ER Oral History: Behind the shocking stabbing of Carter and Lucy
Before death became a regular occurrence on television, NBC’s juggernaut ER did the unthinkable by killing off one of America’s sweethearts in a traumatizing hour that still haunts viewers to this day.
In the sixth season of the beloved doctor drama, John Carter (Noah Wyle) and Lucy Knight (Kellie Martin) were violently attacked by a psychotic patient (David Krumholtz). Below, all three talk about what it was like to film that monumental, heart-wrenching scene.
With ER in its sixth season, executive producer John Wells planned to send Wyle’s noble trust fund Dr. John Carter on the path to becoming a drug addict after being physically and emotionally felled by a tragic accident — the death of his protégé Lucy Knight.
NOAH WYLE: John Wells said, “I want to make you a drug addict,” and I said that seems like a bit of a stretch for John Carter. He says, “Let me tell you why, because I think drug addiction is a ubiquitous problem that has not just a face, or any face — it has every face. So you’re the least likely character to develop a drug addiction, and I think that is exactly why it should be you. The way we’ll get into it will be, you’ll be hurt, and in the course of your rehabilitation, you’ll begin to self-medicate, and your desire to get back to work will make you sort of push your recovery faster than you probably should.”
KELLIE MARTIN: John Wells called me into his office, and we had a discussion about them wanting to do something big with Lucy, and have her leave the show.
WYLE: I’m not sure why they decided to make that Kellie’s last episode as the catalyst for the story line for me, but it was a really effective way of kicking the whole thing off, because not only was my character suffering from a physical pain, but there was a psychological component to his guilt that also compounded the problem, which made it that much more believable.
MARTIN: They wanted to do something big for February sweeps, and Lucy was the character who got played out. So, that’s how I found out.
DAVID KRUMHOLTZ: I had auditioned for it two to three weeks prior to filming it. It was in the audition sides, so I knew probably well before her.
MARTIN: When I found out that’s what they were going to do, I was happy, and honored, yet at the same time a little bit wondering what I had done to deserve such a big demise. I mean, it was pretty brutal. But, I think if you have to leave a show, especially a show like ER, that’s the way to go.
WYLE: Surviving that experience and the drug addiction, and all the rest of it, was such a key point in defining Carter. It’s difficult to imagine his trajectory without it.
MARTIN: The cast found out when they actually read the script. People were coming up to me on set saying, “You’re going to be all right, though, right?” And me saying, “Nope, turns out nope. Not going to be all right.” My conversation with Noah, after he knew I was leaving, I’d say the best way to describe it was bittersweet, because I think he was surprised and I think he was sad to see me go.
WYLE: Here’s where I harbor a lot of guilt. I was not nice all the time to Kellie. Kellie came on that show and we were like rock stars. We were like, “Who’s the new kid?”
MARTIN: I always felt very honored to be a part of ER. I was a fan before I became a cast member, and I don’t think there was a day that went by on that show that I didn’t feel a nervous excitement for being in their presence.
WYLE: We worked extremely hard to be the No. 1 show over those five seasons, and when Kellie came on, or whenever anybody came on, it was like, “Earn your keep!”
MARTIN: I sure had fun working with Noah, and he challenged me a lot.
WYLE: I remember very early on her being so mad at me because I made this choice. I was talking to another doctor and she was here asking me a question. When I turned to her, I pretended like, “Oh, there you are,” and I bent down like this and put my hands on my hips, it was like I was talking to a child. She just started fuming when they called cut.
MARTIN: They were all at the top of their game, and it was kind of scary and exciting for me to just jump on that train.
WYLE: I feel bad because there were a lot of extenuating circumstances in Kellie’s life that I wasn’t aware of at the time.
MARTIN: My sister had passed away a week before I started ER. So, ER was all tangled up with a lot of bad time in my life.
WYLE: She was amazing to come into that environment and hold her own.
MARTIN: I didn’t think of it as an honor at the time, Lucy was always a little bit of a mystery to me, so I never felt comfortable in her shoes. So, it felt like a little bit of an unfinished job maybe, because I just never really found her. It was definitely the right thing for me to leave that show at that time. But, it didn’t feel like it at the time, for sure.
“Be Still My Heart,” the first of a two-parter, featured schizophrenic patient Paul Sobriki stabbing Carter. He collapses to the ground, where, in a traumatic twist, he sees Lucy laid out in a pool of blood; she would end up dying in the second episode.
WYLE: Everybody was very respectful of the tenor and the tone of the scene.
KRUMHOLTZ: I just remember being struck by how much it just felt like a very small, tight-knit family and a really small set, and that made it sort of all the more tragic that we were filming the story line about one of them being killed off.
MARTIN: The mood was a little somber.
KRUMHOLTZ: On my first day, Kellie came up to me and said, “Hey look, I just recently found out about this and it’s been hard for me, and if you’d be kind enough not to walk around making jokes about how they’re killing my character off, that’d be great.”
MARTIN: I did keep telling David, “It’s okay. Don’t feel bad. It’s your job.”
KRUMHOLTZ: I believe we shot it very quickly. They didn’t really make a big deal out of it being a big moment on the show.
WYLE: David Krumholtz comes up behind me and stabs me in the back, the very first thing I played was a sort of mild annoyance that somebody might be trying to play a joke on me or trying to distract me from what I’m trying to do in that moment.
KRUMHOLTZ: Noah wanted to make sure that it didn’t look like a movie stab where it’s just a quick jab, that my character being smaller and coming up behind him and wanting to do it quietly and not as quickly, would actually have trouble stabbing someone in that portion of their back easily. He didn’t want it to come off fake.
WYLE: Laura [Innes, who directed the first episode] was more interested in what was happening on my face than what could be interesting about the salaciousness of seeing a knife enter my body.
KRUMHOLTZ: The thing that scared people I guess is that you can almost feel the knife without actually seeing a knife or anything.
WYLE: Sometimes graphic violence depicted is exactly what you need to do, and sometimes implied violence is the way you need to do it. Sometimes, the shadow is far scarier than the monster, and that day, we made good choices.
KRUMHOLTZ: I just remember them being extremely kind to me and allowing me to go to places that weren’t necessarily written in. My character freaks out, but I really kind of went there. I remember just having total freedom.
WYLE: I told Laura my idea about sort of having this dawn on me slowly. Slowly, he realizes he’s bleeding, slowly he realizes he’s been stabbed, slowly he’s losing consciousness, then he falls on the floor, then he sees his friend, then he sees that she’s stabbed, then he’s literally going out and he’s helpless. So all those things building up together with that soundtrack make it a great sequence. I think I hit a tray because the sound of the tray going to the ground was another good cacophony, you know, those metal things clanging around.
MARTIN: The most indelible image is me and Noah lying on the ground in a pool of blood.
WYLE: That was Laura’s choreography, to have her on the ground in this pool of blood, and have me eventually fall into it and have the last shots just being these close-ups of these faces trying to see each other.
KRUMHOLTZ: That scene is so heartbreaking. I mean, horrible. Really, for the time, certainly pushing the boundaries of what you could show on television.
MARTIN: There was a lot of blood. In order for it to read on camera, there’s way more than you end up seeing. So, there was a ton of blood. It’s very sticky, it’s very unpleasant.
WYLE: The way that we reveal Kellie under the bed, the way that Laura chose to shoot it and the way that I chose to play it, was a really interesting combination of factors that make that scene extremely harrowing for a lot of reasons.
MARTIN: I actually had never died on television until then, so I was excited about that part of it.
WYLE: I didn’t think it was going to look like that. I didn’t think that soundtrack [“Battleflag” by Lo Fidelity Allstars] was going to be thumping in my head, and I didn’t think it was going to be revealed in a piecemeal fashion. So it took on an extra degree of intensity as it got cut together, that I didn’t see on the page initially.
MARTIN: In the second episode, I had to have a chest cast made so they could use the sternal saw. It was not fun to be the actor laying on the gurney with the chest thing over you that they’re going to saw into you. It was not fun to be the patient, like at all. I would take being a doctor any day of the week.
WYLE: It was a well-made episode. You don’t kill a regular character off — at least we didn’t.
MARTIN: I think the person who took it the hardest was Alex Kingston. The scene where I have the trache, and I diagnose myself, when I’m covering my trache and I say, “PE,” that scene with Alex, she couldn’t get through that scene.
WYLE: We were a really popular show about noble people helping unfortunate people. So, when suddenly one of our noble people became one of the unfortunates, it was not a well that we went to often, and so when we did it, it was really effective.
MARTIN: The scene that was unnerving to me was that scene at the end of the second episode where I’m lying on the slab, dead, and they cover me up. And that was my last scene on the show, so the director, Jonathan Kaplan, came up to me, and he whispered, he said, “You’re wrapped.”
On February 10, 2000, more than 30 million viewers tuned in for the heartbreaking hour — but Martin was not one of them.
MARTIN: I was in New York in my apartment by myself, and I started to watch it, and I called my husband in Los Angeles, and I said, “Make sure you go over to my mom’s house, and you don’t let her watch this episode.” Less than a year and a half [after my sister’s death], to see their daughter dying on screen in such an amazing way that ER does, it’s so realistic, they didn’t want to watch that. I said, “This won’t be good for my mom to watch.” And he did, and I turned it off, too. It was just one of those things. I’m like, “Did that, I don’t really need to watch it again.”
KRUMHOLTZ: I remember after it aired a friend called me and said, “That was great.” I said, “Hey, thanks,” and he said, “Yeah, don’t do that again. It was scary.”
MARTIN: I think it made such an impact because there is no social media back then.
WYLE: Social media was a huge factor.
MARTIN: This was before the internet and spoiler alerts, and all that. There was nobody taking pictures on set. I mean, nobody had cell phones. It’s so weird. It’s not that long ago. But nobody was doing that, and I think that there’s something kind of magical about that. Almost 30 million people tuned in on Thursday night to watch ER. It was appointment television.
KRUMHOLTZ: By that time, those characters had become indelible in people’s mind. They had become visitors in their home.
MARTIN: It’s definitely a moment in television time that can never be repeated. It will never be like that, again. I definitely did not think about how traumatic it would be for people.
WYLE: It was horrible. I felt horrible for David. He killed America’s sweetheart, he cut her throat. Then he stabbed America’s other sweetheart, twice.
KRUMHOLTZ: The impact that had, I could never have assumed it would have. People were more disturbed than I imagined they would be.
MARTIN: I got a lot of reaction from fans, obviously, completely traumatized, totally blindsided.
WYLE: I felt horrible for David. When he came back, he explained to me what the reaction had been to him afterwards, which was not great.
KRUMHOLTZ: Two days after it aired, I was in Burbank going to the movies and somebody in the movie theater got really disturbed by seeing me and said, “You’re the guy that killed…” and I said, “Yeah, you’re actually the first person to say anything about it.” He’s like, “Dude, that’s really messed up.”
MARTIN: To this day, I have people coming up to me, they’ll get ashen when they see me sometimes.
KRUMHOLTZ: I still get messages on Twitter now that people have never fully forgiven me for what I did.
MARTIN: I definitely don’t harbor any hurt feeling towards David Krumholtz. He totally did his job, and did it very, very well, and he’s such a pro.
KRUMHOLTZ: People now will be like, “Man, that was a really cool career move.” I’m like, “Dude, I wasn’t making career moves then. I barely make them now.” I don’t know, I was really young, I was psyched to get an audition.
WYLE: If anything, I’m really grateful that David played that character the way he did.
KRUMHOLTZ: Ultimately, it was four days of work for me when I was 21 years old living in Burbank by myself. That’s what makes it all the more charming — almost 20 years later, people are still talking about it.
MARTIN: I was 21 or 22. I remember taking it kind of personally that I was being stabbed and leaving the show. So, I don’t think I would feel the same way now, being 42. If it were me now, I would have a lot more fun with it. I was definitely traumatized by Lucy’s send off. I know Alex [Kingston] was really sad, Anthony Edwards was really sad, and I would like to think that George Clooney would have been sad — had he been there.
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