Sunday, August 4, 2013

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 2 - Organ Donors: Chicago Hope - Son of St. Elsewhere


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

St. Elsewhere may have died when Tommy Westphall shook up his snow globe, but we can take comfort in knowing that our favorite drama was an "Organ Donor". Specifically, in September of 1994, the heart of St. Eligius was transplanted into the body of Chicago Hope hospital. As with its donor, the recipient's first year of life was touch and go. The CBS series first appeared opposite ER but was eventually moved to Monday nights where it has lived and prospered. The lifeline from St. Elsewhere to Chicago Hope includes a number of interesting connections and similarities. First and foremost is the Executive Producer of Chicago Hope, John Tinker. Tinker started as a gopher on St. Elsewhere, then worked his way into the writing staff about the tine Falsey and Brand were winding down their involvement. He has kept the spirit of St. Eligius alive in the Windy City by giving us Chicago Hope. Tinker's sensitivity to character development and his penchant for off-beat humor are our most visible links from a decade ago when St. Elsewhere left the airwaves. Here are some examples...

In one episode a veterinarian is called in to examine Diana's laboratory orangutan. The vet's name was Elliot and he was played by Stephen Furst.

STEPHEN FURST
"That was an idea of John's. The last name of the character wasn't Axelrod, it was just another name. TV Guide picked up on it and wrote an article about it. Later they asked me to do another episode as Elliot - something about one of the character's dogs was dying and I was to be called in. But it never materialized. I never heard any more about it. Something to do with the script never being approved."

JOHN TINKER
"That was fun. It was a fairly small part and I called Stephen and asked him if he would do me the favor of coming in and doing a fairly small role - which naturally we have every intention of getting back to. And doing it in a larger way because we like him so much."

In St. Elsewhere Dr. Axelrod's father was a veterinarian and Elliot himself had wanted to follow that career path. Now, thanks to John Tinker, Elliot is able to work with animals in his afterlife.

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Speaking of Tinker and his writing background, Chicago Hope enjoys another connection to St. Elsewhere. Cynthia Sikes is married to producer Bud Yorkin, whose daughter Nicole is the lead writer on Chicago Hope.

Also, if you're keeping track, note that both St. Elsewhere and Chicago Hope aired in a 10pm timeslot and both have cast Mark Harmon as a doctor. In St. Elsewhere Harmon played Dr. Bobby Caldwell, a plastic surgeon with an addiction to women. In Chicago Hope, Harmon is a troubled orthopedic surgeon with an addiction to gambling.

John Tinker
JOHN TINKER
"A troubled doctor? No. In fact, Mark came in and said 'I don't want to play the same guy (as in St. Elsewhere).' I hope it's not coming off that way, because for me, it doesn't feel that way. And as far as his troubles, that will move on. We've all got troubles, and I think that's what makes for a good drama."

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In a way, both TV series owe part of their success to Alan Arkin. First of all, Alan gave us Adam, now the star of Chicago Hope. But eleven years before Adam landed at Chicago Hope he played a paramedic in episode #70 of St. Elsewhere. Earlier, at the beginning of St. Elsewhere's second season, Adam's father Alan was brought on to help boost ratings, with his guest appearance as Jerry Singleton, a man whose wife had suffered a stroke. He agreed to guest in three episodes (23, 24, 25) His recurring role was believed to be critical to giving St. Elsewhere a much needed boost to open the season that almost wasn't. Today, Alan Arkin appears as Adam's father in Chicago Hope.

JOHN TINKER
"That wasn't a ratings booster. In fact we were going to do a story about Adam and his mother, but we had just finished doing a story that was a mother/son thing, so we thought, let's do his father. Alan had a little hole in his schedule and that's how it happened. Yes, you're going to get the benefit of Alan being a guy people want to tune in and see, but (he wasn't used to boost ratings). In St. Elsewhere that was (the case)."

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Another similarity between Hope and Elsewhere is their occasional off-beat humor, and insider television allusions. (Author David Bianculli has dubbed this phenomena "teleliteracy". These oftentimes obscure references have been written about extensively by Bianculli, Gary Yoggy and Bob Thompson.) My favorite such example from Hope is when the hospital PR person has developed a new TV campaign to promote the image of its doctors... The CH medical staff gathers for an unveiling of the new commercial only to find that it is an exact replica of the opening titles for E.R.!

JOHN TINKER
"You know what? They (the E.R. producers) never called us. They never called up and said 'That's funny' - not any acknowledgement...we feel they really spit on us from over there at Warner Brothers (laughs)... they don't pay us any attention. We reference their hospital all the time, they never reference us... we are dirt to them! (laughs)"

Nevertheless, the punch line to Tinker's brilliant send-up of E.R. can't be ignored. After viewing the "faux E.R." spot, a hush falls over the CH conference room, then the Medical Director remarks, "It looks familiar." He was right... Chicago Hope DOES look familiar. And we're glad.

Originally produced by Longworth Communications.

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