Tommy Westphall

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Tommy Westphall
St. Elsewhere character
Chad Allen as Tommy in "The Last One" (1988)
First appearance 1983
Last appearance "The Last One"
May 25, 1988
Portrayed by Chad Allen
Gender Male
Relatives Dr. 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 October 26, 1982, to May 25, 1988.

Westphall, who is autistic, took on major significance in St. Elsewhere's final episode, "The Last One", where the common interpretation of that finale 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 was postulated by Dwayne McDuffie where a significant amount of fictional episodic television exists within Tommy Westphall's imagined fictional universe.

"The Last One"[edit]

The 1988 final episode of St. Elsewhere, known as "The Last One", ended in a context very different from every other episode of the series. As the camera pans away from the snow beginning to fall at St. Eligius hospital, the scene changes to Donald Westphall's autistic son Tommy, along with Daniel Auschlander in an apartment building. Westphall arrives home from a day's work, and wears clothes suggesting that he is a construction worker. "Auschlander" is revealed to be Donald's father, and thus Tommy's grandfather. Donald laments to his father, "I don't understand this autism. I talk to my boy, but...I'm not even sure if he ever hears me...Tommy's locked inside his own world. Staring at that toy all day long. What does he think about?" The toy is revealed to be a snow globe with a replica of St. Eligius hospital inside. Tommy shakes the snow globe, and is told by his father to come and wash his hands, after having left the snow globe on the family's television set.[1]

One possible interpretation of this scene is that as Tommy shakes the snow globe in the apartment, he also makes it snow at the "fictional" St. Eligius. His father and grandfather also seem to work at this hospital even though neither man has ever experienced such a role. By implication this interpretation suggests the total series of events in the series St. Elsewhere had been a product of Tommy Westphall's imagination.

NewsRadio paid homage to the "snowglobe" scene at the end of its third season fantasy-themed episode "Daydream". 30 Rock did likewise in the closing scene of the series finale, "Last Lunch", which begins with the GE Building in a snow globe being stared at by perpetual rube, Kenneth Parcell, but then turns the meme around to make the series the distant-future creation of Liz Lemon's great-granddaughter with whom Kenneth is taking a pitch meeting. Childrens Hospital paid homage to the St. Elsewhere finale in its sixth webisode, in which everything that happens in Childrens Hospital turns out to take place inside a Puerto Rican little person's flatus that Rob Corddry (playing himself) is dreaming about. He wakes up suddenly, and is told by Megan Mullally (playing a character named "Megan Mullally") to "remember to set the snowglobe," and he does so by shaking it before going back to sleep.

The 1997-1999 TV series Working also referenced the snow globe ending in the beginning of its second season, where a character picks up a snow globe, shakes it up, and suddenly the cast changed for the rest of the series. This was done as an explanation as to why old characters were no longer there, and new characters were in the office, without any further reason.

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.[2]

The Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis[edit]

The Tommy Westphall universe hypothesis, an idea discussed among some television fans, 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.[3][4][5][6][7] In 2002 writer Dwayne McDuffie wrote Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere for the Slush Factory website.[8] 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 of Dr. Roxanne Turner (Alfre Woodard) and Dr. Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) appeared on Homicide: Life on the Street.[10][11] 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 series ranging from the science fiction program The X-Files to the entire Law & Order franchise (due to various crossovers with characters from the Homicide series, in particular Det. John Munch).


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 existence of the "universe".[12]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Classic Series Finales: St. Elsewhere". Retrieved 2008-10-22. 
  2. ^ Weintraub, Steve (25 September 2015). "Director Ben Wheatley Talks 'High-Rise', 'Doctor Who', 'Free Fire' and More at TIFF". Retrieved 12 July 2016. 
  3. ^ "Dr. Turner". Google Groups. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  4. ^ ""Friends" producers plan low-key finale". Google Groups. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  5. ^ "Crossover Guide Update". Google Groups. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  6. ^ McDuffie, Dwayne (2002-01-29). "Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere". The Fifth Column. Slush Factory. Retrieved 2012-06-07. 
  7. ^ "LOST: The Libby Theory and more". Uncle Bear: Jumping the Dire Shark. 2006-04-05. Archived from the original on June 26, 2006. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  8. ^ Dwayne McDuffie (29 January 2002). "Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere". Retrieved 2010-05-01. 
  9. ^ Gallagher, William (2003-05-30). "TV's strangest endings". BBC News. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  10. ^ "Homicide: Life on the Street" at the Internet Movie Database
  11. ^ Homicide: The Movie at the Internet Movie Database
  12. ^ Weatherson, Brian (2004-10-04). "Six Objections to the Westphall Hypothesis". Thoughts Arguments and Rants. Retrieved 2006-07-20. 
  • Hofstede, David (2004). What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History. New York: Back Stage Books. ISBN 0-8230-8441-8. 

External links[edit]