ER was the hottest medical drama on TV in its early days. It was pretty much compulsory ’90s viewing. And just about everybody had a crush on at least one member of the cast. Hell, it introduced the world to George Clooney! But if you thought some of the show’s hard-hitting storylines were pretty shocking, just wait for these behind-the-scenes secrets. Everybody ready? Stand back now and CLEAR!
1. ER was supposed to be a movie
Get this – ER almost never made it onto our TV screens AT ALL. That’s right folks, the acclaimed series was initially set to be a film, directed by Stephen Spielberg, no less. According to Elle, creator Michael Crichton had envisioned a “documentary-style movie about what happened during 24 hours in an emergency room.” But studios refused to finance the project as they found “it too technical, too chaotic and too fast-moving.” Hard to believe, eh?
2. One character nearly got killed off
Imagine if Carol Hathaway hadn’t been a regular character in the show, and her compelling relationship with Dr. Doug Ross never happened. Unthinkable, right? Well, believe it or not, feisty nurse Carol – played by Julianna Margulies – was originally scripted to pass away during the first episode. But test viewers liked her so much that the producers decided to keep her on. And thank goodness they did.
3. Filmed in a real hospital
Well, the first episode was anyway. When ER was in its infancy, the production team didn’t have the budget to construct a full set. So they decided to film the first ever episode in a former hospital. Linda Vista Community Hospital in Los Angeles was the place, which had been in service for more than eight decades before it shut down in 1990. Rumor has it that the site’s haunted, and it was later featured in the series Ghost Adventures. Creepy!
4. NBC almost pulled the plug
Believe it or not, the top boss at NBC had a pretty strong reaction to the show when he saw the first episode. Another executive at the time, Kevin Reilly, told the EW website that the president “stormed out of the room.” Apparently, there were objections to the show’s rapid pace, its complex medical conversations, and the amount of blood on display. In other words, everything that made ER so exciting.
5. George Clooney pleaded for a part
George Clooney set many hearts fluttering as Dr. Doug Ross in ER. And, of course, he went on to become a huge star of the silver screen too. But crazy as it seems now, the A-lister was so little-known back then that he apparently had to plead for his part. In 2013 book Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV, executive producer John Wells recalled that Clooney “begged [him] for a part.”
6. Was ER actually filmed in Chicago?
As fans of the show will know, most of the action in ER took place at a fictional Chicago facility called County General Hospital. But was any of it actually filmed in the city? As it turns out, yes. While most of the interior scenes were shot on a California studio lot, the cameras regularly relocated to Illinois. This was when most of the exterior sequences were filmed.
7. Noah Wyle's big audition
The handsome John Carter – played by Noah Wyle (left) – was another member of the ER cast who set fans’ pulses racing. It turns out he made a big impression during his audition for the show, too. Casting director John Levey explained to The Hollywood Reporter, “Noah tied off my bicep with some kind of a wrap, and then, using a pencil, he pretended to draw blood from me... It was a brave and exciting audition, and the rest is history.”
8. An ancient pilot script
Can you believe the ER pilot was penned way back in 1974? That’s right. It’d be two decades before Crichton’s screenplay was finally put into production. The trouble was that times had obviously changed by the 1990s. And while the dialogue remained virtually untouched, some significant revisions still had to be made. So instead of focusing on a team of all-male and all-white medics, Dr. Benton became African-American, while Dr. Lewis was reimagined as a female character.
9. Eriq La Salle went all-out
It seems that most of the cast went to great lengths to impress at their auditions. Taking a leaf out of co-star Wyle’s book, Eric La Salle – who played Dr. Peter Benton – quite literally dressed the part. He turned up in scrubs! You see, at the time La Salle had a role in CBS medical drama The Human Factor. And the savvy star had held on to a set of scrubs from the show. Smart thinking!
10. TV rivalry
Unsurprisingly, there was a rivalry between ER and CBS medical drama Chicago Hope. That rivalry turned into a full-blown feud when NBC strategically aired the ER pilot in the same slot as its competitor. The move ruffled a few feathers over at CBS, as Preston Beckham, an NBC executive at the time, recalled. “[We] got a call from Hope star Mandy Patinkin, who wanted to know what NBC had against his show,” Beckham explained.
11. Clooney got another offer
Yes, George Clooney almost never got to be dishy Dr. Ross. Explaining what happened to The New York Times, ER executive producer John Wells said, “[Head of Warner Brothers] Les [Moonves] had made a cast-contingent deal for a crime show with George. But George showed up in my office and said he’d heard about our show, and he liked the part better than the legal show.”
12. Laura Innes’ health issues
ER fans will recall that Dr. Weaver spent much of the series needing a crutch to walk with, owing to hip dysplasia. As it turns out, actress Laura Innes suffered for her art, as years of limping in character gave her genuine health issues. “My real back was getting screwed up,” said the star. “I got a bone density test, and the bottom of my spine is starting to curve on one side from ten years of raising my hip.”
13. Problems signing Eriq La Salle
So, La Salle was apparently the final actor added to the main cast due to some issues with securing his signature. It seems that Barbara Miller, the casting head honcho at Warner, was against actors being taken from the company’s other series. And as we know, La Salle was starring in Warner’s other medical drama The Human Factor at the time. Luckily, though, Miller changed her mind – and the rest is history.
14. ER and Friends parallels
NBC boasted two of the most successful shows of the 1990s in ER and Friends. And the network had a bit of fun placing references to each show in the other. Wyle and Clooney popped up playing medics in an early Friends episode. Among other playful nods, David Schwimmer – who of course played Ross in Friends – had a cameo in ER’s third season.
15. Clooney's other ER
Just as La Salle came from a role on another medical show before ER, it turns out that Clooney had previous emergency-room experience, too. Yes, prior to his big break in the NBC drama, the star appeared in a not-very-successful 1980s comedy show called E/R. We kid you not! And in another crazy coincidence, Mary McDonnell – Eleanor Carter in ER – was in that 1984 series as well.
16. Prank wars
There were apparently plenty of laughs while shooting ER, with the cast playing regular pranks on each other. Dr. Mark Greene – portrayed by Anthony Edwards – told People magazine that his favorite trick was played on an actress pretending to be in labor. “When she gave birth and we’d been bringing up this fake baby, we brought up the alien baby,” he said. “I never heard someone scream as loud as she did at this green baby.”
17. Clooney's memory trick
With so many scripts to memorize, any TV actor could be forgiven for struggling to recall their lines. Especially on a show such as ER that had lots of complicated medical jargon to get to grips with. Clooney had a sneaky technique for overcoming the challenge, though – he used to write his dialogue on props he was using! So if you’ve ever wondered why the actor spent so much time staring at papers, now you know!
18. Glenne Headly was secretly pregnant
Eagle-eyed fans might’ve noticed that Dr. Abby Keaton – played by Glenne Headly – always wore extra-baggy clothes. That’s because the star was pregnant when she featured in season three of the show. And the producers reportedly felt that her character’s romance with Carter may lack credibility if Keaton was visibly pregnant. Other tricks to disguise the actress' baby bump included positioning her behind various objects.
19. Clooney persuaded one actress to stay
Apparently, it wasn’t just because test audiences responded well to her role that Margulies stayed in ER. It was actually co-star Clooney who persuaded the actress to stick around. According to E! Online, Margulies said, “He called me out of the blue, kinda put his neck out on the line for me, and said, ‘I overheard that your character tested well... If I were you, I wouldn’t take another job because I think they’re going to bring you back to life.”
20. No editing
One of the outstanding features of ER was its fast-paced action. This was achieved in part by keeping the cameras rolling without breaks for editing. The Things website reported executive Chris Chulack as saying, “The actor that had the last line was under huge pressure, because if he broke we’d have to go back to the beginning.” Chulack added, “We took seriously the idea that we were also an action show.”
21. The famous basketball hoop
Remember how some of the characters used to enjoy throwing a basketball around between shifts? Well, apparently the installation of the hospital’s own b-ball hoop was Clooney’s suggestion. Yup, the star used to enjoy playing the game as a way of unwinding during breaks in filming. Clooney requested that a hoop be set up and, because it was in a conspicuous spot, it ended up becoming part of the action.
22. Noah Wyle's real heroics
If you thought that everything you see on screen is totally fake, then you’d be wrong. To make the action look authentic, the actors really did receive some medical training. And Wyle had to use his skills for real when a crew member was suffering from serious dehydration during filming in Africa. Quick-thinking Wyle got the man fixed up with a saline drip!
23. George Clooney's debt to a castmate
Jolly Jerry Markovic was the clown of ER. And it seems the actor who played him, Abraham Benrubi, is pretty funny, too. The Things website reported that Benrubi recalled a friendly wager he made with cast-mate Clooney, explaining, “I said to George [that ER] was going to be the number one show in television by the fifth episode. He said no way. We wound up betting on it. It was number one after the fourth episode and George still owes me that $5.”
24. Julianna Margulies had a vision for her character
In season three of the show, Carol weighs up graduating from being a nurse to becoming a doctor. She goes on to sit an entrance test. Producers wanted to change things up for the character – yet actress Margulies was against it. According to Elle magazine, the star felt that the career change wouldn’t be in keeping with the self-esteem that Carol gained from her work as a nurse. Instead, Abby Lockhart – played by Maura Tierney – later made the job switch.
25. The on-set doctor
On a show where authenticity was paramount, a medical expert had to be present during filming. Not only that, but the doc wielded almost as much power as the director. Linda Cardellini – who played nurse Samantha Taggart – recalled, “You have all this movement and then the technical dialogue, which is like a foreign language… The doctor on the set could also call cut. It was the only show where somebody besides the director could call cut.”
26. Tough time for newcomers
Wyle admitted that ER newbies had to earn their stripes before being accepted into the show’s “family.” The star confessed to giving the actress who portrayed Lucy Knight, Kellie Martin, a cold welcome. “I was not nice all the time to Kellie,” he admitted, according to The Things. Wyle added, “We worked extremely hard to be the number one show over those five seasons, and when Kellie came on, or whenever anybody came on, it was like, ‘Earn your keep!’”
27. ER saved real lives
Not only did the show entertain fans for more than a decade, but it provided vital health information, too. Research undertaken in 2002 by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that one-third of viewers claimed ER had educated them on certain medical issues and influenced their healthcare decisions. A 2001 study also revealed that one-fifth of doctors had encountered a patient citing ER while seeking help.
28. Wyle was extremely dedicated
Proving just how committed he was to the show, Wyle battled on with filming while seriously ill. The star was so unwell due to mono while shooting a season one episode that he had to act with a saline drip in his arm. It was clearly worth it, though, as the poignant episode in question’s now widely considered to be one of the show’s best.
29. Why John Stamos joined
Coming into its 13th season, the show was seeing viewing figures drop – until John Stamos took up the role of Dr. Tony Gates and revived the series. And apparently that was all down to Clooney. “I was at lunch,” Stamos recalled to Extra. “I wasn’t at lunch with him, but we were sitting and he said, ‘You should go and do ER.’”
30. The Tarantino touch
This fact blows our minds. Yes, he of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs fame, Quentin Tarantino, once directed an episode of ER. How did this come about, we hear you ask? Well, the cult director wrote and co-starred with Clooney in the 1996 action horror flick From Dusk Till Dawn. With his co-star’s encouragement, Tarantino took the helm for ER’s season one episode “Motherhood,” which featured some fairly graphic scenes in a nod to the director’s trademark style.
31. Noah Wyle made a big objection
While Carter was no stranger to relationships with colleagues, there was one coupling that actor Wyle just couldn’t get on board with. The show’s producers originally wanted Carter to hook up with medical student Lucy Knight – including a steamy encounter between the two at work – but Wyle put his foot down. “I had a big problem with it,” the star told Entertainment Weekly, as he saw Knight as “his little sister.”
32. The original ending
Get this – there was nearly one full season less of ER to enjoy. Yup, the network originally wanted season 14 to be the show’s last. Yet the 2007/08 strike by the Writers Guild of America led to episode cutbacks, which meant that the series couldn’t be suitably wrapped up in its 14th season. So the producers persuaded NBC to extend ER to season 15, which came to an end in the spring of 2009. Sob!
33. Not happy about being killed off
In the memorable “Be Still My Heart” episode of ER’s sixth season, fans were shocked to see Lucy Knight die in a very gory manner. Both she and Carter are assaulted, with Knight’s injuries proving fatal. So how did actress Kellie Martin feel about her character’s demise? None too happy, apparently. Martin revealed to Entertainment Weekly, “I was 21 or 22. I remember taking it kind of personally that I was being stabbed and leaving the show. I was definitely traumatized.”
34. First and final seasons
You usually find with long-running series that cast members start dropping out as time goes on. ER was no exception, with most of the original leads being absent from later seasons. Though in a nice farewell touch, all of them – Edwards, Stringfield, Clooney, Wyle, Margulies, and La Salle – made appearances in the final episodes. And in another neat parallel, the first and final words of the series are the same: “Dr. Greene.”
35. Maura Tierney's strange request
Despite her popularity as Dr. Abby Lockhart, Maura Tierney chose not to see out the show to its end, leaving at the start of the last season. In fact, the star had actually asked to be written out of the series years earlier, according to E! “I want them to kill me... and they won’t,” said Tierney, adding, “They refused to kill Abby.”
36. Real-life inspirations
Proving just how much the show makers strove for authenticity, ER’s writers used to visit hospitals in Los Angeles for story inspiration. In fact, the memorable episode “Love’s Labor Lost” was based on a real-life C-section. Former writer for the series Dr. Lance Gentile recalled working with a doctor who was summoned to the OB ward one night. Gentile told TV Guide magazine, “He gets down there and the baby is in crisis and needs a crash C-section.”
37. A closely-guarded secret
Having become a bona fide movie star, Clooney left ER in 1999 after five years on the show. But he came back for Margulies’ final episode, an appearance that was kept so tightly under wraps that not even the network was aware of it. The A-lister was flown by private jet to Seattle for filming, along with a select number of crew members who were all required to sign confidentiality agreements.
38. Hate mail
We know about Kellie Martin’s chagrin at her character being killed off on the show. But it seems that some fans took it so hard that they still can’t forgive Lucy’s “killer.” The med student died at the hands of a schizophrenic played by David Krumholtz. And Krumholtz continues to fend off fans’ wrath, as he explained to Entertainment Weekly, revealing, “I still get messages on Twitter now that people have never fully forgiven me for what I did.”
39. Dr. Greg Pratt’s death
The finale of season 14 saw another character’s tragic demise. Poor Dr. Greg Pratt perished in an ambulance explosion, though viewers didn’t find out who’d been killed until the start of the final season. As it turns out, actor Mekhi Phifer actually helped devise his own character’s death. “I’d rather him go out with a bang,” the star said to The A.V. Club. We’re not sure whether that was an intended pun…
40. Why Noah Wyle left
One of the longest-serving members of the ER cast, Wyle hung up Carter’s stethoscope in season 11 to concentrate on fatherhood. But clearly the pull of the series was too great, as the actor later returned for several episodes. Recalling his experience of going back when talking to The Hollywood Reporter, Wyle said it was “so great,” adding, “Talk about closure. To not be on that show and have that show be on TV was horrible.”