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War legacy fuels Wells in creating ‘ER’

'China Beach' set the stage for medical drama

Although “China Beach” had ended three years earlier, the success of the Dana Delany starrer was still resonating in John Wells’ head as he was mulling a new series in the early ’90s.

Like “China Beach,” which ran for four seasons on ABC, “ER” would take a deeper look at those in the healing profession whose jobs require split-second, life-and-death decisions — doctors and nurses whose personal lives are just as compelling as the patients they treat.

“What we were able to do on ‘China Beach,’ I wanted to repeat that,” Wells says, looking back at how “ER” came to fruition in 1994. “We were very proud of what we were able to accomplish there, and just hoping to do another show about something that had resonance. All I knew was that it would be hard to do a show that wasn’t tackling something serious.”

So with a pilot (titled “24 Hours”) scripted by bestselling author Michael Crichton, audiences were introduced to Drs. Benton, Edwards, Ross, Lewis and Carter. Three hundred episodes later, those doctors aren’t practicing in County General anymore, but their legacy remains.

It might seem obvious now that the show would be a huge hit, but that certainly wasn’t the case when Wells pitched the series to NBC.

“NBC took it, but with reluctance,” he recalls. “They said it was too dark and complicated, had too many characters and not enough resonance. But to their credit, they put it in the post-‘Seinfeld’ slot and that

made a huge difference. Once we heard a sample audience had tested it and loved it, we were in a good position.”

The Peacock slotted “ER” at 10 p.m. Thursday, right up against another hospital drama — David E. Kelley’s “Chicago Hope” on CBS. The two shows battled all year, but “ER” clearly won the ratings race. The following fall, the Eye moved “Hope” to Mondays and “ER” has never left its original Thursday home.

“We couldn’t be more proud of our relationship with the entire ‘ER’ team,” says NBC programming topper Ben Silverman. “Its historic, long-running success is a real testament to the talent both in front of and behind the camera.”

Wells is quick to pass praise to those who have made “ER” such a staple, but he was clearly the driving force behind the show in those early years, acting as showrunner, exec producer, writer and, later on, directing a few episodes as well.

Warner Bros. TV topper Peter Roth, who has worked with Wells on “ER,” “Third Watch” and “The West Wing” among others, says Wells’ contributions can’t be overstated.

“He’s distinguished himself as a writer and director but, in my judgment, is the best producer I’ve ever seen in my 33 years in television,” Roth says. “He uses both his right and left brain. He knows how to read a script and a spreadsheet at the same time.”

After handing off the day-to-day duties of “ER” in season four, Wells and Aaron Sorkin began working together on “The West Wing.” Yet, despite Sorkin’s pedigree and Wells’ history, the political drama wasn’t an easy sell either.

“We had as much trouble getting ‘West Wing’ on the air as we did ‘ER,’ ” Wells explains. “Certainly it wouldn’t have been on the air without ‘ER.’ ”

A former leader of the Writers Guild, and one who continues to feel as strongly as ever about how his fellow scribes are compensated as television programs are distributed in the digital era, Wells has mixed emotions these days. The strike continues on — though talks have resumed — while “ER” hits an incredible milestone.

“It actually feels very surreal,” Wells says of “ER’s” longevity. “It doesn’t feel like 14 years. You’re working on it day to day, and then it’s 300 episodes.”

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