Look for some unusual episodes to turn up on "Hill Street Blues" and "St. Elsewhere," most of them just in time for the current ratings "sweeps" period.
Capt. Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) will be critically wounded during this week's installment of "Hill Street Blues" (Thursday, 10 p.m. on NBC), which will also feature a flashback revealing how Furillo and public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) first met.
"St. Elsewhere" next week will feature a two-parter showing highlights of St. Eligius Hospital's 50-year history. Drs. Westphall, Craig and Auschlander and Nurse Rosenthal (Ed Flanders, William Daniels, Norman Lloyd and Christina Pickles) all will be seen at various chronological stops along the way in "Time Heals." The episodes will air on NBC at 10 p.m. Feb. 19, "St. Elsewhere's" regular Wednesday slot, and the following night at the same time, in place of "Hill Street Blues."
And just one day out of the sweeps--on Feb. 27--Officer Joe Coffey, played by Ed Marinaro, will be shot and killed on "Hill Street."
"It's gonna be hard to believe, but this is one instance when it was a delightful coincidence," NBC vice president for current dramatic programs John Litvack said. The coincidence he refers to is the airing of the first three of these out-of-the-ordinary episodes during the monthlong sweeps, one of four annual periods when viewership is measured to determine local advertising rates.
Networks and producers alike have been known to resort to "stunting"--the use of special guests and exotic locales--to beef up ratings during the sweeps. But Litvack and executive producers Jeffrey Lewis ("Hill Street Blues") and Bruce Paltrow ("St. Elsewhere") all say it isn't so this time around.
"It's not like we have Elizabeth Taylor coming into the hospital to have a breast implant," Paltrow, contacted at his home in New York, said of the two-part "St. Elsewhere."
The additional coincidence is that these two particular shows--both part of NBC's early-1980s push toward "quality" programming and both produced by MTM Enterprises--planned flashback episodes at virtually the same time.
The more intriguing plot twist might be the permanent loss of "Hill Street" regular Marinaro.
According to his press agent, Dick Guttman, Marinaro believes the time is right to leave the ensemble mold and move to starring TV and film roles. The actor previously has asked to be let out of his contract "and was declined a number of times," Guttman said. This time, "Hill Street's" producers relented.
Executive producer Jeffrey Lewis would neither confirm nor deny Marinaro's contractual request. But he said that "we like having Eddie" in the cast, implying that Marinaro is not being ousted against his will.
"What's simply true," Lewis added, "is that to maintain the credibility of a dangerous inner-city precinct where week after week for a number of years our viewers have seen our cops exposed to manifold dangers it makes sense for somebody to finally get killed. Whether we would have done it now, whether it would have been Joe Coffey or some other character, I can't say."
Coffey will be killed under "the most banal circumstance imaginable," Lewis said--namely by being shot by an attacker who pops up "out of nowhere. That's the most essential and truthful story one can tell about how cops live and die."
In Travanti's case, the critical shooting arose out of the producers' desire "to do something good for Danny and Veronica, our stars," Lewis explained.
What's "good" for an actor, obviously, is not necessarily a barrel of fun for his character. Originally, to put Furillo and Davenport at the center of the episode, writers toyed with having them on a train en route to Washington, where Furillo was scheduled to testify. Criminals threatened by his testimony then attacked the train and attempted to kill the couple.
The train idea was dropped, but the local shooting of Furillo accomplished the same thing: "to go all out with a little melodrama" surrounding the two characters, Lewis said. Davenport will maintain a bedside vigil and reminisce about how they first met.
Paltrow said that the "St. Elsewhere" flashback originated last spring. "We started to think about overall concepts for this season and one of them was that the hospital is the star of the show and this hospital has been in the same place for 50 years."
Viewers will get glimpses of St. Eligius Hospital and its staff at its origins in 1935 and again in 1965 (when Craig becomes chief of surgery) and 1975 (when Westphall was happily married with two children).
After the first one-hour script on this theme was written, NBC asked for more, Paltrow said. The resulting two-parter then was scheduled on consecutive nights when it was determined that "Hill Street" was getting further behind in its production schedule with each passing week and that a preemption would help it catch up.