NEW YORK — In a surgical strike that will keep “ER’s” Dr. Peter Benton in scrubs for three more seasons, Warner Bros. TV will pay Eriq La Salle $27 million over the next three years.
While not quite the $35 million paid to co-star Anthony Edwards — which makes him primetime’s top-salaried star — La Salle’s deal establishes him as one of the best-paid series actors in TV history.
WB would not comment on the numbers.
The exact per-show salary is difficult to peg, since WB doctored the contract so part of the money is retroactive to last season, the same scenario previously given both Edwards and Noah Wyle. If applied only to the next three seasons, La Salle’s salary would be nearly $410,000 an episode, substantially more than the estimated $85,000 he had been paid before.
While Edwards and Wyle reupped last year to gigantic raises, La Salle was thought likely to be ankling the show along with Julianna Margulies and Gloria Reuben, both of whom are expected to have character exits worked into storylines during the coming season.
La Salle’s “ER” character was singled out recently by NBC West Coast topper Scott Sassa at the recent Television Critics Association confab as one of the positive role models for minority viewers that the network has been trying to foster.
WB Television president Peter Roth and “ER” executive producer John Wells then got La Salle to change his mind about leaving with a large salary hike and a sweetened deal for Humble Journey, the WB-based production company La Salle heads with D.J. Caruso and Butch Robinson.
La Salle has worked hard to establish himself as a director and producer. Humble Journey has so far produced the ABC adaptation of the John Sanford novel “Mind Prey,” which Caruso directed and La Salle starred in. They’ve also set up at Castle Rock “The Salton Sea,” a crime drama that La Salle, Robinson and Humble Journey production prexy Ken Aguado will produce with Frank Darabont. Caruso will direct from a script by Tony Gayton.
La Salle made his directing debut on the short film “Psalms from the Underground,” which he self-financed and cut between takes in his “ER” trailer. That led to “Goat,” the HBO biopic of tragic playground hoop legend Earl Manigault, which starred Don Cheadle.
LaSalle is expected to next direct a feature biopic of former Black Panthers defense minister Geronimo Pratt, which is being produced by Sean Penn and Marlon Brando, the latter of whom is an old friend and supporter of the long-imprisoned Panther leader who has maintained his innocence of a murder conviction that was eventually overturned.
La Salle became involved in developing the film last summer, with David Johnson (“The Drop Squad”) writing the script. Humble Journey will get more producing opportunities in film and TV as part of the “ER” deal, and has just upped Joy Crump to vice president of development.
Keeping La Salle in the “ER” fold gives the show a lock on three key original cast members for a drama that has been at or near the top of the ratings since its debut six seasons ago and for which NBC paid a record license fee of $13 million an episode in 1998 for three seasons.
While George Clooney left last year upon completion of his original five- year deal to concentrate on features, Edwards, Wyle and La Salle are now pacted for one year beyond that record license fee agreement. While “ER” viewership slipped a bit last season despite retaining its top ranking, the show’s braintrust has made several moves it hopes will have a defibrillator-like effect to the upcoming season. Goran Vjnic, Michael Michelle and Paul McCrane will become new cast members; Alan Alda and Rebecca DeMornay will be guest starring in multiple episodes; and Maura Tierney, Ming Na and Eric Palladino will become regulars later in the season.
La Salle was repped in the deal by Lorrie Bartlett of the Gersh Agency.