May 25 will mark thirty years to the night when little Tommy Westphall gazed into a snow globe and revealed to nearly 23 million TV viewers that six seasons of heartbreak, joy, love, loss, emergencies and “Stat!”s – in short, St. Elsewhere – had been the daydream fancies of a young autistic boy. The revelation angered some, charmed others and, either way, capped the groundbreaking medical drama with the most audacious finale in TV history.
But the shock ending wasn’t St. Elsewhere‘s only legacy, far from it. As the similarly themed ER would in the following decade, St. Elsewhere was early ground for a generation of up and coming actors, including Mark Harmon, Howie Mandel, Bruce Greenwood, Cynthia Sikes and two men who, three decades on, would share a stage on Broadway in one of American theater’s greatest plays: David Morse (who played Elsewhere‘s sincere, tragedy-touched Dr. Jack “Boomer” Morrison) and Denzel Washington (the brilliant Dr. Phillip Chandler) are both Tony-nominated for their roles – featured and leading, respectively – in The Iceman Cometh, George C. Wolfe’s staging of the Eugene O’Neill classic. Morse plays the regret-filled, death-obsessed ex-anarchist Larry Slade, through whose eyes we watch the arrival of the born-again (sort of) salesman Hickey (Washington), whose annual visit to a Greenwich Village gut-bucket dive bar dredges up long-dormant feelings among the dump’s dead-end alcoholic habitués.
Deadline recently spoke to Morse about, among other things, the experience of reuniting with his long-ago co-star, whom he hadn’t seen in the 30 years since St. Elsewhere faded to white. Since then, Washington, of course, has become one of Hollywood’s beloved and bankable stars, while Morse, among the most talented actors to emerge from TV’s golden Hill Street-Elsewhere era, has led a remarkable and prolific career. To list just a very few of his credits, the 64-year-old actor, who lives in Philadelphia with his wife, has appeared in films such as The Green Mile, The Hurt Locker and World War Z, TV including Hack, Treme, True Detective and Blindspot, and such stage productions as How I Learned To Drive and The Seafarer.
In addition to The Iceman Cometh, Morse’s 2018 will include Showtime’s upcoming Escape at Dannemora, the Ben Stiller-directed limited series about the real-life 2015 prison break in upstate New York.
Here, Morse talks about Iceman, Elsewhere, Dannemore and Denzel, among other things.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Deadline: I read somewhere that you had to be talked into The Iceman Cometh…
David Morse: Well, last summer I was doing a weeklong workshop of a play that (later) opened in London, and I wound up getting an offer for that and Iceman at the same time, and I was doing two series at the same time – Blindspot and something for Showtime called Escape at Dannemora. The schedule just couldn’t work out for the London thing…I quickly read Iceman, which I’d seen a couple times, and I just was not…I just didn’t feel very excited. I just didn’t get it when I read it. But the people who represent me very wisely said, You should read this again and really think about it. Which I did, and it started to become clear to me what actually is really good about this character.
Deadline: When I first heard about the casting, of course I thought it was designed as a re-teaming of you and Denzel Washington, but that’s not correct?
Morse: No. It’s just the way the world works, you know, for this play coming together. I don’t think it was consciously in anybody’s mind, this sort of re-teaming. It’d be funny to say it was re-teaming at all, considering St. Elsewhere had a cast of 20 people, or 21 people or 17 people depending on the season. Denzel and I did a lot together on St. Elsewhere, but certainly we weren’t a team on it.
Deadline: Had you stayed in touch? Did working together bring up memories?
Morse: It was really an interesting process because we hadn’t seen each other in so long and we did have a history. Clearly we’ve both been through a lot in our life – I mean he’s become a worldwide icon. He’s more than just a great actor. He’s really a symbol in a lot of ways in this world, for a lot of people, and rightfully so. I, obviously, have not had that experience, but I’ve done plenty of work, so we bring all of that together [to play] two characters who are kind of contentious in this play. It’s great for the characters, but it was also a unique experience that I’m grateful for.
Deadline: You’ve done more than “plenty of work.” How do you go about combining theater, TV, film, so successfully? Is it something you plan long-term, or do you do things case-by-case?
Morse: I gave up planning when our children were born, when I had three children to feed and a roof to keep over our head and all of that. Early in my career I said I would never do television at all, then I wound up doing nothing but television for 10 years when I did St. Elsewhere and all those TV movies. So I should have learned my lesson there. I was involved with some great things in television that I could never have done in film.
Now my only plan really is to find the best people to work with and the best material to work with. That sounds like what everybody will say, but I’ve been lucky to be able to do that.
Deadline: We talk about being in a TV golden age now, and we can trace a lot of it back to St. Elsewhere – the multi-character story arc, the subject matter that it tackled. Were you thinking at the time, This is groundbreaking?
Morse: You know, Denzel and I both had the same experience when we decided to do that series. Hill Street Blues actually came out the year before St. Elsewhere, but they were developed at the same time, Bruce Paltrow on one and [Steven] Bochco on the other. They’d been partners on the White Shadow and it just happened that Hill Street came out first. St. Elsewhere got accused of kind of stealing the Hill Street formula, but story-wise I think the St. Elsewhere writers went way beyond what Hill Street did, in terms of the challenges they took on and the way they told stories.
And you’re right – a lot of what we see now has its roots in those writers on both those shows really, but I think especially, in a lot of ways, St. Elsewhere, just because of the range of the storytelling and the topics they took on. I think we knew at the time.
Other shows like Lou Grant, the other MTM shows, were good, but they were nothing like St. Elsewhere, and when [Denzel and I] read [the script] we both thought there’s no chance this show’s going to go. It’s just too good for TV. It will do 13 episodes and we’ll take our money and go back to New York and do what we want to do. But there we were six years later, still doing St. Elsewhere.
Deadline: Let’s move up to Iceman. Had you ever done any O’Neill?
Morse: My only experience of having done O’Neill was a stage reading series of Iceman at the Shubert Theater in Boston. I don’t know what was in their minds but they decided to do the full length Iceman Cometh, a five hour stage reading, and they asked me to play Hickey in it, or read Hickey, which I did…I was with a really good group of actors, and you would think from doing that reading I would have had an appreciation for Larry Slade, but I think I was just so focused on Hickey then that I really didn’t get the other characters…There really is a genius to this play, and it just takes us deeper and deeper all the time the more we do it.
Deadline: How was this production shaped? There was some trimming…
Morse: When we got to rehearsal George gave us a script with almost all the stage directions gone, and there was at least half an hour of cuts. People have forever talked about the repetition in the play and I think what George wanted to do was spare the audience some of that repetition, particularly with my character and the young Parritt character. A lot is repeated in there – with Hickey too – and George just tried to cut it to the real story and not burden the audience with stuff we didn’t really need. The O’Neill Trust approved all of it.
Deadline: How easy, or difficult, is it for you to transition from one medium to the other, from TV to the stage, say?
Morse: Well, I grew up in theater. It’s what I did first and I really, really love it, but after I did How I Learned to Drive [1997-98, Off Broadway], I didn’t do another play for 10 years. It was just at a period when it was too much on my family and my wife. So I went 10 years and was sort of despairing that I would be forgotten, and then The Seafarer came along.
There were things I had to sort of relearn when I did Seafarer. Things that I felt I knew because I’d been on stage a lot, but Conor McPherson, who directed it, actually called me out on it at one point. He said, We’re not doing a movie. We don’t have the intimacy of a film or television. I started realizing there was not just a vocal language to this but a body language, and it was hard. But he gave me a little kick in the pants and it was good he did, and since then I’ve been conscious of that.
Deadline: You live in Philadelphia. What are the logistics of that, working in this business?
Morse: They get a place for me to stay in New York. I get to go home one day a week and see my wife. Part of the problem when I was doing How I Learned to Drive is I would see my kids one night a week for six months and that was just too hard. We moved to Philadelphia after we lost our house in the earthquake, the ’94 Northridge earthquake.
Deadline: What can you tell us about the Showtime series Escape at Dannemora, directed by Ben Stiller? It’s based on the real life 2015 prison escape in upstate New York…
Morse: No one had ever successfully escaped from that prison and the way they did it was just fantastic and phenomenal, and you’ll see that in this miniseries. You can’t believe what these guys did to get out of there. Benicio del Toro and Paul Dano play the two prisoners who escaped, and Patricia Arquette is playing the woman who was in a very physical relationship with these guys and helped them escape. I play a corrections officer who worked there and helped them escape but didn’t know that he was helping. He actually went to prison for it. He got out recently. He did not want to talk. I offered.
Ben Stiller directed all the episodes, which was amazing. Herculean. I mean, holy crow. I’ll say it again, it was herculean. The story does not make the prison system in Dannemora look very good, or the governor look very good, and they could’ve just shut us out and not let us anywhere near the real prison, but [Governor Andrew Cuomo] wisely allowed us to do that and had his story and the whole thing told. He let us actually shoot inside the prison, which is a fantastic place. I mean, fantastic as in visually fantastic.