with 56 years’ worth of show-business stories. A stage veteran who helped found the Mercury Theatre with Orson Welles and John Houseman, Lloyd appeared in films by Alfred Hitchcock (he was the spy who fell from the Statue of Liberty in the classic sequence in Saboteur), Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir and Lewis Milestone.
He gave up acting in the late 1950s to concentrate on television producing and directing, devoting years to such landmark shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and PBS’ Hollywood Television Theatre.
St Elsewhere became Lloyd’s first and only acting stint on a regular weekly series, with a cast that he declares “absolutely the best ensemble around.”
“There’s no great emotional reaction, but of course I regret losing the character,” he confesses. “I had the deepest affection for Auschlander. Gradually, over the years, the writers put things of Norman Lloyd into the character my love of tennis and music, some of my background. So he was actually closer to me than anything I’d ever played.”
Though he predicts he’ll inevitably go back to his old producing ways, Lloyd says he’s open for another well-written role, or, especially, fulfilling his lifelong dream. “What I would really like to do is the one thing, curiously, that I’ve never done — direct a feature film,” he says.
St Elsewhere – Sagan Lewis
Sagan Lewis, who plus upcoming surgeon Jackie Wade, has always been St Elsewhere’s neglected child. Though she has been at the teaching hospital since the first season and has steadily become a more integral dramatic element in the show, she didn’t get her name in the opening-cred- its crawl until this season.
“I enjoyed playing her, really liked her, but for me it’s time to move on,” Lewis says. “I want to do other projects where more of my talents are used. I need to explore the passionate side of my acting a little bit more.”
Nothing suitably expansive has presented itself yet, so Lewis’ immediate plans are to spend a month hiking in the mountains. “The show spoiled me,” she says. “Now I’m very picky about what I’ll do. St Elsewhere was innovative and special, and I loved the way that it constantly took risks. It’s very important for me to do something which, at least, is controversial and looks at the world, as fully and with as much humor as St Elsewhere did.”
St Elsewhere – David Morse
Sagan Lewis might have been neglected by the St Elsewhere staff, but David Morse’s character, Dr. Jack “Boomer” Morrison, was downright abused. Starting out six years ago as perhaps the most a competent of the young interns, Morrison since has been widowed, raped, terrorized by a psychotic criminal (whom he watched his young son kill) and abandoned by his second wife. Naturally, his self-confidence has taken a long and precipitous nosedive.
The only St Elsewhere actor to actually hail from the Boston area, Morse denies he’s anything like hard-luck Morrison. “I’m just a very private person,” he says. “I guess that leaves a lot to the imagination.”
Still, his career profile somewhat parallels that of the character. He went straight from high school into stage work, eventually hooking up with New York’s acclaimed Circle Repertory. In 1980, he landed a starring role in the feature film Inside Moves. Then everything stopped — until St Elsewhere came along.
Morse relocated to California where, after five years, producer Bruce Paltrow finally made up for the indignities heaped on Morrison by letting Morse direct several of the last season’s episodes. “Directing was something I had always wanted to do,” says Morse, but like his uncertain character, “I never felt comfortable about expressing that desire.
The best thing about St Elsewhere was the people; it was like having a family to go to on a regular basis. Actors don’t get that a whole lot. It finally made me feel comfortable enough to say something about wanting to direct”
Nevertheless, Morse is glad to be moving on. “Other than the natural insecurity that goes with being an actor, it’s actually kind of exciting. I really have started feeling like an actor again. Although I’m open to a good series, I’d rather do as many different kinds of things as I can. There’s just something about a regular series that takes a lot out of you, which it doesn’t give back in some ways.”