From Elsewhere to Nowhere
03/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
ALTHOUGH ED FLANDERS' HOME was surrounded by 190 acres of the rolling Northern California pasture he loved, the former St. Elsewhere star spent his final days in a depression so deep he rarely left his sofa. Finally, on the morning of Feb. 22, he did. Flanders found himself alone in his ranch house after the caretaker Raul Arce left to drive Flanders' 8-year-old son Evan the 80 miles from tiny Denny (pop. 30) back to Eureka, where he lives with his mother, Cody Lambert, who was Flanders' third wife. Flanders, according to a preliminary coroner's report, went into the bathroom, sat down on the toilet, grasped a Savage .30.06 rifle in his right hand, placed the barrel against his right ear and pulled the trigger.
The reclusive Flanders, 60, who played St. Eligius Hospital's quietly anguished Dr. Westphall on the classic NBC series from 1982 to 1987, left no suicide note. By all accounts, he was not a man who opened his soul to others. "Ed was a loner," says his former agent Donald Wolff. "If you asked me who his best friend was, I don't think I could answer you."
For months, there were clear signs of trouble. "My father had so many things coming down on him," says Ian Flanders, 31, an actor who is Flanders' son by his second wife, actress Ellen Geer, 53. Just five days before shooting himself, the three-time Emmy winner had decided to put his ranch, which he bought in 1986, on the market. Although owning the ranch had been a lifelong dream, it never made money. "My dad wasn't bankrupt," says Ian, "but he figured he better get out before things got worse."
Flanders already felt anxious enough about persistent medical problems. He had crushed three vertebrae in 1988, when his Volkswagen Rabbit plunged off a road near his ranch. Even after the bones healed, "if he picked up a pencil the wrong way, he'd be in bed for a week," says Ian. In the past six months, Flanders underwent at least two cataract surgeries in San Francisco. "He was afraid one day he'd wake up and not be able to see," says Ian.
Compounding his misery was the fact that Flanders, an alcoholic who had gone through rehab in the late '80s, was again drinking heavily, according to the coroner's report and friends in the area. On his daily 30-mile drive into Willow Creek, the only nearby town large enough to have a post office, he would pick up his mail, do errands and visit bars. Jim Heal, a bartender at Chris's Forks, says Flanders initially drank soft drinks but switched to screwdrivers a few years ago. "He came in by himself," says Heal, "and always sat in the same place, at the bar stool right near the door. I think he was a very lonely man."
Ian says his father never recovered from his 1991 divorce from Lambert, 33. That was "a dark event," says Ian, who also has a half brother and half sister, Scott and Suzanne, from his father's first marriage.
Ian thinks his father's real demon was his inability to reach out for help when he needed it, a trait that dated back to his childhood. "He was on his own, emotionally, at a very young age," says Ian. Flanders was born in Minneapolis in 1934, the youngest of three children of Francis Flanders, a machinist, and his wife, Bernice, a cafe owner. His parents divorced before Ed was 10. Bernice remarried and died soon after, and then the family was broken up. "We never had the camaraderie most kids do," says his brother, Francis, 64, who lives in Ramona, Calif. "I went with our father, our sister Rene went to a Catholic mission, and Ed went with our uncle."
After high school, Flanders moved on to San Diego and, at 17, was already acting at the Globe Theater there. During the next 40 years, he worked on stage, in film and on TV, winning a 1974 Tony and a 1976 Emmy for A Moon for the Misbegotten and another Emmy a year later for playing Harry Truman on PBS. But his best-known role was as Dr. Westphall, for which he won a third Emmy in 1983.
Former colleagues from St. Elsewhere remember Flanders as an actor totally focused on his craft. Still, they knew he had problems. Norman Lloyd, who played Dr. Auschlander, believes Flanders "held a great deal in to himself." During the show's run, says writer-producer Tom Fontana, "there were times when Ed drank a lot—although he was always able to work." But, he adds, sadly, "Ed never seemed to get any joy from acting."
Flanders was, in fact, fed up with Hollywood. "He'd tell me, 'They pay me to wait. I act for free,' " says Ian. Lloyd, when asked about Flanders' most famous St. Elsewhere moment—he defiantly flashed his derriere at St. Eligius's corporate owner—comments sadly, "What a way to be remembered if you're an actor of his quality!"
At the end of his life, Flanders' only enthusiasms appeared to be the ranch—and Evan, who spent weekends and holidays with his father. Flanders would take Evan with him when he did errands. They often stopped at a Willow Creek bar, Gold Digger, where he would order one screwdriver, says bartender Cherie Dion, "and sit watching Evan at the video games. He was completely in awe of this little person. I think Evan gave him another chance in life."
Ian believes that is what makes his father's death even more poignant. "He had to be in so much pain, because he loved that boy," he says. Flanders' body has been cremated, and now Ian plans to scatter the ashes along the Pacific coast. "I forgive him," he says. "He's not in pain anymore, and for that I am at peace."
BILL DONAHUE in Denny and LYNDON STAMBLER in Los Angeles