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Tommy Westphall

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Tommy Westphall
St. Elsewhere character
Chad Allen as Tommy in "The Last One" (1988)
First appearance"All About Eve"
December 14, 1983
Last appearance"The Last One"
May 25, 1988
Portrayed byChad Allen
In-universe information
RelativesDr. Donald Westphall (father)

Tommy Westphall, portrayed by Chad Allen, is a minor character from the drama television series St. Elsewhere,[1] which ran on NBC from 1982 to 1988.[2]

Westphall, who is autistic, played an increased role in St. Elsewhere's final episode, "The Last One", one interpretation of which is that the entire St. Elsewhere storyline exists only within Westphall's imagination.[1] As characters from St. Elsewhere have appeared on other television shows and those shows' characters appeared on more shows, and so on, a "Tommy Westphall Universe" hypothesis (postulated by Dwayne McDuffie) argues that a significant amount of fictional episodic television exists within a fictional universe imagined by Tommy Westphall.

"The Last One"[edit]

In the last episode's final two scenes, Donald Westphall – having just returned to St. Eligius – is shown in Dr. Auschlander's office pondering the recent death from stroke of his colleague and mentor. With the aria "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" (Doretta's Beautiful Dream) from Puccini's opera La Rondine playing, Tommy Westphall enters the office and runs to the window, where he looks at the snow falling outside St. Eligius.[3] An exterior camera shot of the hospital cuts to Tommy Westphall sitting in the living room of an apartment building alongside his grandfather, now being portrayed by Norman Lloyd (aka "Daniel Auschlander"). Tommy's father, still being portrayed by Ed Flanders (aka "Donald Westphall") arrives at the apartment wearing a hard hat.[3][4] The following exchange occurs:

Father: "Hi Pop, how you doing?"

Grandfather: "Good. How was your day up on the building?"

Father: "Well, we finally topped off the 22nd story. And I'm beat. How's he been? (referring to Tommy) He give you any trouble?"

Grandfather: "He's been sitting there ever since you left this morning, just like he does every day. World of his own."

Father: "I don't understand this autism thing, Pop. Here's my son, I talk to him, I don't even know if he can hear me. He sits there, all day long, in his own world, staring at that toy. What's he thinking about?"

Tommy, who is shaking a snow globe,[5] is told by his father to come and wash his hands. As they leave the living room, Tommy's father places the snow globe upon a television set. The camera slowly zooms in on the snow globe, which is revealed to contain a replica of St. Eligius hospital inside of it.[3][1]

The foremost interpretation of this scene is that the entire series of events in St. Elsewhere were dreamt by Tommy Westphall, and thus, products of his imagination.[3][5][6] According to Lindsey Freeman, the narrative framing of Tommy's imagination as within a snow globe occurs because, as an "oneiric and mnemonic gadget", a snow globe "often finds itself as a companion piece to the dream sequences found in television and movies". He adds that, "while a controversial and maddening ending for some loyal viewers, the final episode of St. Elsewhere illustrates the rich and often blurred boundaries in how we experience the world."[7]

Tommy Westphall universe hypothesis[edit]

The Tommy Westphall universe hypothesis makes the claim that not only does St. Elsewhere take place within Tommy's mind, but so do numerous other television series which are directly and indirectly connected to St. Elsewhere through fictional crossovers and spin-offs, resulting in a large fictional universe taking place entirely within Tommy's mind.[1][6] This hypothesis was originally put forward by comic book and TV writer Dwayne McDuffie in a 2002 blog post,[8] as a reductio ad absurdum argument against making strong statements about fictional continuity based upon guest appearances.

In a 2003 article published on BBC News Online, St. Elsewhere writer Tom Fontana was quoted as saying "Someone did the math once... and something like 90 percent of all [American] television took place in Tommy Westphall's mind. God love him."[9]

An example of crossover[edit]

The St. Elsewhere characters Dr. Roxanne Turner (Alfre Woodard) and Dr. Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley Jr.) appeared on Homicide: Life on the Street. Fontana was the executive producer and showrunner for Homicide for its entire seven years.

Proponents of the Tommy Westphall Universe argue that because of this fictional crossover, the two series exist within the same fictional universe, and within Tommy Westphall's mind because of the final episode of St. Elsewhere; by extension this hypothesis can be extended to include the science fiction program The X-Files and the Law & Order franchise (due to various crossovers with characters from Homicide, in particular Det. John Munch). Law & Order creator Dick Wolf is close friends with Fontana and frequently crossed Homicide characters over into his own series.


There are other possible interpretations of Tommy's "vision" which may suggest something other than the entire series being his dream. For instance, it may be the other way around, and the snow globe scene may itself be the dream. Brian Weatherson, professor of philosophy at Cornell University, wrote a piece, "Six Objections to the Westphall Hypothesis", which challenges the logical, factual, and philosophical basis for the existence of the "universe".[10]

Weatherson's fifth objection holds that the appearance of a person or event in a dream does not mean the person or event cannot exist in real life. If a person dreams about visiting London and meeting Gordon Brown, it does not follow that because the city of London and Gordon Brown appeared in a dream, they do not exist in real life. Specific to the Westphall Hypothesis, even if we accept that St. Elsewhere is Westphall's dream, it does not imply that all of the characters on the show exist only in his mind. Therefore, appearances from St. Elsewhere characters on other shows are not sufficient to indicate that those shows exist only in Westphall's dream.

The notion that appearances by the same character in two or more series tie those series together in the same fictional universe is also problematic. Weatherson, in his sixth objection, offers the example of Michael Bloomberg playing the role of New York City Mayor both on Law & Order and in real life, which, if one accepts the logic of the hypothesis, indicates that real life is in the head of Tommy Westphall. Thus, it does not follow that because one person, place, or thing is present in two or more works of fiction that those works are necessarily related.


When directing episodes for the eighth series of the revived Doctor Who in 2014, Ben Wheatley had the art department create a replica of Tommy Westphall's snowglobe, which Wheatley placed in the TARDIS set as a reference to the hypothesis.[11]

NewsRadio episode "Daydream" (season 3 episode 7) ends with Jimmy James staring into a snow globe that appears to contain a miniature version of the WNYX office, thus seeming to indicate that Jimmy James has imagined the entire episode.[12]

The final scene of 30 Rock opens with a view of the eponymous building, which fades into a model of the same, in a snow globe, observed by NBC president Kenneth Parcell roughly a century into the future, as flying cars whiz past his window. The entire series is revealed to have been based on the stories Liz Lemon told her great-granddaughter, a future television writer, and as remembered by the more-or-less immortal Parcell.

Dr Pepper includes an homage to Tommy Westphall's snowglobe in its 2021 advertising campaign. The commercial titled "Off Season" features the cast of the mock sitcom "Fansville" discussing their purpose after the conclusion of the college football season. After the "Fansville" characters exchange meta-humorous existential comments, the camera pans out to show that the characters in fact exist in a snowglobe sitting on Larry Culpepper's desk. Therefore, the commercial also does homage to the Newhart finale, as Larry Culpepper's presence from a previous Dr Pepper ad campaign references Bob Newhart's psychiatrist from The Bob Newhart Show appearing in "The Last Newhart".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Burkhead, Cynthia (2013). Dreams in American Television Narratives: From Dallas to Buffy. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 71–72. ISBN 9781441125231.
  2. ^ O'Connor, John J. (25 May 1988). "For 'St. Elsewhere,' It's Goodbye (or Is It?) Review/Television; Ed Flanders as Dr. Westphal in St. Elsewhere.". The New York Times. Vol. 137, no. 47, 516. Retrieved 9 May 2017.
  3. ^ a b c d Burkhead, Cynthia A. (December 2010). "Dreams That End Narratives". Dancing Dwarfs and Talking Fish: The Narrative Functions of Television Dreams (Ph.D. thesis). Murfreesboro, TN: Middle Tennessee State University. pp. 155–157. Document No. 3459290ProQuest 873898276 – via ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
  4. ^ Jansen, Brian (2011). Lists Of All You Left Behind (master's thesis). Windsor, Ontario: University of Windsor. p. 40. Document No. MR61746ProQuest 872955653.
  5. ^ a b Turner, Leslie Jackson (1996). "The Rise of NBC". How Far Is Too Far?: The Evolution of Prime-Time Standards at the Broadcast Television Networks from 1970-1995 (Ph.D. thesis). Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University. p. 136. Document No. 9714531ProQuest 304231357 – via ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
  6. ^ a b Gravely, Gary (August 2015). "Television and Possible Worlds: Showrunners and Writers". A Multiverse of Narratives: Possible Worlds Theory and Authorship From the Lone Artist to Corporate Authors (Ph.D. thesis). Murfreesboro, TN: Middle Tennessee State University. pp. 165–167. Document No. 3719757ProQuest 1718228166 – via ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
  7. ^ Freeman, Lindsey A. (8 April 2019). "Catastrophic Snow Globes as Oneiric and Mnemonic Gadgets". Space and Culture. 19 (2): 121. doi:10.1177/1206331215621001. S2CID 146359346.
  8. ^ McDuffie, Dwayne (2002-01-29). "Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere". Slush Factory. Archived from the original on 2012-06-25. Retrieved 2012-06-07.
  9. ^ Gallagher, William (2003-05-30). "TV's strangest endings". BBC News. Retrieved 2006-07-20.
  10. ^ Weatherson, Brian (2004-10-04). "Six Objections to the Westphall Hypothesis". Thoughts Arguments and Rants. Retrieved 2006-07-20.
  11. ^ Weintraub, Steve (25 September 2015). "Director Ben Wheatley Talks 'High-Rise', 'Doctor Who', 'Free Fire' and More at TIFF". Collider. Retrieved 12 July 2016.
  12. ^ Weintraub. "NewsRadio (TV Series) Daydream (1996) Trivia". IMDb. Retrieved 24 February 2020.

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