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On Television, There's More Than One Way to Say Goodby : 'St. Elsewhere' as Seen Through a Glass Darkly

May 26, 1988|DIANE HAITHMAN | Times Staff Writer

And you thought it was weird when Bobby Ewing stepped out of the shower and said a whole season of "Dallas" was just a dream.

The creators of "St. Elsewhere" ended the NBC series Wednesday night with the startling revelation that all six years in the life of South Boston's seedy St. Eligius Hospital were just a figment of the imagination of an autistic child.

Despite rumors of a bleak ending in which the whole cast would die, the final episode of "St. Elsewhere," appropriately titled "The Last One," concluded with a dreamy vignette in which the audience discovered that St. Eligius was part of the fantasy world of Tommy Westphall, the autistic son of Dr. Donald Westphall (Ed Flanders).

Here's what happened: Following the tearful goodbys of the doctors, nurses and other staffers who were leaving St. Eligius for a variety of reasons, the scene changed to a living room. On the floor sat Tommy (Chad Allen), staring pensively into a glass ball, the kind that snows when shaken. In the background sat St. Eligius' Dr. Daniel Auschlander (Norman Lloyd)--who had died earlier in the episode--now alive and well.

In walked Donald Westphall. But while he was still Tommy's father, he wasn't Dr. Westphall anymore--he was a construction worker coming home after a hard day. And Dr. Auschlander wasn't Dr. Auschlander--he was Tommy's grandfather, who had been watching Tommy.

Westphall looked at his son sadly. "I just don't understand this autism thing, Pop," he said. "He sits there all day long in his own little world, staring at that toy."

And what was inside the ball? St. Eligius Hospital, behind a veil of snowflakes.

Tom Fontana, creative consultant on the show, said he expected a mixed reaction from "St. Elsewhere" fans.

"In our minds, we wanted to be purposefully enigmatic, like the show has been," he said. "There will be people who will say, 'I don't understand what it was, but it was great.' Other people will be furious with it.

"We (the writers and producers) all need to acknowledge that the show was fiction," Fontana continued. "And certainly, though it became more real than our own lives, this was our acknowledgment that it was fiction, and the fact that it was in the mind of an autistic child makes it all the more ironic.

"Because what is life but a snowball?"

Executive producer Bruce Paltrow agreed that it was necessary for the show's creators to remind themselves that St. Eligius never really existed. "It was metaphorical for us," he said. "We created this life; we created it in our minds.

"I think that puzzling is a very good word for it. We've had that ending (in mind) for years. What we wanted to do was end the show the way we made the show. We just wanted to make the quintessential 'St. Elsewhere.'

"The show has skipped around and gone in and out of existentialism, so we're choosing to go out in an existential way. We wanted it to be that this autistic child who could not communicate with the world had this incredible internal life. All of us have had the benefit of knowing what's been going on in his mind for the last six years."

In keeping with the "St. Elsewhere" tradition of puns, word-play and inside jokes, the last episode, written by Paltrow and co-executive producer Mark Tinker (from a story by Fontana, John Tinker and Channing Gibson), contained its share of each.

When Dr. Auschlander saw the light from an explosion outside the hospital, he quipped with a straight face, "Jumpin' Jack, what was that flash?" A Wagnerian opera singer who has laryngitis comes in with her male companion in full Viking dress; Dr. Fiscus admonished him: "Don't Leif, Ericson."

When Ellen Craig tried to soothe her husband, Dr. Mark Craig, about their impending move to Cleveland, she noted that the city is the home of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Snorted Craig: "Yeah, yeah, yeah."

Then there were the TV jokes. An orderly chasing a patient through the halls yelled at a co-worker, "Move that gurney, Hal!"; Hal Gurnee is the director of NBC's "Late Night With David Letterman." At another point, staff members gathered for a group hug, and one of them suggested, "Maybe we should sing 'It's a Long Way to Tipperary' "--the song that the gang sang in the last episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

The first patient of the evening, meanwhile, was one Gen. Sarnoff, to whom Fiscus said: "So you see, the eyes need a rest, so cut down on the time you spend in front of the TV." Added Fiscus derisively: "My last patient shouldn't be someone who spent his life in front of the tube."

NBC was founded by Gen. David Sarnoff.

The most inside of the inside jokes:

A brash young first-year resident came to the hospital, pledging to improve the place. "This (hospital) is a dump," he said. "But I'm going to turn it around."

His first act, however, was to prescribe 10 times the normal dose of a drug for a recuperating patient. Dr. Seth Griffin caught him in the error before any damage was done and said, "You're going to kill somebody. I'd better keep my eye on you."

The new resident's name: Brandon Falsey. As in Brand and Falsey--Joshua Brand and John Falsey, the show's creators and co-producers during the first season, when the stories on "St. Elsewhere" were so depressing that a joke circulated that even patients checking into St. Eligius with a broken bone could be expected to die there.

Brand and Falsey left the series at the end of the first season. They were the creators and executive producers of "A Year in the Life" on NBC this season.

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