February 22, 1995
Remembering the great St. Elsewhere actor
Ed Flanders was the lead doctor in the 1980s TV series St. Elsewhere, about the lives and dedication of the doctors and nurses at run-down, under-funded St. Eligius Hospital in a bad neighborhood of South Boston.
St. Elsewhere, as the hospital became known, was, to quote a reviewer, “a sanctuary for the underdog and the downtrodden.”
The show was a favorite of mine and my 17-year-old son when we lived in a weekly-rate motel in Topanga Beach, California. We never missed an episode. My son had a crush on Christine Pickles, who played nurse Helen Rosenthal.
The superlative cast included Denzel Washington, Mark Harmon, Betty White, Ed Begley Jr., Tim Robbins, Cynthia Sikes, Norman Lloyd, William Daniels, David Morse, Howie Mandel, George Wendt, Helen Hunt, David Birney, and many more.
LEADER OF THE TEAM
One of the best was Ed Flanders, who played Dr. Donald Westphall, the Director of Medicine who was regarded as the heart and soul of the hospital.
“What I have foremost in my mind is an extraordinary presence,” cast member France Nuyen said in the St. Elsewhere newsletter On Call. “He had a magnetism and power, but it was always understated. He was a remarkable actor.”
Flanders received eight Emmy nominations as Outstanding Lead Actor in a TV Series and won three times.
RECLUSE IN A TINY TOWN
Ed Flanders left St. Elsewhere in 1988.
Three divorces, a crippling and excruciatingly painful back injury from a near fatal car accident in 1989, and a lifelong battle with depression began to take their toll.
“Eddie had a rough childhood,” Ellen Geer, his second wife, said in the On Call newsletter.
“His mother was killed in a car accident when he was fourteen, then he had a nervous breakdown. Alcohol was also something that was part of his family.”
Ed was an alcoholic. He had gone through rehab in the late 1980s, but it didn’t last and he went back to the bottle.
BAR STOOL NEAR THE DOOR
In his last years, Ed became a recluse on his 190-acre ranch in the tiny hamlet of Denny in northern California.
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.
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.
“I remember Ed as a fan who fell madly in love with this handsome, blue-eyed man,” said Cody Lambert, his third wife. “In spite of the problems, in spite of the hurt, it’s important to remember Ed as the brilliant talent, giving a performance and giving of himself. He was a special human being.”
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. He had roles in dozens of TV shows and movies, including that of President Truman in MacArthur with Gregory Peck.
See bio here.
But for me and millions of others, it will always be St. Elsewhere.