Question: How did the writers write Dr. Joel Fleischman off of Northern Exposure when Rob Morrow left the show? Tanya D., Meridian, Miss.
Televisionary: With their fingers, I'm betting. Ha!
As fans know, Dr. Joel Fleischman returned to New York, which turned out to be the mythical city he was seeking in "The Quest." In reality, Morrow's leaving didn't go quite so smoothly.
Just ask Janine Turner, who costarred as the good doctor's love interest and frequent sparring partner, bush pilot Maggie O'Connell. "My publicist said, 'They've already figured out how they're going to write him out, and a new doctor is coming to town,' " Turner recalled of the moment in the summer of 1994 when she first heard the news of Morrow's departure. "And I just hit the roof."
By the time Morrow left, he'd reportedly been making life difficult for many on the set and behind the scenes of the show that launched him. He'd already held out for more money, refusing to return to work until he got it and only changing his mind when CBS threatened to sue. And in the season before he decided to leave, the show's producers complained that he was phoning it in and was generally uncooperative. "I didn't know his ultimate motives at the time," Turner said, "so I always sided with him and really went to bat for him. But I think he had a plan. In retrospect, all that turmoil was self-serving. He was waging his battle to get out."
And a battle it was, according to others involved, though the official version was that the split was amicable. "Things were getting very tense" at the end of that season and "everybody's tempers were really fraying about dealing with him," an insider said. "We couldn't get a good performance out of him. We just limped through the season," said another. Morrow's response at the time? "Let my work speak for itself."
Producers who were willing to talk on the record didn't address any tension directly, but executive producer Diane Frolov made a telling comment when discussing bringing relative unknown Paul Provenza in as the town of Cicely, Alaska's new doc. "[O]n a practical level, we wanted someone we [could] control for a while, somebody who's grateful for the opportunity," she said. As opposed to, say, someone they couldn't and who wasn't?
Turner, who confronted Morrow on the set about letting her be the last to know about his decision, nevertheless said she buried the hatchet with him. Still, she had no problem talking publicly about what she thought of him maneuvering to get out of his contract with the show that gave him his big break. "I thought, 'Why is it that Rob gets to go off and pursue films and I don't?'" she said. "I watched Sandra Bullock go from Demolition Man to pretty much whatever she wanted. And that's what I could have done after Cliffhanger [in which Turner costarred with DM star Sylvester Stallone]. I had lots of offers. But my dad went to West Point, and I was raised with a sense of honor and country and what you sign your name to is what you live up to. I think all of us thought, 'Rob, you should live up to your commitment. Your leaving is affecting all of us.' "
Certainly nobody else on the show was doing back flips over his departure, difficulties or no difficulties. "Nobody believes that's a great thing," executive producer David Chase (The Sopranos) said. "I'm afraid the show is going to suffer without him," said John Corbett, who played philosophical DJ Chris Stevens. "If I were in charge, I'd tie him to a post and make him stay."
That may have been considered. Still, everyone left behind made the best of it, though Turner definitely laid down the law on one front: no romance between Maggie and the new doctor, which is one of the reasons Provenza's Dr. Phil arrived in town with a wife. "I said, 'Don't even think about it, because I can't do it again," she said. "Not only because I feel so protective of Fleishman, but because nobody could come in and try to fill Rob's shoes. Don't even try."
So they didn't. They hooked Maggie up with Corbett's Chris instead.
All in all, though, things could've been a lot worse. The show, unlike other series that limped off the air after losing a major star, managed to wrap things up with everyone's pride intact. "[L]oose ends are tied together nicely, and the final few moments are warm and glowy," wrote TV Guide critic Paul Droesch.