Just like everyone else watching at the time, Parminder Nagra was enamored with “ER” when the landmark medical drama began in 1994. Yet, unlike many, it wasn’t George Clooney’s Dr. Ross who first caught her eye.
“Anthony (Edwards) was my favorite,” said Nagra, who is about to begin her sixth season as Dr. Neela Rasgotra. “He was at the hospital all the time and having problems with women. The one person always on the floor was Anthony.”
In a television era where initial bad ratings can mean cancellation after only a few weeks, “ER” is set to close out a remarkable 15-season run next spring. The premiere episode of the final season airs Sept. 25 on NBC.
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It’s hard to imagine that it has been a decade and a half since the likes of Drs. Ross, Carter, Benton, Lewis, Greene and Nurse Hathaway roamed the hallways and patched up patients. While many shows would’ve been unable to recover from so many cast changes — none of the original six (Edwards, Clooney, Eriq La Salle, Sherry Stringfield, Noah Wyle, Juliana Margulies) are around anymore — making the story the number-one priority gave “ER” an incredibly sustainable run.
“Initially, there was a lot of fear,” says exec producer and in-house director Chris Chulack. “George left after five years and Tony’s character died in year seven, but John (Wells, executive producer) and I talked about it. We knew it was a healthy move and we were enthused to find new characters and had people waiting in the wings to take over. It kept the show fresh.”
Chulack, who has been with the show since the beginning, recalls that from day one the actors developed a strong camaraderie. It was a matter of necessity. The cast was dealing with a frantic production schedule — a typical 75-page script was shot in seven days — and learning to work with a Steadicam camera, mostly unheard of for episodic television at the time. The Steadicam on "ER" was used out of necessity because of the show’s famous “oners,” where the camera moves around the hospital capturing a long scene without a single break.
“It was very demanding for the cast to act like doctors. It was very intense,” says Chulack. “George and Tony were the leaders. They kept everything on an even keel.”
Will Clooney return?
“ER” almost didn’t make it on the air. NBC was extremely hesitant about putting on a series that was so different to what else was on the air at the time. "ER" showcased the flaws and foibles of the doctors, not putting them on pedestals — this was not your father's "Marcus Welby, M.D." Only the passion of then-Warner Bros. president Leslie Moonves and terrific audience testing gave the network the confidence to schedule the show in the 10 p.m. Thursday slot.
Although the original six would eventually leave — Wyle stayed the longest, co-starring in 249 episodes —additions of folks such as Maura Tierney, Laura Innes, Goran Visnjic, Alex Kingston, Paul McCrane, Ming Na, Gloria Reuben and Linda Cardellini, among others, brought a sense of continuity and great comfort to both viewers and the cast.
Nagra finds it hard to believe that she’s been on the show as long as she has, and has to do a double-take when thinking about the legacy of the show.
“We’ve had a pretty good run, eh?” she asks. “I remember watching the show as a fan week after week, and I couldn’t breathe from the beginning to the end. There was such a great energy and pace. I was hooked into the characters.”
Now, viewers — many of whom haven’t missed a single episode — feel that same connection, and Nagra knows it’s not going to be easy to say goodbye.
“People have grown up with the show and it’s part of their lives,” she explained. “They’ve seen their favorite characters come and go. For me, it’s a very strange feeling. Now I’m playing the surgical resident who has an intern and I’m balling him out just like Noah (Wyle) did to me. To be the person doing that is very strange.”
As the season rolls along, actors from years past will return. Edwards makes an appearance on the Nov. 13 episode, and the rumors of a Clooney visit to County General have yet to be ruled out.
Both Nagra and Chulack agree that this season feels different on the set, knowing the end is near.
Said Chulack: “I have mixed emotions. This is my family and I’m nostalgic for all we’ve done here, but I think it’s time for it to go.”
Stuart Levine is an assistant managing editor at Variety. He can be reached at email@example.com.