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WHEN 'ER' OPENS THIS FALL, THE EMERGENCY-ROOM DRAMA WILL BE REAL

It isn't live brain surgery, but the season premiere of "ER" is going to get inside the confused head of Anthony Edwards' character, Dr. Mark Greene.

If you hear series producer John Wells tell it, the producers of the show are the ones who ought to have their heads examined for trying this live experiment.

Wells confirmed weeks of speculation by saying a live episode will kick off the fall season at 10 p.m. Sept. 25.

In a press conference, Wells was purposely vague about the episode other than to say a documentary camera crew was entering County General Memorial in Chicago, and that the trauma Greene experienced when he was beaten up in the bathroom by an unknown assailant will be part of the story line.

When pressed afterward for details, Wells said: "We can say we are going to pick up Dr. Greene in exactly the same emotional state that we left him in. He was reeling from it and trying not to admit that was going on in his life and slowly being forced to confront that it has had a major effect on him.

"The documentary crew that is there is there to focus on Greene. Our star will be front and center."

The episode will cost about 25 percent more than most, which meant it either had to be promoted as the season opener or in a sweeps period in order for NBC to get bang for its buck.

Asked why it was chosen to lead off the season, Wells said: "It felt very immediate. If we had just stuck it in a series of ongoing shows, stylistically it would be a little jarring."

The episode will feature all the cast members of television's No. 1 drama and will pick up the characters about a month after the end of last season, Wells said. Though it will be the first episode of the season, five others will have been shot before it's aired and they will follow the premiere.

The producer said the idea for the live show actually came from the actors, who were searching for a challenge.

"George (Clooney) and Anthony in particular were in the room saying, 'We ought to do this,' " explained Wells. "And my looking at them like they were insane, then agreeing rather halfheartedly to go and look into it, and having a number of people who do live television come in and talk to us.

"It has been a six-month process of making sure this was something we could do, pull off, that would be interesting to us and bring some value to the show."

The departure of Sherry Stringfield last season left the show with a vacancy for a female star. It has been filled by two actresses.

Maria Bello made enough of an impression in three appearances last season as pediatric surgeon Dr. Anna Del Amico to become a full cast member. In her three spring appearances, Bello's character frequently collided with Dr. Doug Ross (Clooney) over patient treatments.

Alex Kingston, the British actress who wowed PBS audiences last season in a sultry adaption of "Moll Flanders," will play a surgeon who has come to America to experience some trauma. Medical trauma, that is.

The appearance of a British doctor with an accent doesn't require much explanation.

"It's not a particularly unusual circumstance," said Wells. "Everyone discovered English surgeons really need to get their 'BTA,' which is 'Been to America,' as part of their training. One of the sad commentaries on our society is that it's very difficult to get a lot of trauma training in England because you don't have many gunshot wounds or violent injuries. So trauma surgeons from all over the world come here to train because it's like a battlefield."

Kingston said that while trauma is hard to find in Britain, sexism is not.

"One of the sad things about Britain is that there are very few female surgeons," she said. "It's still by and large an old-boys network. And so, for a woman, she would have greater opportunity working in surgery in the States."

Kingston's character, Dr. Elizabeth Corday, was brought in to bounce off Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq laSalle), whose relationship with Dr. John Carter (Noah Wyle) has been done to death.

"Last year we felt that while we enjoyed the Benton-Carter interplay, that after three years we'd written it so many times and in so many variations that we really found ourselves saying, 'I thought we already did that scene' every time we put them together," said Wells.

"So we felt it important to sort of break them apart, and so Carter has gone down to the emergency room to work as a doctor and left the surgical program."

Carter will undoubtedly play off Bello's character, while Benton lays off Kingston's character.

Wells said "Moll Flanders" brought Kingston to his attention, and she made a quick impression on him in a meeting.

"We don't create characters with gender or race in mind. We knew we needed somebody new in surgical. We had not decided male or female or what race. She came in and we went, whew."

Kingston said "ER" is a huge hit in England, as evidenced by the frenzy that resulted at Clooney's promotional appearance for the movie "Batman & Robin."

"He was followed by screaming girls everywhere, and it was because of 'ER' rather than 'Batman,' " explained King-ston.

As it enters its fourth season, "ER" inevitably will experience some audience slippage, but Wells says that isn't a reason for starting the season with an episode that is bound to generate much hype.

He noted that the show slipped one share point in the second season and two share points in its second season, but still achieves a phenomenal 38 share for originals and gets the kind of numbers in reruns that most dramas would die for in their first run.

"I think that what we're really seeing is that in the first season of a new show that was as 'hot' as this show was in the first season, people were afraid to miss it," said Wells. "My take on it was, nobody wanted to be left out of the water cooler conversation on Friday morning. So people were terrified not to see it. Some of that is falling away."

The slim slippage might have been a reaction to NBC's decision to take off "ER" reruns for six weeks last spring to try out new shows.

NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield didn't have to be hit on the head to get the public message.

"Would we do a six-week pre-emption of 'ER' again?' Littlefield said. "I don't think so. . . . The audience was telling us clearly in that time period that they want their 'ER.' "

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