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

By Dan Snierson and Jeff Jensen
Updated October 05, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

St. Elsewhere

  • TV Show

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.”

Ed Begley Jr. (Dr. Victor Ehrlich)

”What I liked the most was that he was a highly flawed individual,” says Begley, 63, of the inappropriate, bumbling, yet skilled heart surgeon who netted him six Emmy nominations. ”It was good comic relief in the traumatic and sometimes maudlin setting of losing people as we did on St. Elsewhere. Medical shows before that, they never lost anybody.” The actor/eco-activist — who has since appeared in Christopher Guest movies, on Arrested Development, and in Recount — is now starring in the David Mamet play November in L.A. and can be seen next in the HBO movie Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight and on Guest’s upcoming HBO comedy series Family Tree. Yet Dr. Ehrlich remains close to his heart: ”When you have a part like that for six years, you’ve got an incredible gift, and you’re wise to recognize it as such: You won the lottery.”

Eric Laneuville (Luther Hawkins)

While Eric Laneuville had a career before entering St. Eligius (see: The Omega Man, Room 222), ”St. Elsewhere gave me an opportunity,” he says, ”and a whole new career.” He’s not talking about his role as earnest, upbeat orderly-turned-paramedic-turned-physician’s assistant Luther. Exec producer/director Bruce Paltrow gave him a shot at helming a season 2 episode, which begat 19 more, and Laneuville went on to become an accomplished, Emmy-winning TV director who’s shot installments of shows like I’ll Fly Away, Lost, and Monk. ”I’m blessed,” says Laneuville, 60, who’ll direct for Hawaii Five-0, The Mentalist, and Grimm this season. ”Wouldn’t trade my life for Kobe Bryant’s talent or Bill Gates’ money.”

David Morse (Dr. Jack ”Boomer” Morrison)

What Boomer possessed in empathy he lacked in luck: His med-school education was invalidated; his wife died; he was raped in a prison riot. ”You never saw something like that happen to a major character in television,” he says of the rape. ”And the series is full of them. [That’s] a lot of why it is so remarkable.” His traumas took their toll, though. ”At the beginning, it was fun — you want to have material that challenges you. But to be in that position all the time started to feel unreal and unfair to the character,” says the actor, 58, who later appeared in such films as The Green Mile and The Rock, currently stars on Treme, and is now shooting the indie drama McCanick. ”I don’t know the number of bad guys I’ve played since then, compensating for it.”

Howie Mandel (Dr. Wayne Fiscus)

In 1982, Howie Mandel was a rising stand-up looking to land a sitcom and thought he was auditioning for one during a meeting at MTM Enterprises, which produced St. Elsewhere. ”It went badly, I thought,” recalls Mandel. ”I also thought: ‘Their new comedy? Not that funny at all!”’ Nonetheless, he got the role of the endearingly nutty Dr. Wayne Fiscus — then learned he wasn’t the show’s first Fiscus. David Paymer had originally been cast in the role, but he was replaced in one of several changes made after the producers shut down production days into shooting the pilot. Paymer later guested, ”and it was the most uncomfortable show I’ve ever done,” says Mandel, 56, with a laugh. Now a judge on America’s Got Talent, he says that St. Elsewhere proved a life-changing experience for the cast: ”It launched us into the next phase of our careers and became the thing we were notorious for. In a good way.”

Cynthia Sikes (Dr. Annie Cavanero)

The strong-willed feminist doc left an impression not only on fans but on the actress herself. ”She was determined to do the best she could for her patients no matter what,” says Sikes, 58. ”And I try to see myself that way in that I fight for people I care about…. It might have brought out more fierceness in me in life.” After exiting in season 3 due to creative differences (”It was tough because I really loved the show…. But I think we’d exhausted my story line”), she appeared on dramas like L.A. Law and JAG, starred on Broadway in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods (”When Sondheim calls, you go, man. You go fast”), and is now producing a Blade Runner sequel with husband Bud Yorkin.

Stephen Furst (Dr. Elliot Axelrod)

Stephen Furst finally made his parents proud playing awkward, eager-to-please Dr. Elliot Axelrod. ”They always wanted me to be a doctor,” jokes the actor, 58, who initially turned his nose up at St. Elsewhere when the Animal House star was asked to audition for a small role during the first season. ”I got on my high horse. Audition?! For a TV show?” He ”bit the bullet,” got the part, then realized he was wrong to be snobbish. ”I loved the show,” says Furst, who became a regular after his third appearance. The actor, who went on to direct and produce movies and is now retired, says he’s proud of his St. Elsewhere legacy — but notes that his five seasons as Vir Cotto on the cult fave Babylon 5 bring him more recognition. ”I’ve had fans bake me cookies in the shape of my character,” he marvels. ”I have Vir Cotto baseball cards! They never made a baseball card of me as Dr. Elliot Axelrod.”

Chad Allen (Tommy Westphall)

”I remember the audition and not knowing what the word autistic meant,” says Chad Allen, 38, who visited an autism foundation before playing the emotionally remote, violent son of Dr. Donald Westphall (the late Ed Flanders) in 11 episodes. ”It was fun for a 10-year-old actor. ‘Are you kidding me? You want me to destroy things?”’ As for the series finale, Allen says, ”I loved that…. I was the answer for a Trivial Pursuit question. That’s really cool for a teenager.” A regular on Our House, Allen subsequently starred on My Two Dads and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and started an indie-film production company. After being outed by a tabloid in 1996, Allen became an activist and leader in the LGBT community; he’s now studying clinical psychology and environmental science and is penning his autobiography, which will detail his addiction-recovery journey. ”Hollywood’s great, but it’s all I ever did for 30 years,” says the 12-years-sober Allen. ”I just wanted to see what else I could do.”

Norman Lloyd

Norman Lloyd will tell you that his time as the kindly Dr. Daniel Auschlander on St. Elsewhere was a ”once in a lifetime” ride, the kind most actors don’t ever get at all…unless you’re Norman Lloyd, who’s been richly spoiled with extraordinary experiences over the course of an epic career.

In the 1930s, Lloyd worked with Orson Welles as a member of the legendary Mercury Theatre company, performing in such plays as Julius Caesar and The Shoemaker’s Holiday. ”We absolutely turned New York on its ear!” says the actor, now 97. Boy, does he have stories. Like how one fellow Mercury player had a habit of sticking her gum on the sets before going on stage. ”This got disgusting,” says Lloyd. ”So Joseph Cotten and I, we had these brooms, and every time she had a laugh line, we’d start sweeping madly so the audience could never hear the line. And when she complained, we said, ‘Well, then, stop with the gum!”’ When Welles caught wind of what Cotten and Lloyd were doing, he went backstage and disrupted their performances by splashing them with Scotch from the wings. ”That was how Orson disciplined,” says Lloyd, laughing.

He acted for Elia Kazan, Charlie Chaplin, and Martin Scorsese. He worked for Alfred Hitchcock in Saboteur and Spellbound and as a producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He continues to work today — most recently in a guest spot on Modern Family. He puts his six years on St. Elsewhere near the top … except for those infamous final minutes of the last episode. ”For me, it was a cheat; for others, a stroke of inspiration,” says Lloyd, who nonetheless praises the writers for their boldness: ”St. Elsewhere is one of the most important series in the history of television. Everyone in the cast felt we were doing something very special.”

Episode Recaps

St. Elsewhere

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