Playing Doctors

While critics have praised the cast's diversity, Rhimes insists it wasn't by design. ''I'm a black woman casting my own show,'' she shrugs. ''I wanted their world to look like the world that I live in. I don't think about it in those terms, and I militantly think I don't have to.'' Dempsey — a 2001 Emmy nominee for his wrenching turn as Sela Ward's schizophrenic brother on Once and Again eventually edged out Isaiah Washington to win the part of Dr. Shepherd, the shady dreamboat who rolls over naked next to Meredith in the first episode. ''I needed something that let me play a leading man with edge,'' says Dempsey. ''People had such a strong idea of what I was, based on what I had played years ago. I was so over it.''

When the role of Dr. Burke was suddenly vacated after Prison Break's Paul Adelstein fell out due to a movie commitment, Rhimes reconsidered Washington, a Spike Lee protégé who'd more recently starred in junk like Trois 3: The Escort. ''I said that I would only do it if I didn't have to be like that guy on that other medical show who was always struggling with his anger,'' says Washington, 42, referencing ER's eternally sullen Dr. Benton (Eriq La Salle).

Six months after the pilot was shot, production on the next 12 episodes began, but about three weeks later, ABC — flush with the recent success of Desperate Housewives and Lost — shut them down. The reason? ''We were getting bogged down in medical stories without seeing their impact on the characters,'' explains ABC Entertainment president Steve McPherson. ''If this had been sheer medical drama each week, I'm not sure it would have broad appeal.'' Execs also objected to a graphic close-up of a rape victim's battered face in episode 2, and questioned whether the series' breezy tone could accommodate such gore. ''It freaked people out,'' says Rhimes. ''The amount of scary realism along with the humor made it seem like we were being flip.''

But cast members knew little about the show's progress over the course of the six-month shoot and grew weary as ABC held off on setting a premiere date. ''It was extremely frustrating,'' says Dempsey. ''I started to wonder if we weren't on some weird reality show where our behavior was being taped and analyzed.'' Adds Heigl, 26, ''They were playing a really tricky political game with the schedule, and we didn't trust them.'' Wilson finally lost her patience and snuck into Horton's office, where she watched rough cuts of early episodes. ''I had to see a finished product,'' she says. ''So I finally [went in], watched the pilot, and said, 'This is a good show!'''

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