Thesp's plans lie in writing, producing and helming

“ER” doc Eriq La Salle has caught a case of the directing-producing bug and will turn in his hospital scrubs at the end of next season.

La Salle, a staple on the hospital drama since the show’s 1994 debut, has been hinting at a possible exit when his three-year, $27 million contract expires next May. “ER” executive producer John Wells confirmed La Salle’s departure Friday.

“It is extremely difficult to lose a cast member that is so integral to our show,” Wells said in a written statement. “Eriq La Salle has been one of the central figures on ‘ER’ from day one and we are disappointed that he will be departing from the series after this season. We look forward to working with him this year and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

It is no secret that La Salle’s plans lie in writing, producing and directing, for he has spent the past few years laying the groundwork; his recent directorial outing “Crazy as Hell” is in post-production, and he also served as producer on Castle Rock’s upcoming thriller “The Salton Sea.”

In addition, La Salle plans to continue seeking out projects for his Warner Bros.-based shingle Humble Journey Films, which he heads up with partners DJ Caruso (helmer of “The Salton Sea”) and Butch Robinson.

As for directing, La Salle has been spending time behind the camera since 1996, when he completed two short films, “Rebound: The Legend of ‘Earl the Goat’ Manigault” and “Psalms of the Underground.” He also helmed the Showtime pilot for “Soul Food.”

NBC Entertainment prexy Jeff Zucker said he was sad to see La Salle go.

“We’re sorry that Eriq won’t continue on ‘ER,’ but we are thrilled he will be around for one more year,” he said. “We thank him for his enormous contributions towards making the show America’s top-rated drama for seven years.”

With La Salle jumping ship, “ER” will head into its 2002-03 season only two original cast members remaining, Noah Wyle and Sherry Stringfield; latter thesp was recently lured back to the show. It was previously announced that Anthony Edwards will leave the emergency room after the upcoming season.

While La Salle’s immediate plans are to focus on Humble Journey, his acting chops are not down for the count. In addition to directing himself on “Hell,” thesp will be seen in the Robin Williams starrer “One Hour Photo.”

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