Sunday, July 28, 2013

A New Addition to the Tommy Westphall Universe

Orange Is the New Black is the latest series to establish a common thread holding together another galaxy in the Tommy Westphall Universe.

For those of you who aren't TV geeks, you may not be familiar with the cultural phenomenon known as the Tommy Westphall Universe. Of course, if you've found this site, you probably know what I'm talking about. But if not, the TWU is a massive cluster of television shows that exist in the same fictional "universe" through crossovers, where a character, characters, or mythology from one show shows up in another show.

Let's Potato Chips -- she'd give them a buy, too.
St. Elsewhere's writers loved acknowledging the mythology of other shows, and in many cases, they wrote their characters into other shows and wrote other shows into the world of St. Eligius. When you account for the shows that those other shows crossed over with, a web of a few hundred shows emerges, all presumably existing in the same fictional space. And because the world that was home to St. Eligius turned out to be a figment of Tommy Westphall's (or whatever his real name was) imagination, so too are all the shows connected by these crossovers.

Jenji Kohan's new women-in-prison series (which I have yet to check out, but probably will eventually because I enjoyed Weeds), Orange Is the New Black, has recently entered the TWU, as has observed. The use of Let's Potato Chips, a brand that originated as a running joke on Community, is a pretty firm crossover point, I'd say. Let's Chips also turned up in one of the new episodes of Arrested Development. Arrested Development crossed over with Tom Fontana's Homicide: Life on the Street when Detective John Munch (Richard Belzer) showed up in an episode, and Homicide crossoved over with St. Elsewhere when Drs. Roxanne Turner (Alfre Woodard) and Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) made cameo appearances (Woodard was nominated for an Emmy for hers, as she often is.) So Orange is only four degrees of separation from the source.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 2 - Personnel Profile: Bill and Bonnie Daniels... "The Story of How Captain Nice Met Alice Actress"

From On Call: The Official Newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, July 1997, volume 1, number 2.

George and Gracie, Roy and Dale, Ozzie and Harriet. If there were a Hall of Fame for Television's Great Married Teams, they would be in it. But so would Bill Daniels and Bonnie Bartlett Daniels, whose body of work and critical acclaim is unparalleled. Bill Daniels was born in Brooklyn on March 31, 1927. His father Charles was a bricklayer and his mother Irene a telephone operator. It was Irene who pushed Bill and his sister to perform on stage as the Daniels Family Song and Dance Troupe. Later, Bill made his way to Broadway, appearing in "Life With Father", starting at age 14. His stage father was Howard Lindsay, a man who played an important role in Daniels' career.

"Bill's family all have thick Brooklyn accents. His father says terlet instead of toilet, and things like that. Bill tried very hard not to talk that way.

"Mr. Lindsay worked with Bill. He had a theatrical accent as actors did in those days, so Bill copied that."

Today, that accent (much like Norman Lloyd's) is Bill's stock in trade, and is second nature to him "except", says BARTLETT, "when he gets very angry...the Brooklyn accent will come out."

But while Daniels learned elocution from his stage father, it was his real life Dad who inspired Bill's most important trait...a serious work ethic.

"He's been in the business since he as four years old, and acting is something Bill does to make money."

"Bill is one of those no-nonsense guys who expected people if they were being paid to do a job, to do it well."

Friday, July 12, 2013

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 2 - From the Discharge Department: St. Elsewhere's Last Episode, or "Bobby Ewing Takes a Shower with Rosebud"

From On Call: The Official Newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, July 1997, volume 1, number 2.

Tom Fontana
Photo courtesy Butler Library,
Buffalo St. College
In the annals of television there have been many memorable swan songs. M*A*S*H brought tears from viewers, while Mary Tyler Moore elicited watery eyes from the characters themselves. Newhart took us back to Bob Newhart's bed with Emily, and Dallas allowed two devils to meet in one room. But no series ending has touched off so much debate as did St. Elsewhere's Episode #137, "The Last One". In the series finale, the camera zooms in on a close-up of Tommy Westphall's snow globe, only to reveal a model of St. Eligius inside - implying that the entire six season run had been a figment of an autistic child's imagination. But creating the snow globe concept wasn't the writers' first option, nor did it come easily.

"First of all you should know that we went through a whole series of alternative endings, and they were pretty crazy--the ones we came up with. Such as Auschlander and Westphall having a conversation in Daniel's office, like they've had so many times before. And outside the window there was suddenly a bright flash."

"Not a nuclear war?"

"Yes (laughs) and Auschlander says to Westphall 'What the hell was that?' Then the screen goes black. So you can see how much better the snow globe was already (laughs). The second one I remember is we had a scene where Westphall called Morrison into his office and was kind of ruminating about his life, and he admitted to Morrison that he was the second gunman in the Kennedy assassination, and that his whole life had been about paying the world back for killing Kennedy. So anyway, we got to the snow globe idea."

JOHN TINKER (Writer/Producer, St. Elsewhere / Executive Producer, Chicago Hope)
"I was there when the idea was born. I know it was not my idea., but I know exactly where we were standing in the hallway -- and it's my recollection we thought about it about two years prior to actually doing it. It wasn't something that we sat around and said, 'How can we end it?' We had had that notion a couple of years before the show went off the air, and I'm not sure we were specifically banking it for the end of the show."

"Now, for me, I don't know if it was because the character was named Tommy, but I always took it very personally, and I loved the face that the entire show had existed in the imnd of a little boy named Tommy (laughs)."

But not everyone loved the idea. NORMAN LLOYD, who is a good friend and admirer of Tom Fontana's, voiced his concern at the outset.

"I said to Tom, 'You're out of your mind!' 'No, it's great!', Tom said. So that's it, I had a point of not interfering in these things, and there was no reason for me to, but on this I saw the whole Orson Welles imitation here, and it just didn't sit right. I didn't understand it. What we were saying to an audience was 'everything we've shown you for six years didn't exist; it was in the mind of an autistic child, so I felt bad. I felt it was a cheat. I'm sorry to say that, but my love for this show is unequaled... I really objected to that last episode."


"To me I didn't like it because it made the whole thing so confusing... that the whole thing was a figment of this boy's imagination in his autistic mind, and that Norman and Eddie were suddenly different people - I mean, it was just weird. My feeling about the last show was the that the writers wanted to do it, and they deserved to be allowed to do it. I did not personally like it, but I didn't care. I mean they (the writers) had done so much for us, and so much for the show that I thought 'if this is what they want to do -- OK, they have a right'."

"I didn't much care for it, except these people keep coming to me over the years and saying how much they like it. There were people who felt it was very original, and wasn't a put down... just a very original way of ending it a la Orson Welles. I didn't buy it myself. It seemed too engineered and too conceptual - but it was at the end an dyou have to accept that some people hated it and some people loved it."

Like Norman, Bonnie, and Bill, ED BEGLEY, Jr. also had great respect for the writing team, but Begley's critique was more positive.

"It was very interesting and offbeat, that's for sure, but I would expect no less from them. That's the way they conducted the show from the beginning."

MARK TINKER offered insight into Fontana's approach. "Tom's take on writing is never let anybody get comfortable, always keep them on their heels, and surprise people to the point of shocking them sometimes, just because the status quo bores him.

"Incidentally, I though that the last episode was terrific! I don't feel any lack of closure, I loved the little twist on it. I hated that we were compared to the 'shower' episode of Dallas, and some people felt cheated by that whole thing with the kid. But for a unique way to go out, that was pretty cool."

To this day, Tom Fontana openly accepts responsibility for series television's most controversial ending, which for him, represented a personal challenge.

"Somehow in my mind, what I thought it did was it said to not only the audience, but it said to us as writers on the show, that this was only a fantasy. It wasn't real, and as much as it was a part of my life, I kind of needed to let it go, and put it in its proper perspective... which was, after all, that it was just a television series. It wasn't life, which was a very hard thing for me to do."

And so, in 1988, Tommy Westphall (and his alter ego Tommy Fontana) turned our world upside down by telling us that St. Elsewhere never really existed, but if that is so, then perhaps young Westphall didn't exist either. Perhaps Daniel Auschlander slumped over his desk, lapsed into a coma, and dreamed that Tommy had imagined everything. Perhaps Auschlander is now recovered and serving as CEO Emeritus at St. Eligius. Well, we can only hope. But what we do know is that Tom Fontana is much too modest about the show's impact. St. Elsewhere was NOT "just a television series"... It was and is an American institution that has helped to improve our quality of life, influence medical careers, and even save lives. And those are realities that can't be shaken away in any size globe.

Originally produced by Longworth Communications.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 2 - Medical Histories: St. Elsewhere Resuscitated

From On Call: The Official Newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, July 1997, volume 1, number 2.

"The Magnificent 7" - Masius, J. Tinker, Paltrow, Fontana,
M. Tinker, Eglee, Gibson
It is difficult to imagine now, but there almost wasn't a second season for St. Elsewhere. Many people credit Grant Tinker with saving the show, but others played key roles as well, including someone named Tartikoff. To understand the story behind St. Elsewhere's now famous "near death experience", ON CALL spoke with some of the folks whose lives were forever changed during the Spring of 1983.

MARK TINKER (Producer/Director, St. Elsewhere / Executive Producer, NYPD Blue)
"What happened is we were having really tepid ratings and going no place fast, and the Network was not really returning our calls... nothing much was going on. So John Masius and Tom Fontana (no longer under the aegis of Brand and Falsey) wrote an episode (#22) of that first year that I directed, that was very unlike everything else. It was more hopeful, it was brighter. It ended with the birth of Morrison's baby and, at the end, everyone "toasts to life", which was not such subtle irony (because) we were hoping the show would survive."

Still the was no word on renewal, except for speculation that "no news was bad news".

"I don't remember it ever being officially canceled. I just remember Bruce Paltrow saying 'It doesn't look good'."

"So Bruce went to Paris and Tom Fontana went back to New York and John Masius went to Hawaii, and I'm by myself in the office sort of cleaning up loose ends, and show #22 airs. We get like a 26 share which was 10 points higher than we had been getting - maybe more, and that, coupled with Lilly Tartikoff saying to Brandon 'this show is great!...If this is what they're trying to do with it, you've got to pick it up!'."

Enter "Tinker the elder".

"My old man was in the meeting where they (NBC) were programming, and he picked up the little magnetic piece that said "St. Elsewhere", and he stuck it on the board and said, "This is coming back!' I didn't find out until many years later that he saved it."

Some critics have suggested that Grant's courageous decision might just have been a favor to his son... a claim that Mark disputes.

"He didn't even want me to come to the Company in the first place. He had to be talked into it by Arthur Price, who at the time was the number two guy (at MTM)... he didn't want nepotism... so it was very unlike him to (interfere)."

Prior to that fateful NBC programming meeting, though, most of St. Elsewhere's cast and crew had assumed the worst, and decided to move on with their lives.

TOM FONTANA (Writer/Producer, St. Elsewhere / Executive Producer, Homicide)
"You have to understand I had been a starving playwright in New York, so after the first season of St. Elsewhere, I had already made more money in one year than I could have ever conceived of that I was ever going to make in my lifetime. So I came back to New York the happiest little boy there was because I had money in the bank, and I was married to a woman I loved (Sagan Lewis), and I thought 'wasn't that a great experience!', and I was out of television. I was finished. I had said goodbye to everybody, and I was gone."

"So I got the call and everyone was gone. Now I'm calling everyone around the country saying 'hey, hey, we're back! Get back and write!'."

"Well, I'm sitting there at the Writer's Theater, which is a theater I was involved in here in New York, and the phone rings and it's John Masius, and he goes, 'Guess what?' I said, 'What?'... he said, 'We're doing it again.' And I was like 'What are you talking about?' And John said, 'You've got to come back to California'. And that was scary because Falsey and Brand were gone and NBC waited until the last minute, so we virtually had no lead time. This was late May (and we always start shooting in July), so we had no time to write anything. We had no stuff... We had nobody. Basically, in terms of the staff, it was Paltrow (who wasn't writing at that point), Mark - who was occasionally writing, and Masius and me. Well, I got on a plane as fast as my little butt could get me on a plane, and I got to L.A. and Masius and I started writing. I think we wrote every day, weekends included, for six months. I mean, we never saw the light of day, because once we started, the race was on, and you couldn't stop. I mean, the wonderful thing about Bruce is, Bruce says 'You're a writer, I'm paying you to write, so write!' So you'd be in this kind of forced march behind Caesar, going, Well, Caesar's going to the Rubicon, I guess we're going too, you know (laughs). That's the kind of leader he is, I mean, you don't think about the consequences, you just jump."

Meanwhile, cast members, unaware of the writers' panic in progress, were being notified to return.

"Well, we thought it was canceled. Bill had made some money - our boys were older, so we decided to go to Europe, and we went to Italy. And when we got back to the airport in New York, we called our son Robert and said 'Well Rob, we're back and we'll be home' and he said 'Your show got picked up'... and that's how we found out. Robert had taken the call from Bill's agent. It surprised us, we thought it was gone - we weren't counting on it at all."

"I always knew we'd be picked up... Bruce said I was crazy for saying that. He had said, 'We don't have a prayer.' I am generally an optimist... I knew it would be picked up."

Thus, St. Elsewhere was resuscitated through a team effort with episode #22 serving as the catalyst. Credit went to: new writing, new direction, strong performances, a network executive's wife cheerleading from the sidelines, and Grant Tinker sticking his neck out.

"He sort of championed us. And as it turned out in the course of the six years our demographics (were strong)... if we were getting a 24 share, which was about our average, it really sold like a 30 or 32, because our viewers had the money and the intelligence, so at the time it was one of NBC's best demographically-oriented shows."

And so, here's to Mark, Tom and John... and here's to Grant and Lilly... and here's to everyone who helped revive television's greatest drama. Here then, is a "Toast of Life!".

Originally produced by Longworth Communications.

Monday, July 1, 2013

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 1 - Personnel File: Norman Lloyd ... "The Ultimate Pro"

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

As a child, Norman Lloyd would often accompany his mother to her Ladies Club meetings. There she sang beautiful melodies, while he bellowed out burlesque-style renderings, such as "Father get the hammer, there's a fly on baby's head!" Said Lloyd, "I did show a bit of talent - I used to do song and dance as a kid. The songs I sang were disgusting ... you know when you're nine years old and doing that, you're really repulsive."

Norman Lloyd, Age 15
But somehow his mother didn't think so. During the 1920s, "she took me to damn near every show that was on Broadway." Soon, Norman had caught a terminal case the acting bug.

Born in 1914, Norman is a native of Jersey City, New Jersey, but by age two his father (who was in the furniture business) had moved the family to Brooklyn, where young Norman became a "rabid Dodger fan," and a regular patron of Tom Mix movies, thus creating a balance to his love of theater that "sort of enabled me to stay with the circle of my kid friends."

Norman attended Boys High, located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. "I was a moderately good student - a "B" student, not an "A" student. At Boys High we had some distinguished graduates - Aaron Copland, Norman Mailer, Isaac Asimov."

It is difficult to imagine Lloyd's lower east side origins from listening to him speak today. The woman responsible for eliminating his New York dialect was theater director Eva LeGaliienne, who told a 17-year-old Norman, "If you want to be a member of my acting company, you have to learn to speak better." LeGallienne assigned a speech teacher to Norman and the rest is history.

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 1 - Updating Charts: News of Cast and Crew

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

CHAD ALLEN ... continues in his role as Matthew Cooper on CBS's Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

G.W. BAILEY ... is a regular on NBC's The Jeff Foxworthy Show. Bailey, who played St. Eligius psychiatrist Hugh Beale, portrays Foxworthy's father on the series.

ED BEGLEY, Jr. ... has been filming a motion picture titled Gun with Daniel Stern and Kathy Baker. He still says active in theater, last year appearing in Mamet's Cryptogram at New York's Westside Theater. Recently Ed was given two different motion picture comedy scripts to review as possible directorial projects.

THOMAS CARTER ... who starred in The White Shadow and directed for St. Elsewhere, recently directed Eddie Murphy in the motion picture Metro.

WILLIAM DANIELS ... continues his role as George Feeney on ABC-TV's Boy Meets World.

TOM FONTANA ... former writer/producer for St. Elsewhere, Tom is Executive Producer for NBC-TV's Homicide series.

STEPHEN FURST ... is a regular on Babylon Five, a syndicated series for the Warner Brothers Network. Furst plays Vir, an assistant to a Centauri diplomat. Stephen also directs episodes of Babylon Five, and later this year he will direct Mascot, a family film about minor league baseball.

BRUCE GREENWOOD ... portrayed an attorney in a recent ABC-TV movie Tell Me No Secrets.

MARK HARMON ... is in his second seasson as a regular on CBS-TV's medical drama, Chicago Hope. He plays Dr. Jack McNeil, an orthopedic surgeon with a gambling problem.

ERIC LANEUVILLE ... who began his career on Room 222 in the 1960s, and played Luther on St. Elsewhere, is now an accomplished film director. He recently directed the thriller Pandora's Clock for NBC.

HOWIE MANDEL ... can still be seen in his own Showtime specials Sunny Skies, one of which repeated in January and starred Stephen Furst.

DAVID MORSE ... His new movie How I Learned to Drive with Mary Louise Parker is due out March 16th. He will also appear in Murder Live for NBC.

CINDY PICKETT ... was recently seen in the NBC movie Secret.

CHRISTINA PICKLES ... has been active in films the last few years including roles in Romeo and Juliet and Grace of My Heart. Christina also has a recurring role on NBC-TV's Friends.

JENNIFER SAVIDGE .. starred in the NBC blockbuster mini-series Pandora's Clock and has recently been appearing on the L.A. stage with Bernie ("The Love Boat") Kopell in Rumors.

CYNTHIA SIKES ... after taking time off to be a full-time mom, Cynthia is refocusing on her career. Last year she produced Sins of Silence for CBS. Currently, Cynthia is preparing a club-style act which will showcase her considerable skill as a singer.

JOHN TINKER ... one of St. Elsewhere's brilliant writers, John is Executive Producer of CBS-TV's Chicago Hope.

MARK TINKER .. veteran St. Elsewhere producer, Mark is the Executive Producer for ABC-TV's hit series NYPD Blue. Mark, a graduate of Syracuse University, donated an entire set of St. Elsewhere episodes to his alma mater.

DENZEL WASHINGTON ... just picked up another NAACP Image Award... this time for Best Actor in the motion picture Courage Under Fire. He has just completed filming of Fallen.

Originally produced by Longworth Communications.

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