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'ER' bids farewell to Anthony Edwards

NBC says goodbye to Anthony Edwards' character, Dr. Mark Greene, on Thursday.  

By Thurston Hatcher

(CNN) -- After enduring as much hardship as Job, the good doctor from "ER" finally gave in.

Mark Greene succumbed last week to brain cancer. But NBC doesn't officially say goodbye to actor Anthony Edwards' character until Thursday, when it marks the end of an era for the long-running series.

While "ER" has lost many of its original cast since its 1994 debut -- including George Clooney, Julianna Margulies and Eriq La Salle -- Edwards' self-imposed departure may be the most profound yet. From the outset, executive producer Jack Orman says, Greene was the top-rated drama's "moral center."

"The ER is going to function in a different way -- the show and the fictional place," Orman said in a recent telephone interview. "Greene was someone that people came to for advice. He was a leader, and new leaders must emerge."

But as with the other cast changes, Orman said the show began planning long ago for Edwards' exit.

What happened to all those 'ER' doctors and nurses? Find out with our interactive gallery 
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"We spend a lot of time slowly integrating new characters into the show before our established characters leave, so that when they're gone, we're left with an ensemble that our audience cares about," he said.

Indeed, as Clooney's Doug Ross and Margulies' Carol Hathaway moved on from County Hospital, cast additions such as Maura Tierney (Abby) and Goran Visnjic (Luka) have gradually emerged as key players. Mekhi Phifer, who starred in ABC's "Brian's Song" remake, is another new recruit.

Carter moves up

But it's Noah Wyle, one of the few remaining original "ER" cast members, who will likely assume Greene's stethoscope next season. Once a doe-eyed intern and key source of comic relief, Dr. Carter's character has taken on more dramatic heft.

"Dr. Carter is at the exact same place in his professional career as Dr. Greene was in the pilot," Orman said.

"It makes sense to us -- based on what the franchise is, medical students coming into a teaching hospital growing into their residence, growing into themselves as doctors -- that Dr. Carter sort of take on the responsibility and leadership role."

Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, suggests the "steady drip" of characters from "ER" has actually been a blessing in disguise.

Dr. Carter
Dr. Carter, played by Noah Wyle, will most likely take over Dr. Greene's leadership role next season.  

"It's like crop rotation," he said. "You do six years with one crop of characters and they completely exhaust the dramatic real estate. And if you can rotate those around with people that could can start all over with, I think that allows you potentially many more years than you might otherwise get."

And even though he was a key, popular player on "ER," Thompson said, the twists in Greene's troubled existence had grown strained.

Over the years, among other things, he endured a divorce; a brutal assault; a stalking by a crazed colleague; a malpractice suit; a rebellious daughter; the death of his parents; and an Ecstasy overdose in his newborn infant.

"I think that dramatically, he had kind of been used up," Thompson said. "If they can put some other compelling new characters in there that can hook people with a bunch of new storylines, you in essence have got a new show."

'We have to keep the franchise going'

The departure of key cast members can prove the kiss of death for some series, but Orman doesn't think "ER" -- which is committed to air through the 2003-2004 season -- will need the crash cart anytime soon.

"At the heart of our show is character-driven storylines, so we have to keep the franchise going, keep the medicine interesting, keep the environment something that the audience wants to see," he said.

Orman declined to say much about Thursday's episode other than to suggest that viewers should find the conclusion emotional but "life-affirming."

"After all that Dr. Greene has gone through," he said, "I think that they'll be happy that he was able to face the end the way he did."


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