'St. Elsewhere''s Mark Harmon — The 'Chicago' actor is surgeon ahead

After his 1983-86 run as incorrigible lothario Dr. Bobby Caldwell on St. Elsewhere — during which he was voted PEOPLE‘s Sexiest Man Alive — Mark Harmon might have viewed the prospect of again donning hospital scrubs for network TV with trepidation. But after a decade spent churning out mostly forgettable feature films and a few well-received small-screen efforts (including the TV movie The Deliberate Stranger, in which Harmon played lady-killer Ted Bundy), accepting the role of high-flying orthopedic surgeon Jack McNeil on CBS’ Emmy-winning Chicago Hope was, as he says, ”a no-brainer.”

”Having been a carpenter, I feel close to this character,” the 45-year-old Harmon says. ”So much of what they do in the surgical theater is like working with wood.” If woodworking has helped prepare him for his Chicago role, it’s nothing compared with Harmon’s real-life experience saving lives: On Jan. 3 of this year, when two teenage boys crashed a Jeep Cherokee into a gate outside his Brentwood home, Harmon came to their aid, pulling one of the boys — who was trapped and on fire — out of the burning wreck. ”I just acted instinctually,” the actor said at the time.

Although Harmon’s good deeds branded him a hero — especially in the eyes of wife Pam Dawber (Mork & Mindy) and their two sons — the rough-hewn McNeil presents an aggressively antiheroic persona at Chicago Hope. ”This character was brought in to mix things up,” the actor says euphemistically. Harmon, who gushes about an ensemble camaraderie ”unlike other shows I’ve worked on — where the first thing to walk on the set is a massive case of ego,” knows that playing a boor is small price to pay to be part of a successful show. His last series, Charlie Grace, was dropped by ABC after only five episodes had aired. ”From the moment that show was sold,” Harmon says, ”the concept changed. You target a show at a 10 o’clock [audience], and instead you’re on at 8. I felt like we ended up doing Make Room for Daddy. Maybe we didn’t get great numbers,” he adds, ”but I don’t know anybody opposite Friends that’s doing better now.”

Experience has bred in Harmon a certain fatalism. Even with McNeil firmly established on Hope, the actor is aware that in the past three years, six out of the seven original cast members have left. ”Everybody has a contract, but they can write you out anytime they want,” he says resignedly. ”That’s part of the value of an ensemble — that in any given week, anybody can disappear.” Not a likely fate for one of the sexiest men alive.