St. Elsewhere {1982-1988} |


St. Elsewhere {1982-1988}

William Daniels, Ed Begley Jr., Mark Harmon, David Morse, and the rest of the doctors reunite to discuss the show that launched their careers

You wouldn’t want to be caught dead, let alone sick, within the crumbling walls of St. Eligius of Boston. Derogatively dubbed St. Elsewhere, the aged institution named after the patron saint of metalworkers(?) and horses(?!?) was the last resort for the ailing — and a career killer for ambitious M.D.s. But among TV viewers of the ’80s (and beyond), St. Elsewhere has enjoyed a healthier reputation. Powered by a brain trust that included creators John Falsey and Joshua Brand, as well as producers Tom Fontana, Mark Tinker, John Masius, and Bruce Paltrow, the quirky, gritty drama presaged the medical-show renaissance (ER, House, Grey’s Anatomy) and blazed the trail for today’s gutsy-ballsy-heady dramas. It also gave us ”the snow globe” — that enduring symbol for the controversial WTF just happened?! series finale, in this case that the hospital and everyone in it were just the fantasy of an autistic child (played by Chad Allen). Turns out plenty of future stars were floating around St. Elsewhere too: Mark Harmon. Howie Mandel. David Morse. Ed Begley Jr. Some dude named Denzel. And 12 of them were thrilled to gather once again and reminisce. ”It was like a school reunion,” says Mandel, ”except one of my classmates is now 97 years old.” (Hint: It’s not Mr. Washington, who was shooting his new movie 2 Guns in Louisiana and could not attend.)

Bonnie Bartlett (Ellen Craig), William Daniels (Dr. Mark Craig)

Bonnie Bartlett knew St. Elsewhere had the potential to become something special the moment the Little House on the Prairie star auditioned for the head nurse — and lost the part to Christina Pickles. When her husband, veteran character actor William Daniels, was subsequently asked to play the brilliant, grumpy, egomaniacal Dr. Mark Craig, Bartlett encouraged him to go for it — even though the part, as conceived, was rather small. Says Daniels: ”Bruce Paltrow told me, ‘Once the writers see what you do with it, they will write to you.”’ ”And they did!” adds Bartlett, who was soon cast as Dr. Craig’s put-upon wife, Ellen. They each won a pair of Emmys for their work. ”They liked the way we squabbled, just like the way Bill and I squabble in real life,” says Bartlett, 83. She and Daniels have been married 51 years and remain busy. She’s currently producing an independent film, while Daniels is recurring on Grey’s Anatomy. Of course, he is arguably best known for providing the voice of KITT on Knight Rider. ”I didn’t think much of it at the time. I thought it was rather silly, actually, the idea of a car that could talk,” says Daniels, 85. ”But I tell you, I get more fan mail from Knight Rider than anything.”

Christina Pickles (Helen Rosenthal)

She was the tough but compassionate, four-times-divorced head nurse at St. Eligius who kept the hospital running in the face of chaos while battling breast cancer (in one of TV’s first depictions of the illness). ”I admired her because she was a working woman and a nurse and was coping — not always incredibly well, but coping,” says Pickles, 77, who picked up five Emmy nominations for the role. ”That was the joy of working on St. Elsewhere. They were very real with our story lines. They didn’t gloss anything up.” Right down to Helen’s prescription-medication addiction. ”Oh, I forgot about that!” says Pickles, who later recurred on Friends (as Ross and Monica’s mom), JAG, and How I Met Your Mother and just appeared on Childrens Hospital. ”Isn’t Nurse Jackie a pill popper? Listen, it was fun to play. Anything they gave me that was strong, I loved.”

Mark Harmon (Dr. Robert Caldwell)

Former college-football QB Mark Harmon wasn’t there at the beginning (he joined in season 2), and he wasn’t there at the end (he exited in season 4). But his Dr. Robert Caldwell had one of the show’s signature plotlines, morphing from a caring, if cocky, plastic surgeon to a ”gutter-dwelling sleazeball” (Harmon’s words) who contracted HIV from promiscuous sex — in not just one of TV’s first portrayals of AIDS but one that subverted the widely held belief that AIDS happened only to homosexuals. ”The writers loved messing with the characters, and I was never anything but excited by how they messed with the characters,” says Harmon, 61, now in his 10th season as the star of TV’s top-rated drama, NCIS. ”I gained a huge appreciation for the written word, and I’ve carried that forward [into everything] since.”