In 1974, I had just finished directing my first movie, Westworld which was a science fiction story about a theme park with robots. For my next project I wanted to do something completely different.
I wrote a documentary-style movie about what happened during 24 hours in an emergency room. I thought the screenplay was terrific, but nobody would make the movie, finding it too technical, too chaotic and too fast-moving. It sat on the shelf for the next nineteen years-brought out every five or ten years, for updating, and for the studios and networks to look at, and reject yet again.
Finally NBC made it as a TV pilot. And then it became a series.
The lives, loves and losses of the doctors and nurses of Chicago’s County General Hospital.
An 1994 article in Time magazine called “Angels with Dirty Faces” analyzed the early success of ER which included this quote from Michael Crichton:
ER is probably the most realistic doctor show TV has ever done. That realism goes beyond the graphic operating room scenes and rapid-fire medical jargon (“O.K., we gotta go with it—5,000 units heparin, tPA 10 milligrams, push. Sixty over one hour. Let’s get another EKG. Keep him on the monitor…”) The show’s hopped-up pace and jumbled texture–stories star, stop and overlap seemingly at random–set it apart from almost anything else on the air. “There’s a rhythmic instinct to slow down in television,” says Crichton. “But our show had to go as fast as the real thing. We got rid of the pauses, those actors’ moments, the hanging looks tha mean nothing. Medical shows have been at the Marcus Welby pace; meet a patient, portray the disease of the week and finish with some heart-wrenching solution. Here we just rip people in and out.”
If you have a subscription to Time magazine, you can read the rest of the article here.
I wanted to do a different kind of doctor show. When I was in school, everybody watched Dr. Kildaire. Then came Marcus Welby, M.D. There was a conventional wisdom about how doctor shows were done, and I wanted to change that. Part of it was the style. Television had fallen into an artificially slow pace for financial reasons. If people talked slower, if you had long shots of somebody parking a car and then walking up to a house, it was less expensive; fewer script pages was cheaper. Television audiences slipped into this languor, this assumption that whatever they saw was going to be slower than their daily life. I wanted ER to go at a regular or faster speed than real life. We also broke other TV conventions, such as ending scenes on the thoughtful look of a person walking away,or whatever. Instead, we just cut. It was very effective. But another essential difference is that ER tells real stories. The most memorable episodes are based on real stories, and that was intended. The other thing is the level of quality in the show. Executive producer John Wells has been the person on the firing line since the early years of the show, and he has been phenomenally good at maintaining the level of quality that’s breathtaking.
In an 1997 interview with Adam Beechen for Written By, called “Michael Crichton: The Good Doctor”, Michael Crichton talks about his experiences with the launch of the television series ER including his involvement in the early episodes. In this excerpt Michael Crichton talks about the challenges the actors faced adapting their performances to fit the style of this groundbreaking television show:
“I had a lot of say about the actors’ performances in the pilot and early episodes, because there were several problems they had to overcome. The first was pace; everybody involved in TV had long since adopted a speed of moving and talking which was far slower than real life. It was an economic thing, really. Fewer script pages to shoot in an hour. But I wanted to see ER running at a fast than usual pace. The actors were very uncomfortable talking so fast, at first I was insisten on their being abel to rattle off the tech talk, which is even more difficult. And I was insistent that they have professional demeanors and not ‘relate’ to patients in the usual way.
For example, it was hard to get the actors to look at the injury site and not at the patients’ faces, when they were talking to them. But professional behavior is a lot of what give the show its realistic quality. And finally, I pushed hard to keep scenes from having a ‘button’ either in writing or in performance. Often, TV scenes end on a meaningful look or a dramatic pause. Actors get to expect that. I wanted the show to cut away before that happened. So … no dramatic meaningful look.”
ER was nominated for an Outstanding Drama Series Emmy by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences every year from 1996 to 2001 but only won once. Michael Crichton received his only Emmy award as the television series’ creator and producer when ER was named Best Drama Series in 1996.
ER received 124 Emmy nominations, which makes it the most nominated drama program in television history.
This project has a long history, and it was something that interested me ever since my medical training. And what actually happened was in — I think in ’89, Steven Spielberg called me up and said he wanted to do a project about an emergency room, and I said I did too. And we began to work on this thing, and shortly after that, he got interested in dinosaurs, and I did too. So we’ve deferred this thing. And it kept getting deferred, and finally it seemed as though it was not going to have a life in the way that we had originally imagined. And we thought of doing it as a television show, which we’re glad we did.
I first wrote ER back in 1974 as a record of my experiences as a medical student in a hospital emergency room. But it was not until the fall of 1994, 20 years later, that these stories appeared as a new television series. That must surely be the longest creative gestation in modern television, but it was worth it. Audiences found the show to be fast-paced, fresh and real, and it drew a loyal following from its very first episode. But if the past was remarkable, the future was even more so: none of us involved in those early days of ER could have anticipated its long and remarkable run as one of the best and most popular television shows in the history of the medium. From its early days to the exciting present, it’s been one long thrill for me, and I think for audiences as well.
|Original Premiere Date:
|September 19, 1994
|April 2, 2009
|Michael Crichton, John Wells
|Constant c Productions, Amblin Television in association with Warner Brothers Television
On the air for 15 seasons, ER is one of the longest-running prime-time dramas in TV history.
I think that we’ve had a long period in which doctors are denigrated in various ways. You know, we mostly hear about Medicare frauds, and we mostly hear about people who do 10,000 eye operations a minute. In the course of that, we forget that there’s a traditional quality to medicine of taking care of people. And there are places where doctors continue to perform as well as they can, as skillfully as they can, and really to peform heroic actions. And I wanted to sort of bring that back into balance and to feature doctors who are like that.