January 26 ,1995
LOS ANGELES - It's late at Chicago Hope hospital, and the same baby is being born again and again.
Upstairs in the observation tower, chief of staff Dr. Phillip Watters and Dr. Daniel Nyland look down on the bizarre birth scene, their faces deathly still. Downstairs in the O.R., Dr. John Sutton looks exhausted inside his yellow anti-contamination suit as he pulls the baby from its mother's womb - over and over.
But over and over is small sweat indeed if you're actors Hector Elizondo, Thomas Gibson and Jamey Sheridan, stars of newly certified CBS powerhouse ``Chicago Hope,'' cranking out a coming episode called ``Heart and Minds.''
If you're connected to ``Hope'' now you're almost golden, since the smart sawbones series is reborn and killing ``Murder One'' in the ratings on Monday nights. Gone are the days of being compared to ``ER,'' which routed ``Hope'' from Thursday night last season. Now ``Hope'' is its own compelling show, with its sexy docs, high-gloss look and cutting-edge medical issues.
So you do as many takes as it takes to crank out Episode 15, about a radioactively contaminated illegal immigrant who gives birth. You do it at 10 p.m. when it's tough to match camera angles, and the baby - one of four real babies and one rubber one on the set at 20th Century Fox - is wailing loudly.
You do it because if you're one of ``Hope's'' nine talented principal actors - an overabundance for a fast-paced weekly drama - it's a good time to press for a bigger, juicier breakout role this fall.
Already ``Hope'' seems like a shoo-in for third-season renewal. It is unquestionably the classiest drama act on CBS. The network has given executive producer and writer John Tinker an order for six scripts for new fall episodes, standard procedure but still a comforting sign.
With Tinker now at the helm, creator, executive consultant and first-season writer David Kelley once again contributing scripts, cast members Mandy Patinkin and Peter MacNicol gone and Sheridan and Christine Lahti added in their place, there's new juice flowing. In fact, it seems like ``Hope's'' first season all over again.
In the meantime, it's a long day in the life of ``Hope,'' as cast, crew and babies go birthing into a rainy Tuesday night.
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But first things first.
It's 10 a.m. Tuesday, and ``Hope'' the TV show is humming like ``Hope'' the high-tech hospital. Cast, crew and Tinker have been on the case since before 7:30 a.m.
On ``Hope's'' huge, sleek set, it's suture time. As camera crew hovers nearby, cardiothoracic surgeon Kate Austin (Lahti) puts guest character Henry Alden (Dan Lauria) under the knife in one of the O.R.s, for another story-line on ``Hearts and Minds.''
Between his own scenes, ``Hope'' star Adam Arkin is in the middle of a final edit on last Monday's episode, ``Right to Life,'' which he directed. The episode centers on an HIV-positive drag queen (Giancarlo Esposito) who threatens macho Dr. Kronk's (Peter Berg) masculinity. It's Arkin's first directing gig for ``Hope,'' and, thanks to a tight production schedule, he has been given four days - rather than the usual eight to 10 - to supervise his edit.
Inside producer John Tinker's beige office-bungalow, it's playtime.
None of the writers gathered in Tinker's office is playing with the Playdough set out on the coffee table, though. Right now, everyone's far too busy deciding the fate of Watters' sex life in episodes slated for February.
As Elizondo plays him, the widower Watters is the most elegant, dignified and inscrutable character on ``Hope,'' and writers Jennifer Levin, Kevin Arkadie, Patricia Green and Sara Charno - formerly on the writing staff of ``The X-Files'' - find piercing Watters' emotional armor an irresistible prospect.
``Maybe we could weave in the toupee, no pun intended,'' Green says of giving Watters a bit of vanity about his bald pate. The toupee idea came from co-executive producer Michael Dinner.
Jokes fly about Watters' buying a toupee, losing a toupee, about sending a second unit crew to Chicago to shoot the toupee winging wildly about town.
``We could shoot the action from the P.O.V. (point of view) of the toupee itself,'' offers Charno, who used to dream up weird happenings involving bloodless deaths and aliens for ``X-Files.''
Maybe the toupee thing is just too light, too ``one-notey,'' Levin says.
``What's wrong with Watters just dating?'' Arkadie asks. ``I'm in love with the whole thing of him (Watters) going home and being tired of cooking for himself.
``So he's lonely and he decides to take action,'' he continues. ``Maybe he goes to a wine-tasting session. You meet more sophisticated people there, older people.''
There's talk of Watters asking for dating advice.
``Who would the expert on dating at the hospital be, of the women?'' Arkadie asks.
``Nobody!'' the female writers say in chorus. In fact, none of ``Hope's'' gorgeous women doctors are lucky in love, from nurse Camille Shutt (Roxanne Hart), who's divorced from brain surgeon Shutt (Arkin), to Lahti's Austin, who lost weekday custody of her daughter recently because she's too wrapped up in her medical career.
``We could do a Courtney Love-type thing and get Watters involved with a young rocker,'' Levin says, teasing.
Suggests Arkadie, ``What about performance anxiety?''
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Tinker likes to say ```ER' is about stemming the tide, and `Chicago Hope' is about turning the tide,'' comparing ``ER's'' beleaguered emergency room battles with ``Hope's'' state-of-the-art medical arena.
Other than that, there's no show bible, no mantra, no can't-dos for writers scheming new ways to imperil ``Hope's'' characters.
On one wall of Tinker's office, a big board is ruled into squares, filled with characters' names and plot lines printed in magic marker much as the case roster on NBC's ``Homicide'' is.
One block says ``sexual harassment,'' with Charno and Levin's names below it. Others say ``prostate cancer,'' ``herpes,'' ``doc accused of murder,'' ``post-partum depression.''
And ``Kronk suicide.''
``Boy, is that misleading,'' Levin says.
She asks, ``Is he coming back next year?'' referring to heartthrob Berg, who plays Kronk, who is becoming a breakout character on the show.
``As I understand it, negotiations are going well, and he is,'' Tinker says evenly.
Clearly star salaries and egos are in play.
Anyway, the ``Hope'' plot board looks too packed to be true. ``It's a security blanket,'' Tinker admits. ``Really, the only thing that's truthful there is what we have done, written in blue.''
Mostly the fate of ``Hope's'' nine characters is mapped out ``a little too loosely,'' Tinker says, by the writers. Today in their meeting they're playing loosely but seriously with coming Episodes 16, 17 and 18.
``If I have a complaint about this show, it's that we have too many characters to service them all fully,'' Tinker notes of his stable of nine.
``I hate to use the thoroughbred analogy, but all these actors want to work, need to work. If they sit around in their trailer too long with just a line here or there, they're bound to get anxious and restless.''
Each episode of ``Hope'' normally involves three storylines, one medical, one personal, and one that's more comedic. Typically one or two stars get to shine in each storyline. In the past, Tinker and staff tried to squeeze four stories in per hour, but it got too frenetic.
Shutt's karma will evolve nicely during a coming three-episode arc with manic-depressive psychiatrist Barbara Konstadt (Kathy Najimy), although how she pulls out of her illness - if she does - is still unclear. Lithium? Electroshock?
There's talk of making Lahti's tough-cookie character Austin lose nearly everything in her life until she gets her priorities straight. Austin is about as egocentric and hard as Patinkin's wild man-surgeon Geiger, whom she pretty well matched in a few overlapping episodes last fall before Patinkin left the show.
``We may get her in a little sexual harassment suit in a bit,'' Tinker says of Austin.
And in truth, Tinker has not totally closed the door to MacNicol, whose critically lauded, slippery hospital lawyer character was written out of the show recently when he was shot to death.
``Peter's got some ideas for his return, and I do too, and it wouldn't involve dreams or ghosts or anything like that,'' Tinker maintains.
And there's the whole question of what to do with Sutton, Jamey Sheridan's character, an ob/gyn doctor who is Austin's former lover. Sheridan was added to the show by decree of new CBS entertainment president Leslie Moonves after Patinkin's exit.
``In my first meeting with Moonves he said he thought Christine Lahti's coming in had not replaced Mandy. He said he thought we needed a male doctor for stability. I said I didn't want to add another male doctor - and this is no reflection on Jamey's ability. Moonves said, `Do it,' and the second time Moonves said, `Do it,' I said, `OK.'''
A handsome leading man who previously starred as a down-and-out lawyer in the NBC series ``Shannon's Deal'' (1990-91) and as the devil in the Stephen King miniseries ``The Stand,'' Sheridan seems almost too charismatic to fit well as an ensemble player. But then that's true of most of ``Hope's'' cast.
Right now, Sutton's future looks less than morally upright. Levin and Charno are working on an already-begun money scam storyline for Sutton, who also pulls doctors Hancock (Vondie Curtis-Hall) and Grad (Jayne Brook) into the deceit.
Then there's an interruption in the story meeting.
At about 10:30 Tinker gets called to the set to talk to Najimy. She has questions about her lines. The writers continue.
``I talked to Jamey yesterday, and he said `I don't mind being a villain,''' Arkadie says. ``All the guys want to be heroes.''
``Really?'' Green and Charno say in unison.
Tinker returns at 11:20 a.m., rubbing his forehead. He usually gets to his office around 6:30 or 7 a.m. to write - ``that's the best time'' - sometimes staying till 2 a.m. to finish scripts. On most weekends he commutes back to New York to see his wife and kids.
As the morning wears on, pitches about animal sacrifice, exorcism and men's genitals shrinking - it happened in Korea, Charno says - fly around the room.
``You know, none of our doctors carry cellular phones,'' Levin points out.
``So you like Sutton being a jerk?'' Arkadie asks Tinker later.
``Yeah, why not?'' Tinker says.
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Producer Jim Hart patrols the ``Hope'' set while Elizondo, Sheridan and the other actors catch some lunch.
``I really feel for `Murder One,''' Hart says. ``We've been there. Last season everyone kept saying `the failed `Chicago Hope,' but not anymore.''
Ironically, the Fox lot is home to both ``Hope'' and the production offices of ``Murder'' helmsman Steven Bochco.
Tinker has a late lunch with Kelley productions president Jeffrey Kramer ``to talk about the show and cars,'' Kramer says. Tinker needs a new one.
``Hope's'' writers work on the state of Konstadt's mind and the fate of Watters' toupee.
At 2:30, it's time to rehearse birthing the baby, which may or may not be contaminated with Cesium 137.
Time for the ``Hope'' machine, a half-dozen actors and a dozen crew members, to come to life.
Up in the observation tower, Elizondo chats with guest star Tony Amendola, who plays an FBI man involved in the case of the toxically contaminated pregnant woman. When it's ``action'' time, ``Hope's'' camera will shoot up at them from below.
Down in the O.R., Sheridan stops rehearsal to ask questions.
``Can you hear me? I can't hear you,'' he tries to boom at the crew, voice muffled by his plastic bubble of helmet.
Somewhere on set a crew member's walkie-talkie crackles: ``Organized chaos - no, not even organized!''
With time to kill, Elizondo is schmoozing in his usual courtly fashion - this time about the Great White Hope look of ``Chicago Hope.'' For being set in a large metropolitan hospital ``Hope'' boasts remarkably few characters of color.
``In big cities, hospitals just aren't this pink,'' Elizondo says, teasingly calling the show ``Chicano - uh - Chicago Hope.''
``Just put a Hispanic actor on this show, and the Hispanic audience will really watch,'' he says. Of Puerto Rican/Basque heritage himself, Elizondo plays an Anglo on the show.
``This casting is something that could easily be fixed.''
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3:44 p.m. and ``Hope's'' clock is ticking.
Arkin, a big, solid bear of a man, bursts into co-executive producer Dinner's office. ``I need an opera like bad!''
Arkin is supposed to finish editing the final cut of Monday's episode in an hour. Monday's episode must be scored between now and Friday, and mixed over the weekend - ``an all-weekend gangbang,'' Dinner says.
Arkin needs music to back Giancarlo Esposito's hospital scenes, as Esposito's character faces the grim reality of HIV.
``I'm just looking for the most lyrical, melancholy woman's tune,'' Arkin rushes, talking fast to Dinner's assistant, Liz Carranza.
Somehow the GATT trade treaty has come into play, fouling up the Puccini that Arkin was going to use. New tariffs apparently have made the Italian composer too expensive.
Carranza and Arkin flip through 200-or-so CDs. He grabs some and dashes toward ``Hope's'' edit suite in an adjoining bungalow.
In his office, Dinner explains ``Hope's'' best running shtick - the kind of music its surgeons love to cut to when they wield the knife. In fact, in past episodes Geiger (Patinkin), Shutt (Arkin), Kronk (Berg) and Austin (Lahti) have all come close to forgetting their patients as they argued over the favorite playlist.
``In the pilot, Mandy (Patinkin) liked Motown,'' Dinner says.
And, oh, how he liked to sing along.
``When Christine (Austin) came in, she liked classical, but she's also eclectic. For her last operation, we gave her The Pretenders. Kronk is into retro rock 'n' roll, and Nyland is into Tom Petty. Now Adam's character Shutt - the only time he wanted music we gave him jazz. But I think he really listens to Steely Dan. I think we tried to clear the rights to Steely Dan but couldn't.''
But isn't in-your-face, hockey puck-slamming Kronk more of a Nirvana/Pearl Jam kinda guy?
``We tried to clear Green Day for him but couldn't,'' Dinner says.
(NEXT 13 GRAFS OPTIONAL)
As the overlord of production from shooting to mixing sound, Dinner is ``usually here somehow or other seven days a week.'' He's responsible for the look of ``Hope,'' obviously subtler than camera-frenzied ``ER,'' if you insist on keeping up the comparison.
``Unlike our competitor, the material dictates the style of our show,'' Dinner says. ``It could be scenes about crisis or scenes that are very lyrical. This show is always shifting, but it's really more of a classic drama.''
Meanwhile, down in Arkin's edit suite some last minute changes requested by CBS are brewing. Arkin did not act in the Monday episode he directed, except for an 18-second scene in which he tells Watters to take a vacation in Fiji.
Dinner finds the scene gratuitous and wants it out. Tinker wants it in. Arkin doesn't really care. But CBS wants the scene in, afraid confused viewers might think Arkin followed on Patinkin's heels and fled the show.
So Arkin, film editor Jim Stewart, assistant film editor Mark Baldwin, and Arkin's girlfriend actress Phyllis Lyons, who previously appeared on an episode of ``Hope,'' all wait for the deciding phone call from Tinker, who is conferring with network brass.
``It's always an adventure here at `Chicago Hope','' Arkin patters in a mock blue-blooded British accent, settling into a canvas chair. ``Somewhere in the chaos a show drops into place.''
Arkin previously directed an episode of ``Northern Exposure,'' when he played a recurring character on the third season of the show. Eventually he wants to divide his time equally between acting and directing, he says.
Still waiting, he goes back to his hunt for the perfect cheap aria.
The group talks Monday-night ratings.
``I think everyone is sick of O.J.,'' Stewart says of viewer preference for doctor show ``Hope'' over courtroom drama ``Murder One.''
It's now 6:30 p.m. and getting uncomfortably late.
``My blood pressure,'' Arkin jokes.
Then the call comes through. Arkin's scene will stay.
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At 7 p.m. nattily suited Elizondo and Gibson - decked out in scrubs, finger bandages and radiation burns - are rehearsing yet another observation tower scene as Sheridan, cast and crew shuffle below. Again, ``Hope's'' camera will shoot the duo from downstairs, and later from behind.
Assistant make-up artist Coree Lear, assistant hair stylist Dione Taylor and second second assistant director Christine Tope huddle on the floor and behind the door where they can't be seen, in case they're needed.
Between camera set-ups Gibson, a quiet-seeming guy, does Tai Chi moves - ``I'm repelling the monkey'' and sings in a firm tenor voice.
His is probably the least-fleshed out character on ``Hope.'' In Episode 15 writers have him suffering from the flu.
Like Berg's rebellious hotshot surgeon Kronk, Gibson's tall, dark, more reticent Nyland was brought in partly to attract younger viewers. Yet Nyland seems the least egocentric of ``Hope's'' prima donna staff, and Gibson seems suited to his character.
``You can call me Tom or Thomas. I don't care,'' he says. ``Only my mother does.''
Then he croons, ``Get those babies rollin,'' to the tune of ``Rawhide.''
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Technical adviser and nurse Linda Klein walks by with a pork belly, used for human innards in surgical scenes.
Background player Wally Postelwait is stuck in a yellow anti-contamination suit and inflexible black rubber gloves and asks for help tying the drawstring on his pants.
On a short break from birthing, Sheridan, still in what looks like a space suit, searches out a snack. ``I'm tired,'' he says. ``People are yelling directions at me, and I can't hear them. And that poor baby.''
(NEXT 8 GRAFS OPTIONAL)
On set a minute ago Sheridan looked like the hero of the moment. Does he really want to be a villain, as Arkadie said?
``What, you don't want my character to be bad?
Then, ``I just want to have some kind of character, any kind of character,'' he says wearily. ``Right now, I don't.''
If a nerve has been touched, it isn't an exclusive one. Ask Elizondo whether he wants to come back for a third season, and it's a slow nod yes and, ``But they have to take care of me.'' He's talking both more money and more room for his character to unfold and grow.
``But not working longer hours,'' Elizondo says, probably seriously.
``Now I'm just the funnel they put stories through,'' he says of Watters, who is emotionally closed off and rarely seen outside the hospital, although Watters did have a romantic fling with a character played by Carol Kane in the episode about MacNicol's death.
``Sure, I like the mystery of my character,'' Elizondo says. ``But I'd also like him to sing and dance and play in a jazz club, to have a lovely woman that makes him laugh, a female Zorba who's 15 pounds overweight and loves to cook.''
Back on the set, Sheridan is helmeted and delivering the baby again.
``Ladies, you're in this, you gotta ACT,'' director Marty Davidson castigates the nurse-extras assisting Sheridan.
``There's tension! There could be a fungus! You have no idea what could be coming out!''
They do it again, trying to match camera angles.
``If I could hear anything I'd do it right,'' Sheridan says, sounding underwater.
At 9 p.m. blue rewrite pages of the script they're shooting appear on set.
At 10 p.m. Sheridan and the other yellow suits are still in the O.R. The four live babies have been dismissed.
Elizondo is through for the day - ``a particularly grueling one. It always is when we go into the O.R. I thought I'd have Thursday and Friday off this week. Now it just looks like maybe Friday.''
Davidson and director of photography Ken Zunder are on a scaffold behind the observation tower, whose back wall has vanished. They're setting up more shots.
From somewhere downstairs a voice wafts up.
``Yeah, we murdered 'em last night.''
Downstairs, assistant hair stylist Taylor knits a sweater - and waits in case someone's coiff needs a comb. Lots of people wait as the birth goes on.
Head hair stylist Mary Ann Valdes, with a great big grin, hefts herself out of a director's chair and says, ``Chicago Hopeless.''
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10 p.m. ET Mondays
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(c) 1996, Orange County Register. Distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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