Once upon a time, circa the early 90s, in land known as Los Angeles, a certain agent for CAA stumbled across an old and dusty script written by the now popular Michael Crichton. After all, Jurassic Park just became a hit in the movie theaters and Spielberg was riding a wave of blockbusters. This script, then called EW, looked promising to packaging agent Tony Krantz.
The first thing Tony did was reach out to Crichton’s agent. “He told me the script was treading water in development with Amblin at Warner Bros. on the feature side. It was a project that Michael and Steven Spielberg were going to turn their attention to next after their monumental success together on Jurassic Park,” wrote Krantz in his essay “The Birth of ‘ER'” for the Hollywood Journal.
However, Warner Bros. wasn’t biting and so Tony tried to sell it as a series instead. Michael Crichton wasn’t entirely convinced and was only slightly open to a 13-episode deal. Through great powers of persuasion, Tony was able to lock down that deal but they still needed a showrunner that everyone could trust. Enter: John Wells, who Crichton at first wasn’t exactly thrilled about.
“There was one gigantic problem however — I didn’t have deals negotiated with anybody. And there was a bigger problem: Michael Crichton was insisting on parity with Steven Spielberg deal-wise, with that caveat that he would get paid for doing no work — the studio contract had to spell it out precisely or forget it,” wrote Krantz.
Krantz opted to package “ER” – a fictional account of Crichton’s years as a medical student – as a television series. The only problem was, who would buy it? CBS had “Chicago Hope” already in the works and poised as their slam dunk of the new 1994 – 1995 season and Fox was barely a network. ABC showed initial excited interest but as Krantz wrote, ” [ABC] didn’t want to step up in a meaningful way.” That left NBC and they weren’t enthused about the project.
“We didn’t see how we could go wrong with a two-hour movie,” said David Nevins, then VP of primetime series for NBC. “Nobody bit on their ask for thirteen episodes, and Warren [ creative development ] stayed after them. Maybe two months went by, and Warren kept calling.”
“The ask had gone down to six episodes.” Warren Littlefield added to Nevins’ testimony in Littlefield’s memoir Top of the Rock. “Crichton decided to rewrite the script on two conditions. No network notes and Chrichton would take on pass to update the medicine,” said Nevins.
In short, it was a mess, but a beautiful one at that. Despite network suits’ hesitations, ER moved forward. Appropriately, Anthony Edwards as Dr. Geene was cast first and then George Clooney with a trail of failed pilots behind him. Juliana Marguiles was 26 when she auditioned for her now iconic role as Nurse Hathaway, Sherry Stringfield who would play Dr. Lewis left NYPD Blue for ER, Noah Wyle who had read the feature EW script hopped on board to play med student John Carter, which left the role of Dr. Benton unfilled.
“So I get to the end of the script and I’m like, ‘Ah, that’s a really good script.’,” said Eriq La Salle who would play Dr. Benton. “So I called my agent and I said, ‘I’m sorry, which role is the black role?’ And he said, ‘The Benton role.’ And I was like. ‘Get outta here!’ I thought Michael Crichton and John Wells did something interesting. I don’t think Benton was ever described as an African-American, and I tried not to think the role was too good for an African-American to play.”
With all the principle actors cast and production underway, Warren Littlefield still needed to convince the NBC execs and primetime audiences that ER was worth the effort. Vulture writer Josef Adalian asked Littlefield why they chose to run the ER premiere on a Monday night against a “Monday Night Football” game – Detroit Lions vs. Dallas Cowboys.
“I had seen the ER pilot probably 26 times. And that night, I’m going back and forth between ER and the NFL. And I’m like, ‘We’re screwed. We’re dead. This is – this is Dallas, America’s team. It’a nail biting game,'” said Littlefield. That night, ER scored a 17.6 Neilsen rating while the NFL did 19 and Chicago Hope did 16.
The next week ER moved to Thursday night after the F.R.I.E.N.D.S. premiere and against Chicago Hope. All held their breath. No one thought ER could beat CBS’ Chicago Hope. Week after week, the execs and creatives read the numbers, and week after week, Chicago Hope was on the steady decline as ER shot up in popularity.
Josef Beckman, scheduling at NBC, told Adalian,”…all the years I’d been in the business, if there was ever a slam dunk … God could have done a talk show [opposite ER]. It didn’t matter. I remember showing Chicago Hope and ER to my wife. She didn’t know which network they were on. Afterwards, I said, ‘Well, which one would you watch?’ And she didn’t even say. She looked at me and she said, ‘Are you even kidding me?’ One show was these young, idealistic doctors in a struggling inner-city hospital, with multiple stories going on in that pilot. Then the other was this pristine, squeaky-clean hospital with these high-paid doctors separating conjoined twins. Come on. What are people gonna watch?”
Littlefield adds to Adalain, “Friends was a destination. Regardless of what was happening at 8:30, Seinfeld was a destination. The same for ER. And so, through the height of the Must-See years, 75 million Americans were watching at least some of Thursday night on NBC. If you didn’t, you absolutely felt left out. You just didn’t want to show up at work the next day if you couldn’t talk about what was on NBC the night before. It was the place to be in the television universe. And it just was the last time that one network had the best of the best, and everybody wanted to be there.”
So now, 20 years later and watching this cultural resurgence of all things 90s and nostalgia, I can’t help but wonder why a lack of interest for a show that paved the way for the likes of Grey’s Anatomy, House, and Scrubs. Why there was no mention at the 2009 Emmy’s of ER’s marathon like run and finish while the likes of The Sopranos or Lost each received an enthusiastic homage.
Yes ER faltered in its latter seasons, but the magic those first 10 years that it brought to primetime television has somehow, and unfairly, been forgotten. A part of me even likes to think that NBC’s failings to secure a show in it’s 10PM Thursday night slot since ER’s end is a fan’s curse much akin to Voldemort jinxing The Defense Against the Dark Arts position at Hogwarts. And with NBC’s sad attempts of bringing back the glory and rush of the medical drama with Night Shift, I can’t help but think that the peacock network too is feeling nostalgic for its “must see” era.