Love affairs, bloody operations, death by helicopter: A lot of great drama has unfolded on ER over the past 15 years, but its most sensational story may have been one we didn’t see. Here, in the words of the execs who made it happen, is the inside tale of the hit show’s 1994 birth, and how it nearly flatlined before getting on the air.
Preston Beckman, NBC head of scheduling, 1991-2000: NBC wasn’t all that strong at 10 p.m. L.A. Law was starting to fade out. We actually considered doing what NBC did this season — offer Jay Leno a 10 p.m. show five nights a week, because we just didn’t feel like we had the goods.
Warren Littlefield, NBC Entertainment president, 1991-99: [Creator] Michael Crichton’s pilot script for ER was 20 years old and approximately 150 pages. It came out of his experience as a med student in Boston. It was all over the place, more chaos than order.
Leslie Moonves, President of Warner Bros. TV, ER’s studio, 1993-95: Initially NBC gave us an episodic commitment, but then that changed to a pilot commitment. So I tried selling ER to other networks.
Littlefield: That could not be further from the truth. I told him, ”Where are you gonna get a six-episode commitment?” I told [Moonves] to go make the film you believe in, but as a two-hour pilot. And there were people at NBC who didn’t want me to even put that offer on the table.
Don Ohlmeyer, NBC West Coast president, 1993-99: I had some reservations about whether the audience was ready for something that powerful. Sometimes you can have a show that is past your audience.
Lori Openden, NBC head of casting, 1985-99: Everybody was apprehensive about it. There were multiple stories. It involved a handheld camera and a big ensemble cast.
Beckman: [When we screened the pilot in spring 1994], I thought it had the most unbelievable opening to a pilot I’d ever seen — pitch darkness and you hear Dr. Greene (Anthony Edwards) and something about an emergency. He gets up and walks into the ER and all hell breaks loose. And Carol Hathaway [Julianna Margulies] kills herself in the pilot.
Littlefield: It was gory. There was too much blood. And there was so much medical terminology flying around.
Kevin Reilly, NBC VP of drama development, 1992-94: When the lights came up [in the screening room], it was not a very positive reaction. I remember Don saying, ”Let’s be in business with people who want to make television!” And he stormed out of the room. Once Don had declared that he was less than happy with it, that kind of set the tone.
John Wells, Exec producer, 1994-2009: We waited about an hour after the screening for them to come and give us notes. Finally, Warren came into the room and said, ”There is really no point in giving the notes because Don is never going to put it on the air.” Don was very unhappy that we didn’t address his notes — about the language, things moving too quickly, how there were too many characters — all the things that ended up becoming the hallmarks of the series.
Ohlmeyer: People like to rewrite history. I loved the pilot. I cried three times. There was just an awful lot of medical mumbo jumbo.