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.

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