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King wrote alter ego into ‘Hospital’

Humorous horror series inspired by 1994 miniseries
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stephen King still isn’t sure whether he’ll pop up in one of his Hitchcock-style cameos in “Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital.”

“You can’t call what I do acting. But if they find a cameo, I may do it because I’ve got a lot of sliced ham in my personality. ... A lot depends on how well I feel,” says the horror genre master.

“I feel a lot better than I did,” he adds. “Finally my body seems to be winning.”

The 56-year-old King, seemingly recovered from his near fatal injuries from being hit by a van in 1999, was very hands-on when filming began last year on this 15-hour, 13-part ABC series. Then he was hospitalized again with pneumonia and an intestinal infection.

But next week — after a brief detour to catch the Boston Red Sox in spring training — he’s heading from Florida back to Vancouver where filming continues on the humorous horror series, which premieres with a two-hour episode 9 p.m. ET Wednesday.

“Kingdom Hospital” was inspired by “Riget” (”The Kingdom”), a 1994 miniseries by Danish director Lars von Trier, who shares executive producer credit with King and Mark Carliner on this adaptation.

King saw the original in 1997 and “was just amazed by it.” He then hoped to adapt it for U.S. audiences, but was initially stymied because Sony/Columbia had the rights to make a feature film.

The studio eventually made a deal with King to co-produce the miniseries in exchange for the rights to his novella, which has been adapted into “Secret Window,” the Johnny Depp movie that opens March 12.

Reminiscent of King's own accidentKing wrote all but four episodes of “Kingdom Hospital.” (Richard Dooling penned the rest.) His viewpoint on both the natural and supernatural aspects of a hospital environment was deeply enhanced by his own long bout in the ICU.

He created an alter ego character, Peter Rickman (a heavily bandaged Jack Coleman), who is hospitalized after being hit by a van.

“His injuries are much worse than mine ever were. He’s got head injuries and spinal injuries, because that makes the story work better,” King says.

This choice also was inspired by the thought processes of the bed-bound patient at the heart of Dennis Potter’s 1986 black comedy “The Singing Detective,” which King believes is “‘The Citizen Kane’ of miniseries.”

But he remained faithful to von Trier’s original, keeping “the really scary and really funny” but removing some of the confusing gothic, ghostly background. “We took away a lot of the clanking.”

Major characters he retained: Dr. Hook — “the one doctor who is not a laggard, a layabout, an incompetent or a slacker” — and the renamed Dr. “Steg” Stegman, who is definitely evil. Andrew McCarthy plays Hook; Bruce Davison is Steg. Diane Ladd portrays Sally Druse, who constantly checks herself into the haunted hospital to use her powers as a medium, while Ed Begley Jr. is the incompetent Dr. Jesse James.

Oh, ratsKing, long an admirer of Davison (a supporting-actor Oscar nominee for 1990’s “Longtime Companion”), insisted on his casting: “Nobody can smile and be mean the way Bruce can.” Stegman does lab work with rats, which gave King the inspiration to write a scene that evokes the rat-infested “Willard,” Davison’s 1971 cult hit.

“Steg represents so much of what’s really wrong with this country. It’s all about power and control and it’s just run amok,” says Davison, relishing this villain’s role. “He’s bad and he pays the price for it, too, because it’s the sure way to insanity.”

Davison and McCarthy, briefly in Los Angeles to promote the series, seemed sort of cheerfully spooked by their duties on what Davison calls “Doctors Gone Bad!”

“I think Stephen really appreciates everybody’s quirks ... When I met him he was interested in the weird little things of my personality,” says McCarthy, declining, with a grin, to reveal what they are.

King, who has already created a synopsis for a possible second season of episodes, insists the show is “a bit different” from the mainstream.

“This is a little bit oddball, a little bit strange. It’s not a ‘CSI’ clone; it’s not a ‘Law & Order’ clone; thank God, it’s not a reality show — it’s not about carrying a tiki torch up the side of a volcano.”

And it’s not like a regular series, he says, “which has a beginning, a middle, a middle, a middle, a middle ...

“The promise that we make to the audience is the same promise that I always make. I will tell you a story and it will have a beginning, a middle and an end!”