The birth of ‘ER’
by Tony Krantz
It was some evening in late January ‘93 when the telephone rang at our home. My wife picked up and handed me the phone — NBC’s President Warren Littlefield was on the line. He told me that NBC was not going to order the 6 episodes they had promised for ER from Warner Bros. Television, Amblin Television, Michael Crichton and John Wells, but that they would make a 2 hour MOW based on the existing feature script.
Was I was pissed off.
As a young CAA television packaging agent, getting a call from any network president at home was a big deal, but my relationship with Warren Littlefield had been limited. By now, NBC had reversed themselves on two commitments for the show, first for 13 episodes and now for 6, and I was determined to say something about it.
My wife was standing next to me when I told Warren what I felt, without political filter. “You picked up that piece of shit Viper, and not ER from the two hottest people in the entire entertainment business?!” Calling another show a piece of shit (which I’d never seen one frame of, by the way) to a network president who was programming it was not only rude, arrogant and totally out of bounds — it was grounds to get me thrown off the network’s account. But I was at the end of my rope and totally screwed — I knew I couldn’t sell the deal to Michael Crichton in a billion years.
I hung up the phone and my wife couldn’t believe I’d said what I said — we were both hoping I still had a job.
So, how did the nascent ER get to this moment?
This is an account of how ER was birthed — at least from my perspective as its CAA packaging agent. I suspect there’s a number of little details I have wrong, but by and large, this story is the story of how it happened and what I was told had occurred behind closed network doors.
Sometime in the fall of 1992 I was sitting in one of our weekly CAA television creative packaging meetings. There, we’d pitch ideas, books, articles, clients, combinations of clients, etc. to build series in an energized conversation that went round a conference table. For some reason, the script to ER popped into my mind.
It was that simple, and it happened just like that.
I was thinking about projects to pursue and I remembered that I’d read the script 5 years before, where it had been literally gathering dust in the CAA library for thirteen years before that. I decided to get a copy xeroxed and re-read it over the weekend.
The feature script that was ER was about Dr. Michael Crichton’s experiences as a young intern at a Boston Emergency Room fresh from his studies at Harvard Medical School. And it was letter-perfect. It had everything — action, character, drama, stakes, emotion — the writing read like butter, flying off the page while the medical content felt brand new with its technical jargon and rapid-fire delivery that dared not to explain a thing. I came into the office Monday morning determined to see if I could put ER together as a series. It was just some old available script, right?
My first stop was Bob Bookman, Michael Crichton’s agent. As is the culture at CAA, the sharing of and access to clients across agents and departments is encouraged and vigorously supported. But it ultimately has to start with the responsible agent’s willingness to get you into the game with the client, and when you get there, you have to have game — no wild goose chases or flights of fancy allowed. As Michael’s responsible agent, Bob was willing to give me a shot — and it all started from there.
He told me the script was treading water in development with Amblin at Warner Bros. on the feature side. It was a project that Michael and Steven Spielberg were going to turn their attention to next after their monumental success together on Jurassic Park. Hmmmm. That complicated things, but Bob was positive, willing to take it to the next step with me.
Tony Thomopoulos, the former President of the ABC Broadcast Group was the President of Amblin Television, and a friend of mine. I called him up, told him about the script. He read it overnight, calling me the next day — he loved it as much as I did, and was willing to do whatever he could to switch it over from Amblin’s feature side to its television side if parties were willing. I had a partner at the production company now — and a big one at that.
But I had to get Michael Crichton on board first.
Bob put me on the phone with Michael just days later — I’d never met or spoken to him before. Michael Crichton was a legend in the business. He was considered a genius, and at 6’9”, was an imposing figure with a world class art collection. His gigantic creative accomplishments as a novelist, screenwriter and director set him in a unique, superstar orbit.
Michael Crichton didn’t suffer fools — I could feel him brooking zero bullshit with me the second I started talking on the phone. His exacting evaluations of my first pitch were a bit withering, frankly.
The only way it would make sense for Michael to do ER as a series was if I could get a firm, 13 episode commitment for the project. He said that if I could do that — and only if I could do that — he’d be interested. I said I thought we would get that — words that would become famous last ones. Additionally, Michael was firm that he wasn’t going to do any work on the series — literally nothing. Not even watch it on TV if he didn’t want to. And his willingness to explore the deal at all was subject to finding the right showrunner to take the vision of the series forward without him.
Since ER was set up as a feature at Warner Bros., having a showrunner that could fit with the studio creatively and business-wise was fundamental. As miraculous luck would have it, I was John Wells’s agent, and he was under exclusive contract to the television studio. I called him, told him about ER and sent him the script. The next morning we spoke again — John loved it. He was in.
But Michael Crichton still had to approve John Wells as showrunner.
I set a breakfast with Tony, John, Michael and me somewhere in Brentwood for a week out. I knew it was time to get the studio involved, who up till now were unaware of the project. I called Tony Jonas and Nina Tassler at Warner Bros. and sent them the script, explaining the big idea of the package. They knew what a medical show from Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton could mean, and after reading the script, they fell in love with it too. Whatever we needed, they were on board to help as partners. Pieces were falling into place and the project was building some real momentum.
At breakfast, John and Michael got along brilliantly — it was a perfect match of talent and sensibilities, and the package now had all its major elements in place.
There was one gigantic problem however — I didn’t have deals negotiated with anybody. And there was a bigger problem: Michael Crichton was insisting on parity with Steven Spielberg deal-wise, with that caveat that he would get paid for doing no work — the studio contract had to spell it out precisely or forget it.
I began a very difficult and exhaustive deal making process with Warners and their equally committed business affairs executive, Julie Waxman, who became my partner in the deal. But I was asking for almost insane things — the negotiation was without a doubt the hardest and most complex deal I’d ever made.
And I’d never made a Steven Spielberg deal before, let alone two Steven Spielberg deals inside the same project — which was what Michael was insisting on.
Steven Spielberg was represented by attorney Harold Brown in this deal and without Harold, I’m certain ER never would have happened. He helped me architect and pull the pieces together as the two of us worked with Tony Thomopoulos on behalf of Amblin, and with Bob Bookman on Michael’s side in the long deal process. Warners was surprised with the level of ask, and the negotiations came to an impasse often. It was rough going but we all hung in there, making a deal ultimately — but blood was shed.
At that time, we lived in a four network universe, and I thought ER was purely a 10 o’clock show. It couldn’t really play at 9 given its edge and gore, so FBC was a long shot since they didn’t program shows at 10 o’clock. CBS wasn’t a player because they had David Kelley’s Chicago Hope on deck as their next big medical show. That left NBC and ABC as the most viable buyers for ER. In reality, I was in a bit of a corner. All this craziness for just two likely buyers? Maybe I should have thought things through more first.
Once the deals were finally closed, my plan was to send the script to the networks for the weekend, and meet with them the following week if, after reading it, they were serious about committing to a firm, 13 episode series. FBC passed out of the box — they didn’t like the script and ABC didn’t want to step up in any meaningful way. Oops. But I got a very lucky call from Warren Littlefield at home on that Sunday — NBC was interested on our terms and ready to jump for 13 after a good meeting with our team. We set a time for Tuesday morning at the network.
Somewhere along the way I’d failed to ask Warners to specifically confirm CAA’s package position. Agents at CAA didn’t really talk about packages in those days as a matter of policy, but I was still exposed. What would happen if they said no? But if this weren’t a package (we represented everyone in the mix), I didn’t know what was. I walked into CAA founding partner and head of television Bill Haber’s office (my office was always next to Bill’s because he may have wanted to make sure I didn’t burn the agency down on a weekly basis) and explained the issue. He called Les Moonves and confirmed our position in one call, a big bullet dodged.
The meeting we had at NBC a few days later didn’t go nearly as well as the conversation between Bill and Les. Les was there of course, as was Michael Crichton and the rest of the Warners drama team along with John, Tony and me. The mood in the room was really off… Awkward is a word for it. Clinically depressed might be two others.
The sickly vibe was coming from NBC’s side of the equation as a new player with his arms folded in a silent scowl sat at the end of the table: Don Ohlmeyer, the Chairman of the network and Warren’s boss. It became clear that Warren’s call to me on Sunday was a bit “premature”. In fact, it became apparent that Don actually hated the script, seeming to have additional issue with powerful feature people “slumming” in television. That’s what we all heard, anyway, in the various post mortems and second guessing soon to follow this very unsuccessful first meeting.
Don sat unmoving, barely saying a word. I introduced the project with pride and expectation, and Michael and John took it from there. When it was over, I remember almost race-walking down the dark NBC hallways with Les and Michael trailing me, feeling that vaguely light-headed, sweaty feeling we all get when things don’t go according to plan. I couldn’t wait to get out of there and they were probably staring a flaming hole through my back. This was the slam-dunk 13 episode commitment meeting I’d been advertising to everyone?
I went back to the office to wait on the results of our meeting, but in my heart I knew we had a problem…
Next week: The resurrection of ERTags: Amblin Television, Creative Artists Agency (CAA), Don Ohlmeyer, ER (television show), Harold Brown, John Wells, Julie Waxman, Leslie Moonves, Michael Crichton, NBC, Nina Tassler, Robert Bookman, Steven Spielberg, Television packaging, Tony Jonas, Tony Krantz, Tony Thomopoulos, Warner Bros. Television, Warren Littlefield