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George Clooney surprises TV execs

His ”ER” appearance was the week’s best kept secret

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E/R, George Clooney, ...

”ER” fans weren’t the only ones surprised by George Clooney’s guest appearance Thursday night. So was NBC. Network execs learned only late Wednesday that Clooney would briefly return to television’s No. 1 drama to help wrap the six-year love story between his character and Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies). The heads-up by ”ER” exec producer John Wells gave NBC just enough time to cut a promo that hinted about a surprise reunion on ”ER.”

Even folks over at Warner Bros. Television — which produces the show — were kept out of the loop until Thursday. Up until then, many people (including the press) were convinced that Clooney wouldn’t return for Margulies’ final episode.

”We shot the 60-second scene several weeks ago in Seattle before George had to leave to promote his new Ethan and Joel Coen film at Cannes,” said Wells in a statement released today. ”He did the scene for scale, for old friends and for the many fans of this long-running story line. We wish Julianna all the best in her future pursuits and neither she nor George will be returning to ‘ER’ again.”

In the episode, a lovesick Carol flies to Seattle to see whether her longtime love and ”soul mate” was willing to rekindle their romance (Clooney wrapped his five-year stint on ER last season, with his character wanting to work as a doctor in the northwest). Yet fans had to wait until the final minutes of last night’s episode to see an unshaven Clooney — whose only line was asking Carol ”where are the girls?” (the couple have twins). The episode ends with the two kissing and hugging at the side of a lake.

The scene was such a surprise to fans that NBC’s ”Today” aired the entire scene on Friday morning’s edition. In overnight ratings, the episode generated a 38 share in its final half hour — making ”ER” the highest-rated show on Thursday night.