Sitting at a coffee shop one day while writing the pilot of NBC’s new medical drama New Amsterdam, EP David Schulner (Reverie) felt a tap on his shoulder: A brain surgeon who works at Bellevue, America’s oldest public hospital and the inspiration for Schulner’s show, had seen his draft and the words “inspired by Bellevue,” and wanted to offer his two cents.
“He said, ‘I want you to know that if anything happens to me, my wife knows to bring me to Bellevue,'” Schulner recalls. “‘Not to any of the fancy private hospitals that I could go to easily, but to Bellevue.'”
To Schulner, that sentiment encapsulates New Amsterdam, a drama about the doctors who eschew potential higher pay and fewer hours, because they know their work provides the best aid. But it’s not just a drama about the goings-on at an extraordinary hospital — one that operates like a small city, with a psych ward, a courtroom, prison cells, and even a classroom — and the people behind it; it’s about inspiring change by furthering an ongoing, important conversation.
“Two years ago, during the presidential election, the whole country was talking about health care, and it was passionate and messy and smart and emotional,” Schulner explains. “I thought, ‘Why would I want to write about anything else, when this is what is gripping the nation?'” He came across Twelve Patients, a memoir by Dr. Eric Manheimer, the former medical director of Bellevue, whose story had “a hopefulness that was missing from all those passionate, smart, messy, argumentative conversations,” Schulner says. “It had someone at the center who was trying to fix the system.”
Enter Dr. Max Goodwin, New Amsterdam‘s version of Manheimer, played by Ryan Eggold. The 34-year-old actor, after four years of high-octane, at-times-preposterous spy games on The Blacklist, had been ready for projects a little more grounded in reality. “I was looking for relevance and honesty,” he says. “I was looking to do something different.”
He couldn’t have accomplished his goal better: Over the summer, he appeared in Spike Lee’s timely, based-on-a-true-story manifesto BlacKkKlansman as a white supremacist who unknowingly invites a black cop into his local chapter of the KKK. Now, on New Amsterdam, Eggold gets to explore the ins-and-outs of the health care system, delve into the mindset of an idealistic but embattled doctor striving for perfection, and have Manheimer as an accessible primary source. (Manheimer serves as an EP on the show.) “I had a lot of conversations with Eric about what his struggles were, and he reminded me that doctors are not always infallible,” Eggold explains. “That was a good reminder not to play a knight in shining armor but to play a human being, warts and all.”
“I feel like I’m in a moment of being a part of these amazing true stories,” he adds. “It’s been really, really fulfilling.”
Still, Peter Horton (Grey’s Anatomy), Schulner’s fellow executive producer, wasn’t easily convinced by Schulner’s idea to use the memoir and Manheimer’s experience as a basis for a new medical drama.
“I said no [to David’s pitch],” he remembers, laughing. “I said, ‘I’ve already directed the pilot of Grey’s Anatomy, I’d produced it for three years, I’m over medical dramas, so, thank you, but let’s keep looking.'”
Schulner, though, didn’t keep looking. Instead, he convinced Horton the show had a story that needed to be told. “Do you remember watching The West Wing and how you felt like you were a part of the process?” Schulner asks. “It got people engaged in politics and created a whole generation of speechwriters and politicians… We hope we can get people to get into medicine for the right reasons.”
After hearing Schulner’s passion for the project and its potential influence, “I went, ‘I’m in,'” Horton says. “Finally, we can do a medical show that’s not about who’s sleeping with who and what’s the latest weird case of the week. This was a chance to talk about the bigger issues in the country through the guise of a medical show.”
And so far, they’ve found a fan in that very same brain surgeon who talked to Schulner in the coffee shop. While filming a scene on location at Bellevue, the doctor stopped by, dressed in scrubs on his day off. He asked about the lighting, the setup, and the scene — and then admitted he had to do surgery soon, only to return hours later. “We’re still shooting in the same area, and he comes back down, and he says, ‘So what scene are you guys shooting now?'” Schulner recalls with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘Dude, what happened to the patient?’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, she’s fine. So, who’s in this scene?'”
In other words, Horton explains, “They’re fascinated with our world, and we’re much more fascinated with theirs.”
New Amsterdam premieres Tuesday, Sept. 25, at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.