NOTES ON ST. ELSEWHERE: "Down's Syndrome"
"Down's Syndrome" was the first script I ever wrote for
television. And, having only written plays up until that
point, this was the first time I had to collaborate with
other writers or get notes from the network.
As the third episode of the first season of St. Elsewhere,
several plot points were already "in play" -- especially the
Reinhardt-McAllister story line, the bulk of which was
written by the show's creators John Falsey and Josh Brand.
The VIP tour of the hospital was my idea, based on a visit
I had made to the Millard Fillmore Hospital in Buffalo, New
York, which was not only where my mother worked but also
where I was born. I thought a tour might give the audience a
sense of how the hospital functioned -- or, in this case of
Saint Eligius, didn't function.
The central story -- a middle class couple facing the birth
of a Down's child -- drew the strongest criticism from the
brass at NBC. They felt that too many scenes took place away
from the hospital and away from our regular characters. I
wasn't trying to cause trouble, I honestly didn't know how to
tell the story any other way.
We received a letter shortly after the episode aired (in
November of 1982) from George Will of ABC, who had a Down's
child. He was extremely critical of what he considered the
negative depiction of a person with the Syndrome. Again, I
don't know if I could've told the story any other way -- in
order for the audience to feel the full impact of the
couple's decision to abort -- but I was very moved by Will's
letter and got, for the first time, a true sense of my
responsibility as a television writer.
The truth be told my first draft of this script sucked. It
was too much like a play, with entrances and exits and long,
long scenes. Bruce Paltrow, in his unique and nurturing way,
guided every step of the rewrite process. John Masius was
also very generous, helping me to write the Fiscus/Martin
elevator scene. When Masius and I stood on the set, acting
out the parts and breaking each other up, I knew we could
work together. Mark Tinker, who directed the episode, was
extremely kind, encouraging me to come to the set as often as
St. Elsewhere is now twenty years old. And so is the
script of "Down's Syndrome" -- I hope my writing has improved
since then -- but, having just re-read it for the first time
in two decades, there's something kind of nice about the
writer's innocence and inexperience.
One final note: The cast list (which unfortunately is
incomplete) includes Tim Robbins, in his first SAG role out
of college; Tony Bill, the director of My Bodyguard and
producer of The Sting and Jack Bannon, who had just finished
his run on Lou Grant. What with Flanders, Lloyd, Morse,
Daniels, Mandel, Begley et al, it wasn't a bad bunch of
actors for a novice writers' TV debut.
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