Saturday, August 4, 2012

Network TV's First Full Moon

St. Elsewhere pushed the limits of nudity on TV with the first shot of bare buttocks on prime time network television.

Episode three of season six, "A Moon for the Misbegotten", which aired September 30, 1987, marks the final appearance of Dr. Donald Westphall as a regular character on St. Elsewhere. (He makes two more appearances during season six; in episode 17, "Their Town", and in the finale, "The Last One".) When season six begins, we learn that after the wrecker's ball struck the front of the hospital, the demolition was stopped due to a last-second offer to purchase St. Eligius from a corporation called Ecumena, and after a month off for renovations, the staff is asked to return to their old jobs. Ecumena puts their own man in charge, Dr. John Gideon (Ronny Cox), and Donald and Daniel (75 and suffering from cancer) are only allowed to continue working in figurehead positions with no real authority.

Mr. Collins from Ecumena (Dennis Patrick) has had enough
of Donald Westphall (and people like him).
Donald's personality and approach to running the hospital are completely out of step with the corporate types and their bottom-line approach to providing health care, and by episode three, after lobbying for an AIDS clinic and pissing off Gideon's boss from head office, Donald is fired. At the end of the day (around 8 PM, according to the screen clocks), Donald meets Gideon in his office, and Gideon offers him one more chance. They can run the hospital together, Gideon says, if Donald would only compromise and "adapt [his] point of view."

Donald tells Gideon that it's an interesting offer. He turns around, we see his back, he appears to be fiddling with something, and he says, "Let me try and tell you in terms I think you can understand." We see Gideon's reaction and hear the sound of pants dropping. The next shot shows Donald standing up, bare from the waist down at a 45-degree angle to the camera, full moon on display for Gideon, but upper body turned so Donald can address him--"you can kiss my ass, pal." Click here for the uncensored shots.

Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders) tells Dr. John Gideon
what he can kiss.
The butt shot is on the screen for about a second, then they cut back to Gideon's reaction to Donald's tell-off, and then they cut back to Donald standing on display, and after another second, the final credit for executive producers Bruce Paltrow and Mark Tinker covers his exposed lower half.

In season six, St. Elsewhere ran on NBC on Wednesday nights at 10 PM. This bit of nudity and the rather risque phrase "kiss my ass" appeared right at the end of the episode, a few minutes short of 11 o'clock. I'd say they got past the network sensors because the nudity appears in a completely non-sexual context. The late, great Ed Flanders was 53 when they shot this, and no disrespect to the guy, but it wasn't like the shot was thrown in for titillation.

The episode title is a pun about this closing scene and a tribute to Ed Flanders, who won a Tony and an Emmy for playing tenant farmer Phil Hogan in a Broadway revival of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten alongside Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst in 1974.

This was MTM's second foray into exposing butts on prime time television. Steven Bochco's short-lived comedy-drama about a minor league baseball team, Bay City Blues, showed a brief flash of buttocks in a locker room scene in 1983. Bochco would raise the bar again on NYPD Blue, earning a hefty fine from the FCC in 2003 (later overturned). But St. Elsewhere gets the credit for the first full-on bare butt shot on prime time network television, September 30, 1987.

Update, April 4, 2014 -- As a commenter points out, there was one other brief flash of bare buttocks on network television before Bay City Blues. In the November 17, 1973 episode of M*A*S*H, "The Sniper", there's a quick flash where Radar's towel falls off and Gary Burghoff's butt is exposed for a split second.

St. Elsewhere, as far as I'm concerned, still gets credit for the first "full moon"--a full-on shot of nudity on network television.

Update, January 29, 2015 -- Thank you to a sharp-eyed anonymous commenter for this observation. Seems that in the third season episode "Girls Just Want to Have Fun", originally aired November 28, 1984, St. Elsewhere's producers managed to slip some nudity past the network censors.

At about eight minutes in, Dr. Mark Craig (William Daniels) is conversing in a Ward hallway with Dr. Auschlander's assistant Joan Halloran when a female patient emerges from a room and walks down the hallway with the back of her hospital gown less than securely fastened.

Update, June 18, 2015 -- I've created a whole post about this other instance.

And here's the clip of Westphall's last day as Director of Medicine at St. Eligius, from "A Moon for the Misbegotten":


  1. Sorry, but this is wrong. The first bare male butt shown on prime time was that of Gary Burghoff's character Radar on the MASH episode "The Sniper" (17 Nov. 1973)

  2. Yes, that's true. As well, Bay City Blues had a brief flash, as I mentioned. I give St. Elsewhere credit for pushing it further--full on, deliberate nudity.

  3. Watching Episode 10 of Season 3, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun". About 8 and a half minutes in, Dr. Craig and Joan Halloran are talking in the hallway. A female patient walks out of a doorway further down the hallway and the back of her hospital gown is wide open. It's hard to tell whether or not her backside is bare, but it sure looks to be.

    1. As the episode goes on, I've spotted her at about 15 minutes in the background in the hallway again.

    2. Good eye! I'm going to post some screen caps.

  4. you are very mistaken the first full moon shone on network TV was not on st. elsewhere. it was in fact the episode of MASH titled the sniper November 17th 1973 when a sniper is trying to shoot radar and radar is running around the camp in a towel the towel comes off exposing his bare backside.

    1. Thank you for your observation. Did you notice that the same comment was made in April, 2014? And that this article mentions that? Love the "shone" pun, btw.

  5. it's amazing that Gary Burghoff's vertical smile is mostly forgotten, compared to the brief showing of baby Joey's bits and pieces on the same network a few years later, and the fuss made about Dennis Franz's ass almost 20 years later.


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