The resurrection of ‘ER’
by Tony Krantz
This is part 2 of the birth of ER (click here to read part 1).
Our first and only network pitch of ER had been a disaster, and I was dreading the call from NBC with their verdict on the meeting.
Warren Littlefield called me late that afternoon, and he told me the 13 episodes were off the table. But maybe, with another creative meeting about future episodes to be broken out in detail, NBC would be willing to go for 6 episodes. Oy vey.
This was a disaster and Michael Crichton was not happy with the news. John Wells was game and willing, always solid as my perfect creative and business partner in all of this. Tony Thomopoulos was also cool, and the studio was being kind and philosophical about this now growing, slow rolling defeat. But there was a sad vibe to the whole jalopy as I felt people thought something or somebody had screwed up along the way. Maybe that somebody had gotten high on his own wine? And maybe that somebody was me…
But the goal posts had been moved and our meeting wasn’t nearly that bad. Rather, something at the network had changed unknown to us at the time.
The creative meeting was set and John and Tony dug in, putting together a presentation for future episodes that we pitched to NBC a week later. In my years of selling series at CAA and beyond, John Wells’s pitch for ER’s season 1 was as perfect and compelling a presentation as I’ve ever seen. He had it all figured out with fantastic stories of deep emotional stakes for all the main characters — I knew that he’d hit a grand slam in the meeting. I was thrilled and relieved. Warren was exuberant too (Don Ohlmeyer wasn’t in the meeting), but I still had to sell Michael on the 6 episodes we were certain to get from NBC, which I couldn’t confirm without his approval, of course. But that would be tomorrow’s problem — I was ready to exhale and celebrate in my own mind. Finally, victory was at hand.
Then the phone rang.
And then I insulted the president of NBC after he pulled the offer for 6 episodes by cheaply trashing someone else’s show I’d never seen and by extension, Warren’s taste and judgement. Fuck it, go big or go home, I thought. I was a young cowboy agent who “knew” I was 100% right and I teed off, getting real upset off my chest at what I thought was now a very meager offer.
And then I found myself wondering if I still had a job.
And that catches us up to where we began…
The offer for the 2 hour MOW came because NBC had figured things out competitively vis a vis the other networks — and probably because it was what Warren could, or would be willing to, sell through to his boss who hated the letters ER.
I remember my flailing call to try to sell Michael Crichton on the 2 hour deal who by this time probably hated the letters that spelled my name. “Tony, it’s a two letter word that begins with N.” It seemed there was a lot of spelling going on, but I certainly knew what Michael was driving at — and it’s an expression I use to this day in funny tribute to that shattering moment of defeat. All that work, all those important people I’d entangled, all those dashed hopes, and all that senseless agent struggle and aspiration to get the show to this point was now up in smoke from one very tall man who could say yes or “N”.
It was over, and there was no more appealing to Michael’s better angels. He was fed up.
I said my apologies to everyone for the whole pathetic mess, told Warren that it was dead and finished (with the thinly veiled implication that it was all thanks to NBC’s stupidity) with my best practiced agent derision which I’d become an expert at, and headed off on a three-day mini road trip a couple of weeks later with a buddy into the snowy hills of Tennessee.
I was a vacant traveling partner — I’d put all my packaging chips into ER and I wasn’t certain what kind of a year of selling shows I’d have now. But I knew ER was as dead as dead could be and I was really depressed about it.
On day two of the trip, I checked in with my office from a pay phone on the side of a frigid road in the middle of nowhere — snow flurries were indeed falling. I had to take my gloves off to dial the phone. My assistant told me that John Wells had called. I got him on the line and he told me that Michael Crichton had called him from Michael’s home in Hawaii and that for some reason — maybe it just “popped” into his head (I never found out the reason why) — but Michael was finally willing to accept the 2 hour MOW offered by NBC. I was floored, and I wasn’t entirely sure that the deal was still on the table as I’d gone silent for weeks with the network, thinking ER was dead and buried.
I called Warners and Warren and the ball started rolling again — the deal was indeed still available at NBC.
In a two-minute drill, the pilot came together with days to spare to get the roughly 100 page pilot script shot and delivered in time for NBC’s May screenings. Rod Holcolmb was hired to direct, and he suggested the steadicam look that became the visual, wonderfully kinetic signature of the show. Soon, the cast began to assemble…
Somewhere along the way, George Clooney came into the picture — he had a deal at Warners, had read the script and wanted to do it. I ended up negotiating, and by extension, controlling key portions of his contract since all the clients I represented had to bear those various aspects.
George Clooney had been in perhaps 9 failed pilots — one of which I’d packaged years before about undercover motorcycle cops who rode Harleys up and down Sunset Boulevard in search of crime. That one had the unique distinction of being cancelled after its first airing on the East Coast by ABC before the pilot actually aired on the West Coast just 3 hours later. The network couldn’t cancel it fast enough — that might have been a record at the time. It was for me anyway — I think I got an internal CAA award for that. The whole pilot process of ER moved so fast that as an example, Eriq La Salle was hired late into a production that was already rolling film.
Then, the finished pilot was shown to NBC and the reaction was not positive.
Word was that Don Ohymeyer “didn’t respond” — not one little bit. But Warners and Les Moonves were not to be denied when they believed in a show — and they believed in ER.
They tested the pilot and it tested through the proverbial roof — but in this case, it really was true. Its testing was actually record breaking for a drama and Warners began a subtle and very effective campaign to get the show picked up. Little by little the tide began to turn as a few network notes were taken and implemented to “fix” the virtually perfect pilot, giving NBC a sense of creative ownership over ER as they zeroed in on their Fall schedule.
I was at home and nearly asleep when the phone rang one night before NBC was set to announce their schedule. Warren Littlefield was on the line…
I knew it must be important for him to be calling me and I had no idea what he was going to say. He told me that ER was going to get a time slot that I’d be very happy with, although he couldn’t say which one, and that he predicted the show would be a workhorse for the network for years to come. And then he thanked me for bringing him and NBC ER. I loved that call — it’s one I will cherish forever.
I didn’t know as I went to sleep that ER’s slot would be Thursdays at 10 o’clock, their most valuable primetime real estate once occupied by NBC’s legendary Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law.
By now, ER was off to the races, and it would make its own history thanks to the truly brilliant work by the legion of creative people John Wells and Warners had assembled in every area of the show, week in and week out, creative choice by creative choice.
When the ratings started coming in in the Fall and the show made the cover of Newsweek, I was truly astonished. ER was getting 40 shares on a near weekly basis, with a nation hooked onto something that had really just popped into my head for no particular reason whatsoever a year before.
It was a script gathering dust in the CAA library…
So, what are some of the lessons in all of this?
I think a bunch of things. One is that we never know where hits come from. All we can do is take our best swing — and eventually we’ll connect. The television game is about taking quality swings at the plate with clear eyes and best intentions. Eventually, a ball will sail out of the park.
And it’s about the true cliche of never giving up if you believe in something — regardless of the circumstances that get placed in front of you. Who knows who’s right or wrong, really, at the beginning of the process? If you think you’re right, well, maybe you really are, and just maybe you can get everyone else on side to agree with you. So why not try?
And it’s about fate and choices.
Somehow, ER was meant to be — after all, it did actually happen. I was a vehicle for it by being open to its idea at the right place at the right moment with its own inexorable, powerful essence popping itself miraculously into my head.
The complex trail that led to the show is a collection of a vast number of decisions, coincidences and commitments turned into action that had a magical energy seemingly all its own.
Whatever any of that may be, it was an agent’s experience of a lifetime to which there are so many, many people wonderfully responsible, all sharing in the precarious junctures in ER’s relentless, extraordinary, unstoppable birth.Tags: Creative Artists Agency (CAA), Don Ohlmeyer, ER (television show), Eriq La Salle, George Clooney, Hollywood, John Wells, Leslie Moonves, Michael Crichton, NBC, Rod Holcomb, Television, Television packaging, Tony Krantz, Warner Bros.