By Stuart Levine
NBC revisits its once glorious past tonight when Anthony Edwards returns to County General on “ER.”
The numbers for “ER” have been good this year, the show’s 15th and final season. Credit strong marketing and consistently compelling stories. Audiences who were once glued have come back for a last look.
And expect an even bigger Nielsen turnout when one of the most favored alumni comes back.
Well, Edwards returns but his character, Dr. Mark Greene, who died of cancer, can't. He's shown in flashback, interacting with the icy Dr. Cate Banfield, so adeptly played by Oscar-nominated actress Angela Bassett.
Not to give anything away, but the two characters interact at a time that forever changes Banfield’s life. I’m never been one to fall for the “very special episode” marketing ploy that NBC used with almost every show at one time or another, but this one’s worth watching, especially if you go back to the early days of “ER,” when folks such as Edwards, George Clooney and Eriq LaSalle ran up and down the hallways.
On a conference call with reporters, Edwards said he was a bit hesitant to return to Stage 11 on the Warner Bros. lot, where he’d spent eight years, but felt the timing was right to come back. Yet, he still had butterflies
“You don’t want to screw it up, you know,” he said. “I think there’s a natural respect for this show that you want to, you know, be respectful of.”
And he was confident that if he returned, his character’s hard-earned reputation wouldn’t be tarnished.
“I knew they would take care of him. You know, it’s a funny thing. You feel as an actor that you own the character, but the truth is so do the writers. The writers really feel an ownership of Greene, so they want to do right for him. So, there’s actually more people looking out for you than yourself in the end.
Edwards, who appeared in David Fincher’s brilliant murder mystery “Zodiac” last year, has been heavily involved in charity work. He donated the money he would’ve received for appearing in this “Heal Thyself” episode to Shoe 4 Africa, in which he’s raising money to build a hospital. “ER” exec producer John Wells and Steven Spielberg also contributed.
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By Stuart Levine
POSTED BY STUART LEVINE
After talking with him on the phone about a half-dozen times over the years to discuss everything from "The West Wing" to the trials and tribulations of being a TV writer, it was nice to finally sit down next to John Wells at last night's "ER at 300 episodes" panel at the Paley Center for Media.
It was a great group of folks from the show — Wells, showrunner David Zabel, in-house director and EP Chris Chulack, actors Linda Cardellini, Mekhi Phifer, Scott Grimes, Maura Tierney, Parminder Nagra and John Stamos — and it gave one a chance to pause and reflect on "ER's" incredible 14-season run.
Back when "ER" launched in September 1994, it broke out like gangbusters in its 10 p.m. Thursday spot on NBC (and where it still remains) up against David E. Kelley's "Chicago Hope." Wells reflected on the hysteria the show brought out in fans in those early years, including when they were shooting on location in Chicago and 4,000 people came out to get a glimpse of George Clooney.
Cardellini, who I will always cherish for her turn in the beloved teen drama "Freaks and Geeks," which was offed way too soon and I still miss to this day, kidded she wasn't a fan back then and everyone gave her a hard time. Tierney, whose character, Abby Lockhart, is mired in a serious case of angst this season, said she occasionally checked it out. She also added that she can't watch herself on the small-screen today — she was visibly squirming as the 300th episode screened — as she's way too critical of her performance.
Stamos provided plenty of laughs, recognizing his good fortunes in now having a chance to trade dialogue with these seasoned pros rather with the Olsen twins in "Full House." Nothing against the girls, of course, but they were tykes while he was trying to become a better actor, and it's tough to run lines when your colleagues are still learning how to read.
Wells, who was once the president of the Writers Guild and still sees himself as a scribe first and foremost, spoke on how it's tough to say how or when "ER" will end, with the state of the TV biz in such flux right now. But he acknowledged, certainly, the show is closer in time to its finale than to when it began. And as he and Warner Bros. know, "ER" is an expensive show to produce and with ratings nowhere where they used to be — and that's not a knock against just this show but for most longrunning series — there comes a point where the profit margins become too small for another season.
That being said, the quality of "ER" remains solid — a nice mix of medical traumas, personal stories and just the right amount of humor to make it all go down easy.
— Stuart Levine
Photos: Kevin Parry/The Paley Center for Media
I sensed a shift in sentiment in the room Saturday night at Hollywood's Cabana Club during the ironically-timed 300th seg celebration of the Wells-produced "ER" -- a shining example of the kind of high-end scripted TV that is at risk in the WGA-Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers contract talks. (I confess to wondering if I wasn't being hopelessly Pollyanna-ish with my post-party post below, but I also felt it couldn't hurt to put some hopeful vibrations out there.)
If Wells, given his background and experience, is the one who can get the sides to build a bridge, or even some temporary scaffolding, to prevent the pickets from going up all over town on Monday, he really will be "the Eisenhower of all showrunners," as Warner Bros. TV boss Peter Roth intro'd him on Saturday night. Fingers crossed...
It was a celebration of a mighty impressive achievement -- "ER's" 300th seg -- but the talk of the party thrown by Warner Bros. Television Saturday night at the Cabana Club in Hollywood was all about what may transpire on Sunday and Monday.
Any gathering of TV industry insiders would have been abuzz with talk of the writers strike called for 12: 01 a.m. Monday and the Hail Mary meeting set for Sunday between the scribes and producers. But with "ER" in particular, it had to be the dominant theme given "ER" exec producer John Wells' background as a former WGA West prexy, one who skillfully helped avert a Defcon 4 scenario in 2001 when contract talks got heated (though not nearly as scalding as they are this time around).
In his brief remarks saluting the show and the people who make it, Warner Bros. TV prexy Peter Roth called Wells "the Eisenhower of all showrunners," and his use of a militaristic comparison was not lost on the crowd, unconscious as it may have been on Roth's part. NBC U Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman was more pointed, saying that Wells was going "fix all of it" in relation to the strike.
During his turn at the mike, Wells didn't use the S-word (except to sheepishly scoff at Ben's remark), but he did note that he'd done the math, and in the 14 seasons since "ER" dawned, skein has produced some 24,682 pages of scripts.
Neal Baer, a WGA negotiating committee member and an "ER" alum (who now shepherds NBC's "Law & Order: SVU" and does the work of angels as a licensed physician in his spare time), was on hand and inundated by "what's gonna happen?" queries. It was intriguing to see Baer and Wells and former "ER" showrunner Lydia Woodward huddled in a heavy-duty discussion toward the end of the evening.
As befitting the spirit of "ER," there was a define touch of optimism to all the strike talk among partygoers. The fact that a meeting was called for Sunday on Friday afternoon, hours after the WGA formally announced its plan to walk out on Monday, was widely dissected and discussed as a flicker of hope. There was also a feeling among the card-carrying types in the room that after Friday's strike announcement, some of the CEOs were starting to get more personally engaged and realize the serious-as-a-heart-attack-ness of the threat at hand.
Maybe, just maybe, there'll be enough of a give-and-take on Sunday for the scribes to hold their fire, even if it's 12- or 24 hour increments. Or in "ER" parlance, let's hope Sunday's meet turns out to be the final act of a two-parter, packed with guest stars and exotic location shoots, with a cliffhanger in the middle...and an uplifting ending by 11:59 p.m. Sunday.