'ER' primetime's longest-running medical drama


A television series doesn't reach the 300-episode milestone without overcoming its share of challenges. As if to underscore that point, on a sunny day last month, the cast and crew of "ER," NBC's 14-season wonder, found themselves slogging through the concluding scenes of "300 Patients," tonight's aptly named installment (airing at 10 p.m. PST) on the very first day of the WGA strike. Picketers formed a human wall in front of the entrance at Burbank's Warner Bros. Studios. Cars drove in and out only with some difficulty. Inside, however, life proceeded pretty much as before in the emergency room of Chicago's fictional County General Hospital, aka Stage 11. Peter Fonda was the guest star -- the only real evidence of anything special going down.

One wouldn't know from hanging out here that this is the show that launched George Clooney into the stratosphere; that it's the most nominated series in Emmy Awards history (it's garnered 120 so far); that it's primetime's longest-running medical drama ever.

All John Stamos knows is that he doesn't want this gig to end anytime soon.

"I just got here last year, and I'm working furiously to do everything I can to keep this show going for at least another season beyond this one," says Stamos, who portrays Dr. Tony Gates. "This is the greatest job ever. I don't care about trying to be a movie star anymore. I'm good with TV, and being on 'ER' has helped convince me of that."

Of course, back when it launched on Sept. 19, 1994, it was one of two medical shows -- the other was CBS' "Chicago Hope" -- duking it out for survival while going head-to-head on Thursdays at 10 p.m. While "Hope" had a respectable run, in its first five years "ER" was consistently first or second in the ratings -- and was no lower than fourth in total viewers throughout the first nine seasons.

What made "ER" able to survive was an all-star pedigree ("Jurassic Park" author Michael Crichton was its creator, Steven Spielberg an executive producer), a revolutionary production method that popularized the shaky steady-cam cinematography style and a core cast to die for: Clooney, Anthony Edwards, Eriq La Salle, Julianna Margulies, Sherry Stringfield and Noah Wyle, all of whom were nominated for Emmys in the show's first season and are now revered around the "ER" set as the pioneers who made it all happen.

"I have a job today because of George Clooney, Julianna Margulies and Anthony Edwards," believes Scott Grimes, who portrays Dr. Archie Morris and whose original two-episode gig in Season 10 has now stretched to nearly 100 installments. "We wouldn't be here if not for them."

There have now been 24 cast regulars who have called "ER" home and literally hundreds of others who have enjoyed either recurring roles or memorable guest stints. In the show's first 13 seasons, 20 guest stars have been nominated for Emmys, including Alan Alda, Swoosie Kurtz, William H. Macy, Ewan McGregor, Bob Newhart and James Woods. Two others, Sally Field and Forest Whitaker, are Oscar winners. So is Clooney. On IMDb, the "ER" actors list stretches for 45 pages.

"But I'll tell you what I'm proudest of," says longtime "ER" casting director John Levey, who is also senior vp casting for John Wells Prods. "I'm most proud of the fabric of nurses and desk clerks and the people who come in as patients and paramedics. For my money, the smaller parts are where too many shows fall down."

Levey also is gratified that despite the fears of Warner Bros. and NBC, the show didn't implode when the original stars departed. "Everybody always thinks the show won't survive it when the cast starts to move on, but we've been able to repopulate the stars of this show three and four times over. The show itself is what's remained the star."

Well, the show ... and Clooney, of course. It remains a source of great pride that this little show produced a man who would go on in short order to become a big-screen superstar.

"I admire the hell out of what George has become," Levey says.

One of the few who has seen 'em all come and go is executive producer Christopher Chulack, who was there for the pilot on day one and is still around, having taken a few sabbaticals from the show to work on other shows (such as "Third Watch"), but who keeps returning to the series that he calls "home." And even when he was off doing other stuff, he remained a consulting producer on "ER," with a hand in the process. He also has directed 42 of the 300 episodes.

"The great thing about 'ER' is that it's such a living beast," Chulack says. "It breathes. It contracts and expands. There are some years that are stronger than other years, for sure. But we're alive and fluid, and that's what makes being around it exciting."

Like Grimes, Chulack credits much of "ER's" enduring popularity to the six actors who formed the original ensemble.

"I think of those six often," he admits. "George and Tony (Edwards) in particular had a great understanding of what we had, what was developing, and they laid the groundwork for everything that followed."

The closest thing to a stabilizing influence among the cast since the originals departed has been Maura Tierney, the actress who portrays Dr. Abby Lockhart and who has served as a bridge between the various casts and recurring players. She arrived during Season 6, when the expectation might rightly have been that the show was getting close to the end. Instead, Tierney has now been a member of the team for eight seasons and counting.

"I get asked all the time what the secret is to this show's longevity," Tierney says, "and I think a lot of the reason surrounds the fact that (executive producer) John Wells is very good at what he does. He's a great delegator. He's great at hiring writers. He's very smart in how he sort of replaces the cast members in a way that it doesn't feel like anyone is really being replaced. It's seamless."

And even after eight years, Tierney maintains that she still enjoys coming to work.

"The writers take very good care of me and my character," she says. "They always work really hard to make me interesting. And I mean, it does get a little bit boring sometimes to have to stand around for 12 hours waiting for your next shot, but it's far more than just a paycheck for me. It's very fulfilling work."

The same is certainly true for Parminder Nagra, the "Bend It Like Beckham" (2002) star who joined during Season 10 as Dr. Neela Rasgotra.

"Besides allowing me to get a foothold in America, this show has given me a lot of new friends," stresses the British-born Nagra. "I know you hear that a lot, how close everyone on a show is. But with us it really is true. And having that kind of family atmosphere on a set is just so wonderful."

On the road to 300, there have been innumerable memorable "ER" episodes and special moments. One of the most notable had to be the show's broadcast of a live episode, entitled "Ambush," in 1997, with the NBC camera crew disguised as a PBS crew shooting a documentary in the hospital. The actors did that show twice straight through -- once for the East Coast, once for the West. Fears of a production disaster turned out to be unfounded.

"It's funny how sometimes I can't remember my own phone number," Chulack says, "but if I see a scene from the show, I can tell you specifically what was going on, the mood on the set, the side conversations, everything. The emotional investment you make in a TV series that's your own is a really strange thing."

Some fear that this emotional investment of which Chulack speaks might color any judgment as to the right time for "ER" to ultimately pack it in. A few already have intimated that it is past due. But with the WGA strike interrupting the season, giving NBC the impetus to renew the show for a 15th season (in fact, NBC announced late last month that it would be replacing "ER" on Feb. 7 with the midseason entry "Lipstick Jungle" after original "ER" episodes run out), this 300th celebration might not be a wrap party after all.

"I'll tell you what the decision won't be based on, and that's continuing to do it just so we can all make more money," Chulack emphasizes. "We've had a lot of discussions to help us guard against becoming a parody of ourselves. But for the most part, I don't believe that we have. Creatively, we still feel we have a lot to say."