Sunday, June 30, 2013

On Call, Vol. 1, No. 1 - Medical Histories: The Birth of St. Eligius

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

The story of how St. Elsewhere came to television is filled with twists, turns and ironies. not unlike the series (and the hospital) itself. In the late 1970's, MTM had begun to abandon its half hour sitcom format in favor of hour long dramas. The ratings successes of The Waltons and Dallas encouraged and validated this shift in strategy. Lou Grant led the movement in 1977 and The White Shadow followed in 1978. The latter was produced by Bruce Paltrow and written in part by the then unknown Steven Bochco. Also on the White Shadow payroll were two story editors - Josh Brand and John Falsey. According to Grant Tinker, all of these men hungered to develop "their own next assignment", and all were thinking of a hospital for the setting. Josh Brand, in particular, wanted to make Cleveland the location for a pilot - this, because of the experiences recounted to him by a friend who worked at the Cleveland Clinic.

Meanwhile, a similar idea had been floating around NBC. The project was originally titled "Operating Room", and Fred Silverman reportedly offered Grant Tinker and MTM a shot at producing "OR" as a series. Paltrow, Bochco, and Mark Tinker (Grant's son). then formed the team to produce a pilot.

Bochco dropped out of the project and went on to produce Hill Street Blues. For years critics have argued that St. Elsewhere was simply Hill Street in a hospital, but in point of fact, development of "OR" (and Brand's research in Cleveland) had begun before Blues reached the air in 1981. "OR" essentially became St. Elsewhere when Paltrow and Tinker joined forces with Brand and Falsey and incorporated Brand's research in the process. As the project evolved, a series pilot was begun, but then drastically overhauled.

NORMAN LLOYD: "The pilot was stopped in mid air. Bruce was unhappy with the way it was going and he was unhappy with some of the casting. For one thing, Auschlander had originally come from Vienna and had a Viennese accent. We had to drop that. He was also unhappy with the photography which was too pretty - too romantic... The cameraman was very good, but it didn't have the roughness Bruce wanted."

Two of the cast changes involved the characters of Dr. Westphall and Dr. Fiscus. Character actor Josef Sommer was the original Donald, but was cut from the never seen, unfinished original pilot.

Howie Mandel as Dr. Wayne Fiscus
NORMAN LLOYD: "Josef was a very good actor, but the quality was not what Bruce wanted, so he got Ed Flanders, who, in my view, there was no finer actor in America."

HOWIE MANDEL: "I was actually a replacement. When they shot the pilot for this they shot for 7 days, and then tore down and re-cast some of us. Then I came in and auditioned... luckily, they had not seem my comedy (laughs)."

NORMAN LLOYD: "It was an inspiration on the part of the producers that they DID put Howie in the part. Today's film goers will also be surprised to learn who was originally cast and then fired in the role of Wayne Fiscus. I ran into the original Fiscus one day, David Paymer. He said 'I've always wanted to write Bruce a letter thanking him for firing me because it was the only way that I was able to get into a feature, and then my career took off (City Slickers, Quiz Show, et al)."

And so, St. Elsewhere was recast and re-shot and the pilot was delivered to NBC. The series premiered on October 26, 1982. But like many newborns, it was "closely monitored". The story of how St. Elsewhere was "cancelled", then "resuscitated", in the next issue of On Call.

To learn more about St. Elsewhere, see Gary Yoggy's article in Television Chronicles magazine and look for Robert Thompson's new book due out this spring.

Originally produced by Longworth Communications.

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