On Saturday night, Feb. 5, the Shriver Hall stage had all the earmarkings of a panel discussion.
Tables and chairs, check.
Pitchers of ice water, got 'em.
But then, when the lights were turned down, something inexplicable happened. To put a twist on an old line: We went to a media symposium, and a rock concert broke out. The applause and whistles began instantly, and some attendees even leaped out of their seats and started clapping as if to request a curtain call. Had Ricky Martin just entered the building?
No. The rousing ovation was for five visitors from ER, the provocative, award-winning medical drama that airs on NBC--co-executive producer/writer Neal Baer, first assistant director T.R. Babu Subramaniam, prop manager Rick Kerns and the main recipients of all the adulation, actors Eriq La Salle and Noah Wyle. Cast members Laura Innes and Alex Kingston, also scheduled, did not attend.
The visit to the Homewood campus was part of the 1999 Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium, "Redefining the Role of the Media." The free event was a chance to get a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the show and hear about the cast's experiences portraying people in the medical profession.
The 1,100-seat auditorium was filled to capacity, and university President William R. Brody and his wife, Wendy, sat front and center.
The focus of the discussion was ER's commitment to depicting a hospital setting accurately and fairly. With millions of devoted watchers, Baer said, the show has an opportunity and responsibility to inform, not just to entertain. Baer gave an example of an episode that featured the subject of emergency contraceptives. Prior to the episode, a poll was taken asking people if they knew what they were; a poll taken after the show aired, Baer said, showed a dramatic 23 percent increase in those who were familiar with the subject. "It was then we really knew we had some effect," he said.
Clips from the show were used to illustrate how the writers gleaned "real life" emergency room situations to weave into the plots. Co-producer/writer Baer--who is also currently a resident at Children's Hospital Los Angeles--showed a series of clips that featured the introduction of Wyle's character, Dr. John Carter, to the ensemble cast. Baer mentioned how the Carter character mirrored his own experience. He then glanced over to La Salle and Wyle and said, "But they know much more than I do at this point."
La Salle, who plays the stern Dr. Peter Benton, spoke of his responsibility as a minority cast member and his original attraction to the Benton role, penned by series creator and author Michael Crichton nearly 26 years ago.
"He created this brilliant and gifted surgeon. And he made him black," La Salle said. "That wasn't an image you were likely to see on television back then."
Wyle, who was greeted by a chorus of popping flashbulbs and female shouts of "Noah," tailored his comments to the large premed and medical student contingent, saying the ER cast had made a pledge from season one to be "true" to the medical profession and not to disgrace it in any way. He then went on to offer his admiration for the real doctors in the world and gave this piece of not-so-serious advice:
"What many of you are studying to do is the real thing," Wyle said. "So keep in mind, if I make a mistake, people yell 'cut.' If you make a mistake, people will yell 'lawsuit.' "
Despite the star power on stage, perhaps the highlight of the night came during the question-and-answer session, when a second-year medical student addressed the panel. The student phrased a question about public policy in a roundabout way, detouring to share some awkward clinical care experiences of his own. Then he proceeded to take off his jacket, displaying a lab coat adorned with his Hopkins I.D. badge.
"Can I ask one more question? Can I have my picture taken with the two actors?" he said, promptly running up on stage after Wyle gestured him to do so. The crowd cheered and applauded the spontaneous moment.
The pictures, by the way, were for his mom.
Video and audio recordings of the event can be found at: www.jhu.edu/news_info/ news/home00/feb00/er.html.