Noah Wyle, George Clooney, and the rest of the cast strive to keep their cool as the hit medical show reaches a fever pitch

By Bret Watson
Updated September 22, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Secrets?” Noah Wyle stands beside the batting cage in Dodger Stadium. Before stepping in to take his cuts, he pauses, adjusts his Hollywood All-Stars uniform, and leans forward to confide a detail about coming episodes of ER: ”I think a lot of sick people are going to be on the show.”

Gee, thanks, Noah. Maybe George Clooney will be more helpful. During a break on the Barstow, Calif., set of the feature film From Dusk Till Dawn, he agrees to give a sneak preview: ”I think Noah and I become lovers on the show. Last season you could see the longing glances across the room.”

Before you file suit for plot malpractice, consider that all summer Wyle and Clooney have fielded as many questions as ER‘s docs have ordered CBC’s and Chem 7’s (stat!). And the actors are just as curious — and almost as in the dark — as everyone else about the return of ER, one of the fall’s most highly anticipated TV events. In its first year of prime-time residency, the medical marvel ranked third for the season and received eight Emmys, including awards for writing and directing. ABC hopes to stop ER, or at least slow it down, by pitting Steven Bochco’s innovative courtroom drama, Murder One, against it. But don’t be surprised if Murder gets slaughtered and moved to a safer time slot, just as CBS transferred and resuscitated Chicago Hope last season after ER sent it reeling. (This fall the black-Eye network sticks with 48 Hours.)

Murder One may take a little chunk out of us,” admits Clooney. ”It’s not that we’re indestructible.” But he agrees with Wyle, who says, ”Our biggest competition is our first season, not any other show.”

NBC Entertainment president Warren Littlefield, by contrast, boldly predicts that the show will see ”a sophomore surge” as more viewers discover ER. ”It’s a roller-coaster ride,” he says, ”that goes from 100 miles per hour almost to a dead stop, and then starts back up again. You never know where you’re going, but you have to be there.”

That ride can be exhausting for those who take it every day. Executive producer John Wells thinks his biggest challenge may be ”not having enough rest.” Wells and his writers took off only two weeks between seasons — but they still haven’t provided the actors with much of a map of what’s ahead, which is typical. ”When we get the scripts,” Wyle explains, ”we pore over them, trying to find good stuff to [figure out] who the hell we’re playing. And there have been times that we’re like, ‘Oh, Lewis has a sister!’ ‘Oh, look at that, Dr. Greene’s got a mom!’ We were in episode 12 before George knew he had a son, episode 14 before I knew I had a brother — and they killed him by 17.”

Even so, the actors have learned — and are willing to divulge — a few of their characters’ upcoming traumas. Take Dr. Ross. ”Last year I really got nailed,” Clooney, 34, says merrily. ”Every single [media] story about Doug Ross was, he’s an alcoholic womanizer.” This season, Clooney and viewers alike will discover more about Ross’ past and family (how did he wind up a pediatrician, anyway?). Not that he’s finished with womanizing: Ross and Nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) continue to wrestle with their attraction to each other.

Elsewhere in the ER, Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) is promoted to attending physician and finds it hard making the transition from everyone’s best friend to everyone’s boss. With any luck, his rocky marriage won’t trouble him much longer — or so Edwards, 33, hopes ”in a purely acting-selfish way. We’ve played out a lot of scenes of two people struggling through a relationship.” Might Greene turn elsewhere for romantic companionship? Don’t look to Dr. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) — unless it’s only companionship you’re talking about. Says Edwards, ”We’re kind of proud of it not leading into anything other than the platonicness of it.”

Which is not to say that Greene and Lewis will always be buddy-buddy. To fill his old position as chief resident, Greene hires an abrasive new doctor, Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) — whom Lewis finds as appealing as a tetanus shot. Lewis’ chronically irresponsible sibling, Chloe (Kathleen Wilhoite), will reappear, still dependent on her sister to take care of her baby. ”I always find it so weird that I’m cast in such, like, incredibly serious roles,” says Stringfield, 28. ”Because I’m like Lucille Ball or something. I’m like a total ham bone! I asked one of the writers, ‘Does Lewis lighten up soon? Do I get a break?”’

Lewis hasn’t been very lucky in love either. What about a fling with young Dr. Carter (Wyle), with whom she shared champagne on the hospital roof? Well, you can put a cork in it. ”They dropped that story line pretty fast,” Wyle, 24, notes. ”She had started out flirting with Tony [Edwards] and then she was seeing the psychiatrist. If she had shacked up with me, it would have kind of made her look like the slut of the hospital.”

No need to worry about Carter’s personal life, though. Beverly Hills, 90210 veteran Christine Elise has signed on as a new med student who can make his heartbeat do a conga. ”She catches Carter’s eye right away,” says Elise, 30, of her character, Harper Tracy. ”He tries to impress her from afar, and every time, he screws up and knocks [things] over, bumping into a sick patient. He totally embarrasses himself. Ultimately, in the fourth episode, in the middle of a medical procedure, we kiss over a patient who’s under a tarp.”

Carter will also stumble through his new high-pressure position as surgical sub-intern. ”I kill somebody in episode 3,” says Wyle. ”Inadvertently. A guy is brought in, he’s a severe alcoholic with a liver that is just so full of cirrhosis it’s ridiculous. But I screw up [a procedure], so he has to go up to the operating room. He dies on the table, so it’s technically my fault, even though he probably didn’t have long to go.”

Of course, Carter continues to play Gilligan to Dr. Peter Benton’s Skipper. But Benton (Eriq La Salle) also finds himself flustered on the job — in his case, by the presence of married physical therapist Jeanie Boulet (Gloria Reuben). Reuben, 30, won’t reveal whether the medics, who flirted last year, tangle stethoscopes, but she hints that Jeanie ”allows her heart to lead her into areas that are quite dangerous.” La Salle doesn’t want anything — including the bonding with Boulet — to take the edge off his serrated surgeon. ”I’m not out to win a popularity contest,” says La Salle, 33. ”Some people really like my character because he is so hard. If they want a nice guy, they have their choices. I’m not it.”

Like his ER cohorts, La Salle has found the series to be a great career booster. During the summer, he wrote, directed, and acted in a short film, Psalms From the Underground, and was cutting it in his trailer on the ER lot last month to get it ready for October industry screenings. Edwards recently signed a deal to produce TV projects for Disney and will host Saturday Night Live on Dec. 2. Clooney, a veteran of 15 TV pilots and such series as Roseanne and Sisters, has appeared on a slew of magazine covers, hosted SNL, and costars with Quentin Tarantino in the December horror movie From Dusk Till Dawn.

Even with opportunities beckoning beyond the hospital, though, the actors insist they’re not thinking of practicing full time elsewhere. With no prompting, Clooney — who, like the rest of the original cast, signed an initial five-year contract and got a raise this year — vows that he won’t pull a David Caruso. ”I’ve fought my whole life to get on a show like this,” he says. ”I’m in a comfortable, comfortable position. I’m going to end up being able to do a film every summer, and that’s great luck for me. But I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to ride out the contract and have fun.”

And so, apparently, will the rest of the cast. Pay no attention, they say, to rumors about rivalries on the set. ”The cast is just as lovey-dovey as ever,” says Wyle.

”This isn’t a bunch of childish actors,” snips Edwards. ”It’s interesting to me that no one can believe that we get along as well as we do. A tabloid completely contrived a story last year that George and I were fighting, and it actually ended up on, like, newsmagazine shows — and it was a total lie!”

To help ensure harmony, the show even has guidelines about the optimal combination of ER stars that should appear on magazine covers — remember, it’s an ensemble. But what about all the media attention Clooney has received? ”I had a good publicist,” he says affably. Ask Clooney what he personally brings to the show, and he downplays his contribution: ”You know how girls work together and then all of a sudden they have periods all at the same time? It’s kind of that way. You kind of blend into the same sort of style. I steal from everybody.”

While all six ER stars got Emmy nominations, only Margulies brought home a statue — for Supporting Actress. The others scoff at even the mention of resentment. ”The honor, really, you know, is that everyone was nominated,” says Stringfield, sounding like an extra from Clueless. “I think we’re all just, like, happy with that — that’s so lucky. So anything else is just like, whatever, you know?”

The ER gang is enjoying a lot of that, like, whatever — the perks (and pitfalls) of success. ”I get better service at restaurants,” Stringfield jokes. ”It’s been kind of strange, because when I go anywhere — oh, it’s like immediate recognition. And I just put together, ‘Oh yeah, the show’s been No. 1, that means a lot of people are watching it.’ Somehow I didn’t do the math before on that one.”

As the youngest member of the group, Wyle seems most amazed at how his life has changed ”180 degrees in 12 months.” One of the nicer changes: ”My mom looks at me and she beams with pride. She wasn’t exactly beaming with pride when I told her I didn’t want to go to college, you know.” He laughs, then adds, ”And people give you free stuff. As an actor, when you’re out of work, you can’t afford a new pair of shoes. Get yourself on a series, and you never have to buy a pair of sneakers again.”

ER should keep its cast in shoes for some time to come. Paging Dr. Scholl…

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