ST ELSEWHERE

The tragic end of a great actor

Remembering Ed Flanders who died February 22, 1995.

One of my favorite TV series in the early 1980s was St. Elsewhere, the hospital drama that ran from 1982 to 1988. At the time I was a divorced writer living with my 17-year-old son in a weekly-rate motel in Topanga Beach, California. We never missed an episode.

The award-winning series was about the lives and dedication of the doctors and nurses at run-down, under-funded St. Eligius Hospital in the slums of South Boston that became “a sanctuary for the underdog and the downtrodden,” to quote a reviewer.

LEADER OF THE TEAM

One of the best actors among a marvelous cast that included Denzel Washington, Mark Harmon, Ed Begley Jr. and David Morse, was Ed Flanders, who played Dr. Westphall, the Director of Medicine who was regarded as the heart and soul of the hospital.

Flanders received eight Emmy nominations as Outstanding Lead Actor in a TV Series and won three times.

EMMY WINNER

RECLUSE IN A TINY TOWN

He left St. Elsewhere in 1988. After three divorces, a crippling back injury from a near fatal car accident in 1989, and a lifelong battle with depression (his mother was killed in a car crash when he was 14), he became a recluse on his 190-acre ranch in the tiny hamlet of Denny in northern California.

Ed Flanders was an alcoholic who had gone through rehab in the late 1980s, but went back to the bottle.

Denny, California, so small it doesn’t show up on a map.

BAR STOOL NEAR THE DOOR

On his daily 30-mile drive into Willow Creek, the closest town large enough to have a post office, he would pick up his mail and frequent the local bars.

“He came in by himself,” one bartender recalled, “and always sat in the same place, on the bar stool near the door. He was a very lonely man.”

Ed Flanders spent his final days in a depression “so deep he rarely left his sofa,” according to reporter Tom Gliatto.

.30-06 RIFLE

Then, on the morning of February 22, 1995, he took a .30-06 rifle from a closet, positioned the barrel against his right temple and pulled the trigger. He was 60 years old. There was no suicide note.

Ed Flanders had many other successes on screen and stage, including a Tony Award for Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway. See bio HERE.

Called death

Weather Report from the Other Side

When I’m in a cold lonely place and feeling down, like tonight in 13-degree (-10 C) Upstate New York, I think of my wife who is in a far colder and lonelier place.

Fourteen months ago in Intensive Care I held her hand, still warm in mine, to me a sign of life, and watched the moving line on the life-support machine and talked to unconscious mind because I was told that hearing and touch are the last sensations to go and the hours went by and her hand turned cold and the nurse said it’s time and the machine was turned off and I was cast into a void of loneliness and fear. People lose loved ones every day so I’m not putting myself in a special category, I’m just telling my story.

In the hellish months since, well-meaning people have talked to me about God and Heaven, and I have tried to understand and embrace the notion, but in the end (as of tonight anyway) they remain fantasies — wonderful and lovely fantasies to be sure, but to my mind, illusions (I could say delusions, if I wanted to be cynical, but I don’t want to be cynical, I want to keep, as they say, an open mind).

Fourteen months to the day and the loss and the pain have never diminished, and, despite prayers and desperate cries in the night for the faintest presence of her spirit, some kind of sign from an “after life,” a glimmer of hope from “God” — nothing.

All my stubbornly realistic mind can grasp is that my wife is in an oblivion that is colder and lonelier than where I am tonight in 13-degrees Upstate New York.