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Obituaries

Bruce Paltrow, 58; Directed Series 'White Shadow,' 'St. Elsewhere'

October 04, 2002|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bruce Paltrow, the producer-director behind the groundbreaking television shows "St. Elsewhere" and "The White Shadow" as well as the father of actress Gwyneth Paltrow, died Wednesday of pneumonia while traveling in Rome, a spokesman for the family said. He was 58.

Paltrow, who had been married more than 30 years to actress Blythe Danner, was on the trip to Italy to celebrate his daughter's 30th birthday. He had been diagnosed with throat cancer and had experienced a recurrence of the disease.

Although perhaps most famous recently because of his daughter (his son, Jake, is also a director), Paltrow was associated with two seminal TV series as well as several less successful projects, among them the karaoke-themed movie "Duets," which starred Gwyneth and was released in 2000.

One of his two major successes, "The White Shadow," which aired on CBS from 1978 to 1981, featured Ken Howard as a former professional basketball player who becomes the coach at a tough inner-city high school. The program dealt realistically with social and racial matters.

"He was truly funny, in any situation," Howard said Thursday. He also co-starred with Danner in a series version of "Adam's Rib" before "White Shadow." "When it was just guys, he was even funnier.... And he was very much a straight shooter."

Paltrow directed the poorly received film comedy "A Little Sex" in 1982 before turning his attention to producing the medical drama "St. Elsewhere," which premiered on NBC that year.

In a departure from traditional TV medical shows like "Ben Casey" and "Dr. Kildare," "St. Elsewhere" focused on an eclectic group of flawed characters within St. Eligius, a run-down Boston hospital. The series, whose co-stars included Denzel Washington, dealt with thorny topics from rape to AIDS and occasionally veered into broad comedy--including a memorable episode in which a male mental patient was convinced that he was Mary Richards, the character from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

David Bushman, a curator at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York, credited the series with "paying no attention to the conventions of the genre" and being one of the programs in the 1980s that helped excite baby boomers about television.

"In the medical shows that had come before, the doctors themselves were demigods," he said, adding on a personal level that Paltrow was "the most unassuming, most unpretentious guy I've ever met."

Paltrow knew "St. Elsewhere" was a gamble. In an interview a few months before the premiere, he said, "If we're going to fail, we're going to fail spectacularly. We're not trying to make a nice, polite show. Who needs another one of those?"

Initial ratings were disappointing, but after considerable hand-wringing, NBC decided to renew the series for a second year. At the time, Brandon Tartikoff, then president of NBC Entertainment, called the first season's final episode "the finest hour I'd seen on television. I said to my wife that it was tragic such a fine show wasn't being watched. I wondered what I was doing in this business if it wasn't to do that kind of television."

The program ultimately survived six seasons, concluding with a controversial episode suggesting the entire story had been dreamed in the mind of an autistic child--an hour that Paltrow directed.

After "St. Elsewhere," Paltrow created several series but couldn't replicate the show's creative cachet or even its modest commercial popularity. Subsequent efforts included "Tattingers," an NBC series that co-starred Danner, and "Home Fires," a 1992 comedy that began each week with its central family in therapy. The latter ran only six weeks.

"Bruce Paltrow taught me everything I know about television," writer-producer Tom Fontana, who worked with him on "St. Elsewhere" and "Homicide: Life on the Street," said in a statement. "He loved good writing, fine wines, his friends and his family."

More recently, Paltrow directed episodes of the HBO series "Mind of the Married Man." The show's star and creator, Mike Binder, talked of Paltrow's humanity and willingness to champion the work of others.

"He got more people jobs and more people work and more people their first script and directing job, from 'The White Shadow' to 'St. Elsewhere,' " Binder said. "This guy touched so many people in this business. He was just a giver."

Several actors went on to become successful television directors after beginning on episodes of their respective series. "The White Shadow's" Thomas Carter directed "Miami Vice" and the 2001 hit "Save the Last Dance," and "St. Elsewhere's" Eric Laneuville has directed episodes of "NYPD Blue" and "ER." Timothy Van Patten, another "White Shadow" cast member, has also directed episodes of HBO's "The Sopranos."

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