Sunday, June 30, 2013

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 1 - Medical Seminar: St. Elsewhere... Emphasis on Education, Awareness, Prevention

From On Call: The Official Newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, February 1997, volume 1, number 1.

Most television programs are designed for pure entertainment, while others offer a moral. A few programs even challenge us to think, and some provide topical information. But St. Elsewhere was and still is unique because it meets all of those criteria.

Above all, St. Elsewhere was a pioneer in addressing and dealing with a host of topical and/or controversial diseases and disorders, and making us more aware in the process.

Executive Producer BRUCE PALTROW told ON CALL: "In all honesty, I think what you start out to do is try to make a very good program that's appealing to an audience, that will bring people in, that you want them to care about the characters and, first and foremost, we're storytellers. So first you've got to make a good show. In those days you did an awful lot of research. I read an awful lot of JAMA, The New England Journal of Medicine, and science sections of the New York Times because I was always looking for stories. You would always try to come up with stories that would be compelling and entertaining storytelling, but that would educate people in a way that they hadn't been educated before, and do it in ways that were dramatic. I feel that if you're fortunate enough to make a good show and you have an opportunity to be on television - I think there's a greater responsibility that you have in order to make it count."

Cynthia Sikes
CYNTHIA SIKES (Dr. Annie Cavanero) added, "That's what was so appealing about the show. It was a dream for an actress to be able to participate in a show that had made some contribution - that enlightened people in some way... that you feel you're doing something helpful."

NORMAN LLOYD (Dr. Daniel Auschlander) agrees. "...this is why it was one of the glories of my experience in show business which is now 64 years, and why my admiration for Bruce and the crew is unlimited. I think Bruce wanted to touch on all these issues and so did Tom Fontana and so did all the guys who worked on it from the creative point of view - even the guys who created it, Josh Brand and John Falsey. And this was the great thing about the show - it went into areas that nothing was going into, and this is what made it so wonderful to be on this show... and why you went to work everyday knowing that you were doing important work, because you were reaching out to millions of people through the television medium with these subject matters."

Through out its six year run, St. Elsewhere made us aware of scores of familiar and not so familiar diseases and disorders, some as Lloyd said, for the first time on any television series. The topic of AIDS, for example, was first addressed during the second season (episode 31) in a storyline involving a Boston politician who had contracted the virus.

In season four, Dr. Bobby Caldwell learns he has contracted AIDS as a result of this promiscuous and reckless lifestyle (epsiodes 83 and 84). And in the final season, St. Elsewhere returned to the topic, focusing on a young gay man and his lover. There is a recurring storyline (episodes 118, 119, 120, 123, 126) serving as the catalyst for Dr. Seth Griffin's "needle pick driven" religious conversion, and for a change in the way other characters (as well as viewers) thought about and dealt with the deadly disease.

Another storyline dealt with testicular cancer, but this time humor was introduced to lighten the mood, and to help educate us in a more palatable way. The now-famous Ehrlich "Self Exam" scene was the device.

BRUCE PALTROW: "Craig and Ehrlich are in the O.R. having a conversation about testicular cancer and the importance of self examination. Then Ehrlich looks down at himself and is quickly scolded by Craig, who shouts "Not NOW Ehrlich!" Funny, but the message  was there."

ED BEGLEY recounted the scene for ON CALL: "It was Director David Anspaugh's idea for Ehrlich to look down at himself like that. To be quite honest, I thought, 'Wow! That's pretty broad.' I'm not saying I fought them on it, but it turned out to be a very funny moment, and something that had impact on people... but I'll take no credit for it, I was even somewhat resistant to it even."

For millions of women, Nurse Rosenthal's bout with breast cancer (and her subsequent implant) was an important characterization, as CHRISTINA PICKLES recalled for ON CALL: "I did a lot of research on breast cancer, and what it felt like, and what it was like afterwards... I was very interested in that. I felt a tremendous responsibility to get it right and the writers and producers were 100% behind theat. I went to the Breast Cancer Center with Tom Fontana and we worked together. I didn't write any of it because I'm not a writer, but Tom did ask what I felt about it. I received letters from people with breast cancer saying the show made them feel better. I was very happy about that."

A woman in the studio audience of a Donahue taping once told the St. Elsewhere cast, "I was in the hospital 21 days with colon cancer. Friends, God and St. Elsewhere were responsible for healing me." Such grateful feedback was common for St. Elsewhere cast members.

Ed Begley, Jr.
ED BEGLEY: "It made me feel good being attached to the show. I'm sure it made the writers feel very good because they were the ones that created all that. We just showed up and said what they wrote for us."

CYNTHIA SIKES remembers: "People would call in a lot to say they had a cousin or a family member that had a particular disease or a particular problem and that it was so great that it enlightened people about it... brought attention to it, or they just got a chance to see their story, in a way - through somebody else's eyes, kind of get a new perspective on it."

STEPHEN FURST (Dr. Elliott Axelrod) told ON CALL, "I feel that the writers chose topics that were of interest to people - diseases that people didn't even know about. We did a two-part episode on Tourette's Syndrome, and nobody had even heard of it before."

JENNIFER SAVIDGE (Nurse Lucy Papandrao) shared her thoughts with us as well: "People with Tourette's were writing and saying 'I've been a pariah in my community, and now there's an awareness of what it's all about. People are less frightened about dealing with me.'"

Of course there were a host of well known diseases entering the halls of St. Eligius, ranging from alcoholism to obesity. In fact, STEPHEN FURST had an influence on one story line that actually combined the two. "One time I was talking to Bruce about being overweight, and our conversation ended up in a script a few weeks later which dealt with me trying to lose weight. I told Bruce 'You know it's different for an alcoholic because an alcoholic can stop drinking - you don't have to drink to survive, but you have to eat every day. So that temptation is always there to eat a little more.' An so Elliott had a scene with an alcoholic patient about three weeks later and the alcoholic started by saying 'Why should I stop drinking? You're addicted to food. I'm addicted to booze,' and then Elliott replied with the conversation I had had with Bruce."

And while Furst deserves credit for inspiring that scene, he also received kudos for one in which he didn't even appear. "We did an episode on Neurofibromatosis (episodes 60, 64, 65, 66) and later I was doing a convention somewhere and a whole group of people with the disease came to visit me, which caused quite a stir in the hotel lobby. They just wanted to see me and tell me thank you - although I had nothing to do with the episode, they knew someone from St. Elsewhere was there.

And then there was Auschlander's liver cancer, which ran the entire length of the series. Certainly liver cancer was nothing new to the public, but the decision to keep Auschlander in remission and leading a productive life offered, in itself, a major contribution in the way Americans dealt with terminal illness. In addition, experimental treatments and drugs were sometimes the focus of attention, such as Auschlander's humorous experimentation with marijuana. BRUCE PALTROW is still fond of that scene: "Norman was great when he was 'loaded' going down to the 7-Eleven (episode 34). But now (the prescription use of marijuana) is an initiative here on the ballot in California."

And so, amazingly, fifteen years since its premiere and nearly a decade since its departure, St. Elsewhere is still as relevant today as it was then, serving a vital purpose of education and prevention, even in re-runs.

BRUCE PALTROW: "Oh I think the show is very topical. The show is unbelievably topical. I think people who didn't see it the first time around could benefit from seeing it now."

CHRISTINA PICKLES sadly agrees: "Oh no, it isn't outdated at all. Unfortunately, there's still AIDS, there's still cancer in the world, people still suffer, people still need."

CYNTHIA SIKES adds: "It dealt with so many different things, I think maybe in a few years it could be somewhat outdated because of new medicines and new techniques coming in, but in lieu of that, it certainly is still very topical."

And says STEPHEN FURST: "I don't think it's outdated at all. I've had many people come up to me and say 'I watch ER and I watch Chicago Hope, but nothing can compare to St. Elsewhere."

And so it's no surprise that after all these years (and helped by re-runs on Nick at Nite's TV LAND) feedback from grateful people and their families continues to this day, and St. Elsewhere's influence is still being felt. NORMAN LLOYD relates one example. "I have on occasion gone over to the UCLA hospital, not as a patient but at events, particularly at the Jules Stein Eye Institute. And there's a man there who was introduced to me as a world class figure in eye research. And I said 'hello', and he said 'I want to tell you something. Do you know that you inspired me to become a physician?'" LLOYD added: "Now it's not me, it's what the show permitted me to appear in, it's what the show did. The doctor also said to me 'The attitude of Auschlander towards his patients and fellow doctors was something that I found inspirational."

Christina Pickles
So, what story lines would St. Elsewhere offer if the show went back into production today? One idea comes to mind for CHRISTINA PICKLES: "If St. Elsewhere were being produced today I think they would be writing about doctor assisted suicide, they would have a character based on that." PICKLES also believes teh show would have expanded its attacks on managed care and mega-mergers: "I think it's very sad what's happening today and I think the St. Elsewhere writers would be addressing that issue today."

Musings for a reunion aside, however, what we are left with is a quality television program blessed with excellent writers. Still, talk to any cast member and they will tell you that St. Elsewhere's commitment to health education, awareness, and prevention was the vision of one man... Bruce Paltrow.

ED BEGLEY: "Bruce was the one driving the horses, so I think it was his vision more than anyone."

Says PALTROW: "If we are fortunate enough to be fortunate, then we have an obligation or responsibility to the greater good of the community."

But in addition to giving new generations of viewers the benefit of that "greater good", Paltrow's vision continues to have a long lasting impact on the actors who helped generate meaningful feedback from the American "community".

JENNIFER SAVIDGE: " think about the experience you have on a show like St. Elsewhere where you know you don't supply the medication, but maybe you sent somebody in the right direction, and you get letters that make you feel like you are administering to humanity by doing something you love to do. I'll always be proud of the work I did on St. Elsewhere, not just for the work I did, but that I was part of a show that was capable of doing something like that and eliciting that kind of response from people."

Originally produced by Longworth Communications.

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