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.

1 comment:

  1. I always thought that the ending was not meant to be taken literally (the entire series being a figment of Tommy’s overactive imagination). Throughout the entire final episode, there's a series of fond farewells to the television characters and by the time you get to the final scene, it was as if the camera had pulled away from the show itself and this was the creators, producers and writers creative way of saying farewell to the entire series and its loyal viewers. A key to this is the conversation Auschlander and Westphall have near the beginning of that final scene. When Auschlander asks Westphall how his day went, he responds with something like, “We topped off the twenty-second story and I’m beat”. That final episode was the 22nd story of that season. Also, the actors in that scene are portrayed as being one family unit which may have been a reference to the Tinker family (Grant Tinker, who was the CEO of NBC during the run of “St. Elsewhere”, and his two sons, Mark and John, who directed and wrote for the series). Finally, before the scene ends, the snow globe is placed on top of a blank TV screen, which was likely their way of saying “we're glad you enjoyed the show but that’s all there is folks and it’s time to move on!” and that is something Tom Fontana alludes to at the end of this article.


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