On Ed Flanders, St. Elsewhere, and Suicide

The late Ed Flanders was born on this day in 1934. We’ll talk about his eventual fate in a bit; meantime, we celebrate him, his career, and his hit TV show.

An army vet from Minneapolis, Flanders began to make good in 1967, the year of his first Broadway and television credits. That year he was in the Broadway premiere of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and on an episode of the TV western Cimarron Strip. Most of his work throughout his career was to be on television; he appeared on dozens of shows on the small screen. A 1972 episode of M*A*S*H might be the first place I ever saw him. 1973 was another turning point. That year he starred on Broadway in Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten, a role which garnered him a Tony. When a TV movie was made of the play in 1975, he earned an Emmy for his performance in that.

He next made a splash playing Harry Truman in Truman at Potsdam (1976), Harry S. Truman: Plain Speaking (1976) and MacArthur (1977). My parents were particular fans of these turns; these performances were admired in our house. For a while Flanders was in an absurd number of Presidential films, although not always in the role of a President. He was in Lincoln (1975), Eleanor and Franklin (1976), Backstairs at the White House (1979 — he played Coolidge), Blind Ambition (1979, about Richard Nixon) and The Final Days (1989, also about Nixon.)

William Peter Blatty was also a major Ed Flanders fan, casting him in The Ninth Configuration (1980) and The Exorcist III (1990).

In 1982 came the show and the role Flanders became best known for, that of Dr. Donald Westphal on St. Elsewhere. Much like Hill Street Blues, on which it seemed to be partially modeled, St. Elsewhere featured a large ensemble cast. But among that ensemble, Flanders was first among equals. As the head of the fictional St. Elegius Hospital in Boston, he was kind of a bemused but beleaguered straight man to a huge number of crazies, a role not unlike the one Andy Griffith had played on his eponymous sit com, or the one Hal Linden had played on Barney Miller (or for that matter, the one played by Daniel J. Travanti played on Hill Street Blues). His job was to keep his head while everyone else lost theirs.

I went back and binge watched the first few seasons a couple of months back and the experience made me very happy. The casting of that ensemble was a masterful combination of recognizable veterans and newcomers. The known quantities were Flanders, as well as old-timer Norman Lloyd (then around 70, and remarkably still alive at this writing!), the much beloved stage and screen star William Daniels, and David Birney (who’d starred in the sitcom Bridget Loves Bernie with his wife Meredith Baxter a decade earlier). Birney, and G.W. Bailey (also of M*A*S*H and The Closer) left the show after the first season. Also known when he joined the cast was Stephen Furst, who’d played Flounder in Animal House. Ronny Cox (then best known for Deliverance) joined for the last season.

As for the up-and-comers, the show was like a garden of future stars: Denzel Washington, Mark Harmon (who had lots of credits by this time but no one knew his name), Ed Begley Jr (ditto), David Morse, and Howie Mandel (who made good as a stand-up comic simultaneously with the advent of the show). British actress Christina Pickles straddled both worlds (better known in her home country ’til she made good with her five Emmy nominations on St. Elsewhere). Likewise Vietnamese-French actress France Nuyen had many credits prior to the show; it raised her profile as well. Helen Hunt was in the cast in the middle of the run. Kyle Secor (later of Homicide) had a recurring part towards the end.

In a memorable TV first, Flanders got to moon Ronny Cox (with full butt cheeks showing) for Westphal’s departure from St. Elsewhere (Cox played an administrator with whom he was in conflict). That episode was named “Moon for the Misbegotten” honoring both Flanders’ famous O’Neill role — and the display of his tuchis. Flanders left the show in 1987 to take other roles. The show only outlasted him by one season.

Flanders and his career were not to last much longer than the show. A 1989 car accident left him with chronic, often incapacitating back pain. Already prone to drinking and depression, these problems flared up in the wake of the accident. Whenever I think of Flanders, I think of this quality of sadness he possessed. He seems a little shy; his smile seems reluctant, almost distrustful of happiness. It’s the kind of face they call “worldly wise”. It had known much sadness. Flanders’ mother had died in a car accident when he was 14; that undoubtedly affected him. During St. Elsewhere‘s final season, Flanders came back for an episode and extemporized a long, rambling speech about death which none of the other actors knew was coming. Part of the monologue made it into the episode, although the producers were as taken aback as everyone else. Following the accident, Flanders only managed to play a handful of roles. He spent a lot of time in seclusion in his home in the desert, drinking. On February 22, 1995, he took his own life with a revolver. His progress toward being an O’Neill hero was complete.