The doors of the ER at County General have swung open for 14 seasons now, and with so many doctors and nurses patching up patients during that time, it can be difficult keeping track of who’s who.
“When we were shooting our 300th episode, I didn’t realize how many cast regulars we’ve had,” says exec producer Chris Chulack. “Somebody counted it up and we’ve had 24 series regulars in the main titles.”
Unlike some shows, where cast changes occur between seasons, “ER” often writes out characters midseason — Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) dying of cancer, Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes) taking another job, even Dr. Romano (Paul McCrane) being killed by a falling helicopter.
“Sometimes characters just disappear,” says Parminder Nagra, in her fifth season as Dr. Neela Rasgotra. “Sherry Stringfield’s character was the funniest. I think there was just one line devoted to her leaving. I remember when that line was delivered we just all looked at each other and couldn’t help laughing because it felt so ridiculous that a major character had left and it was one line to write them out.” Other departures are more traumatic.
“I remember when George (Clooney) was going to leave. It was, ‘Can we stand him leaving?'” Chulack recalls. “But it revealed itself that there was a natural progression. These characters come in, they’re doctors. Noah Wyle’s character, Carter, was a resident, and then he became an attending. It was a natural evolution. These characters become fully formed, and then it’s time for them to move on.”
When beloved characters leave, introducing new faces can be tricky. Some thought Goran Visnjic’s Luca Kovac would be the new Doug Ross.
“We never put that burden on the new characters, where they have to perform and carry the show from the beginning,” Chulack says. “It’s all an ensemble.”
While most characters are introduced in baby steps, Chulack admits Linda Cardellini’s Sam started with a bang.
“She was this girl filling out an application to be a nurse at the hospital. A patient was going crazy and she ran up and stabbed the person in the heart with a hypodermic needle (to save his life).” Otherwise, he says, most characters assimilated over time.
Nagra and Cardellini joined the show at the same time, with Scott Grimes (Dr. Morris) arriving a few episodes later.
“There were a couple other people who came but went very quickly,” Nagra says. “And Morris — this always makes me laugh — was meant to die a few episodes later and here he is having nearly done 100 episodes.”
Alex Kingston (Dr. Corday), Wyle and McCrane were all prominent cast members when Nagra and the others came onboard.
“Suddenly it was like everybody started leaving,” she says. “After a few episodes, four main cast members were leaving and we started to feel guilty. There was a moment where we had to stop and look at each other and go, ‘Hang on a minute. It has nothing to do with us.’
“It’s not like we said, ‘Hey, get rid of these people.’ It was just the natural progression of the show. But it was kind of freaky — suddenly you see four main cast members up and leave, then you’re starting to be pushed up the ladder. It’s a little unhinging.”
Some characters, such as Carter and Kovac, get to exit gradually.
“Goran was willing to come back (for a few episodes) to help Abby (Maura Tierney) carry through because she hadn’t been played out to fruition,” Chulack says.
Just because a character is written out doesn’t always mean they’ll never be coming back. Clooney returned for a cameo, Wyle is slated to be back for a few more episodes this season, and Gloria Reuben (Jeanie Boulet) just shot an episode.
“It validates and legitimizes this fictional hospital when characters come back,” Chulack says. “They’re like real people who come back into your own life. You may have not seen them for a few years, and because of circumstances they’re back again. You see how they’ve changed.”