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After fifteen seasons, the machines will stop beeping, the I.V.s stop dripping, the gurneys stop rolling and the staff will stop running. But before the doors swing shut April 2 at Chicago's County General, the producers and stars of ER look back on a medical series like no other.
Introduction by Neal Baer
When John Wells sent me Michael Crichton's script of ER in 1994, I was a fourth-year medical student at Harvard, thinking about my applying for my residency in pediatrics. Crichton had written the script while he was a medical student at Harvard, almost twenty-five years before. It lay dormant all those years, until Steven Spielberg and his team plucked it from obscurity - legend now has it that it was tucked away in a trunk in Spielberg's office.
I read the script and was floored. "This is my life," I told Wells. "It's about all of us - doctors and residents and medical students - and it's still true, except we no longer use glass IV bottles." Crichton got it right. He captured the truth I was living: the struggles, pain and elation of becoming a doctor.
I flew to L.A. in May, armed with a hundred stories of my medical school misadventures and victories. (When Noah Wyle's John Carter was puked on, peed on, or screwed up drawing blood, it had happened to me.) We were hoping for a pickup of thirteen episodes, and I planned to stay for two months at most to break stories.
There were six writers, and we met every day for seven or eight hours, trying to figure out what the hell we were doing. We chose not to tell one main story, as previous medical series had done, but many: some without beginnings (we just swooped into the middle of a trauma) and some without endings (the patient went up to the ICU and was never heard from again).
It was risky, confusing, daunting and exhilarating. We'd talk and talk for hours about each character - Benton, Green, Ross, Lewis, Hathaway and Carter - until it felt like we knew them as well as our closest friends. We never dreamed the show would hit like a meteor. We just hoped we wouldn't embarrass ourselves with a third-place finish.
I'll never forget the moment I realized that ER was not like anything an audience had ever seen.
CCH Pounder, John Alyward, Amy Aquino, Gil McKinney, Maria Bello and John Leguizamo
Wells took the writers to walk the new set, to give notes. I was struck by its authenticity; I felt I was back in Boston in my hospital. I knew we could tell stories on this expansive, yet surprisingly intimate set. We could chase after the doctors down the hallways, into exam rooms, through swinging doors with the new Steadicam. We would have what Wells liked to call "pace and pathos."
I can't say for certain what was the secret of ER's success. Certainly much of it was the camaraderie and vast imagination of the writers who, that first year, planted the seeds for years to come. And the cast had that elusive magic: they simply clicked. They were doctors who'd do anything to save a patient. They were heroes. But they were fallible, human and at times very screwed up. It was truly a perfect marriage of writers, directors and actors - along with an extraordinarily talented crew - who made us care about characters Michael Crichton had invented almost a quarter-century before.
After ER, medical shows would never be the same. We were the first to use real doctor-writers to bring the complexities of treating patients into the dialogue. Now every medical series has doctor-writers on their staffs. We made it look real by teaching the actors medical procedures (Wyle can suture with the best of them, and LaSalle can tie one-handed knots like a pro). Wells let us break lots of rules, and the freedom was delicious. We flew by the seat of our pants - and it was a blast.
Baer, currently an executive producer of NBC's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, was previously an executive producer of ER.
"We took our first trip to shoot in Chicago in the summer of '94, before ER had gone on the air. We didn't have any security with us, didn't need it, nobody paid us any attention. George [Clooney] and Tony [Edwards] just stood on the street doing their scenes while people went around us, irritated that we were in their way.
"Four months later, we went back to Chicago to shoot after the show had gone on the air, thinking that it would be the same. But a local radio station announced on air that we were shooting near the Water Tower, and 4,000 people showed up on Michigan Avenue to watch us shoot, scream and try to get to the actors.
"We didn't have any security, and the director, a couple of drivers and a few producers had to try and hold back this huge crowd. They keep screaming and pushing to get closer to George and Tony. We finally got backed off the street and into the rear of a restaurant and had to ditch out the rear door and escape down an alley. We never did get the scene shot. That was the night I realized the show might actually be a hit."
"It wasn't just life-changing for the six of us - it changed viewing habits for millions of people. It's a testament to good writing. I couldn't be more proud to be a part of this show."
Dr. Douglas Ross
"We - the actors, writers, producers and our loved ones - were privileged to be invited to the White House for a dinner during the Clinton administration. It was winter, and after returning to our hotel, we discovered that we were snowed in and would not be able to fly home. So, we converged in one of the rooms and started to play - I think I may have instigated it! - a mad and lengthy game of charades. I will never forget the sight of our writers contorting themselves into strange shapes, unable to use their usual tools to express themselves. We laughed, we wept and we had a strange bonding experience that night which I will never forget."
Dr. Elizabeth Corday
"I remember vividly my first trauma scene. I had gotten all new pages the night before - the patient had transformed from a gunshot gang kid to a football player with blunt-force trauma. I was freaking out about relearning this very challenging medical dialogue, let alone performing a realistic-looking pericardiocentesis.
"What I remember most was how incredibly nice and funny everyone was. I came on in year two as a guest star, and the show was white hot. It was incredibly intimidating, but the group was wonderful. Tony [Edwards] was in that trauma - he was so at ease and funny. I remember him joking that I must have had a 'code brown' when I saw the rewrites.
"Doing that first trauma was utterly challenging - the pace, the very specific and authentic medical business, the technical dialogue - I could barely put on my gloves. I remember being aware of trying to hide my hands below the frame line because my gloves were all screwed up, but I just kept thinking, 'Keep going. Maybe no one will notice you don't know what you're doing."
"It went well - it was such a thrill - and afterwards I was standing outside Stage 11 in my bloody gown. A background player with a massive head wound was talking to his agent on his cell phone, and the sky was gorgeous against the hills, all pink and orange. Our d.p. at the time, Richard Thorpe, was leaning against the railing, smoking a cigarette. He looked like a cowboy. 'You did good, kid.' he said. It felt like something out of an old movie. It was a great day."
Dr. Kerry Weaver
"Eriq LaSalle can be an extremely warm, outgoing guy, but on the set he seemed to want to maintain a certain distance, an aloofness, similar to that of the character he played. I consider myself respectful of others' work processes, but I did get a kick out of trying to break him up. I only succeeded once: we were doing a scene in the surgery suite, and I started to box with him. He worked hard at keeping it together, but as I bobbed and weaved, he cracked and let out a laugh. He, of course, quickly recovered, but I felt a great sense of satisfaction."
Dr. Robert Romano
"At the end of season thirteen, Neela [Parminder Nagra] finds Ray in a different hospital after he had been missing for several weeks. She also finds that he has been in a huge accident and that his legs have been amputated. It was a very difficult scene to shoot, and everyone was teary-eyed that day. I don't think we ever realized how powerful those scenes were going to be. And I don't think we ever realized that the fans were going to be so upset."
Dr. Ray Barnett
"One of my most vivid memories happened not while I was on the set. It happened in a pharmacy. I was picking up some toothpaste and a young man approached me. He said, very politely: 'Excuse me, I don't mean to bother you. I just wanted to let you know that I am HIV-positive and I watched your show last night. What I saw made me want to start treatment. Thank you.' He was on his way to the doctor when he saw me in the store."
Physician's assistant Jeanie Boulet
"One of my most vivid memories is from the first season, when Carol has just told her fiancé she can't marry him, and the wedding party goes on anyway. I was standing up on the stage, about to make a speech to everyone to thank them and apologize for ruining the wedding, and I looked around at all these wonderful faces.
"It was our last episode of the season, and there we all were - at midnight, on location somewhere in downtown L.A. All these eyes were looking back at me, and I felt like I was home. I scanned the faces, and there was Dr. Ross - Carol's one and only - and George [Clooney] and I locked eyes for a second. I remember thinking, 'This story has so much more to tell, and I'm so glad I get to be a part of it.'"
Nurse Carol Hathaway
"George Clooney and I had a lot of fun. When we shot the live episode, we would pull each other's shirts and try to make the other person late. We'd elbow each other, then go hit our marks real quick.
"We always used to hurry up and get our scenes done so we could finish our basketball games - George had them put a court for us right outside the set. We'd check the call sheet and say, 'Do you have the next scene?' If we didn't, we'd change real quick, play basketball, then come back out. Noah Wyle would play too, and from next door, Jaleel White from Family Matters. Sometimes we'd all go to the big Warner Bros. court - Jamie Foxx, too - and we would play serious basketball. We would argue, fight, then go back to work and be friends."
Nurse Malik McGrath
"I had just moved to L.A. from Chicago in January 1995, and I found myself working my first episode in April - it was the second-to-last of the first season. I remember my first scene, working with Quentin Tarantino, who directed the episode, and meeting the talented and good-looking cast. I had watched the show on TV in Chicago the previous Christmas, and I'd said while I was watching: "I want to be in that show - it takes place in Chicago and I know that experience!" I never imagined that the cast, crew and I would become so close and be a part of television history. I've also been very proud to represent a Latino character in a positive light for all those years. Thanks to all the writers and executives who made that happen."
Nurse Chuny Marquez
"By the third year, the artists who made our prosthetics had gotten so good - everything looked so real, including the babies. I remember doing an open-heart surgery scene with Tony Edwards. I'm pressing the Ambu bag, putting the air in, and you can see the heart pumping, the lungs going up and down, the blood flowing. Meanwhile, the special effects man, Bob Turk, was out of sight, underneath the gurney. We were working together, moving in sync. It all looked so real. I can still see the open heart - I can still see it all in my mind's eye."
Nurse Haleh Adams
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