Attempt to resuscitate `ER'

Film actor John Leguizamo joins the cast of the hospital drama

October 18, 2005|By CHARLIE MCCOLLUM | CHARLIE MCCOLLUM,SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS

John Leguizamo hardly seems the type of actor to be scrubbing in as one of the doctors on ER, NBC's long-running medical drama.

The 41-year-old native of Colombia is best known for his edgy one-man shows (Freak, Sexaholix), his work in independent films (from Spike Lee's Summer of Sam to the new Cronicas) and quirky parts in larger movies (Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge!). Over the years, he has limited his television appearances to late-night talk shows and the occasional HBO movie.

It's hardly a career path designed to take a performer to a heavily formatted TV drama dominated by technical medical dialogue. But Leguizamo has decided to make the leap; he joins the cast of ER on Thursday (10 p.m., WBAL-Channel 11) for at least 12 episodes as Dr. Victor Clemente, the new head of County General's emergency room.

His reason was simple: "I'm really enjoying TV a lot more than movies - except for independent films, which I still love," he says. "What I'm seeing on TV is so much better than what I'm seeing in the movies: Six Feet Under, I love. Rescue Me."

He adds that though he isn't "a fanatic," he has watched ER and was particularly taken with two episodes from last season: "Time of Death," which earned guest star Ray Liotta an Emmy for his performance as a dying man, and "Ruby Redux," featuring Red Buttons reprising a role he played during the early years of the series.

"Those were great episodes," he says. "They just rocked my world."

Still, Leguizamo realizes he is coming to a franchise with very specific ways of doing things - ways that may not fit his looser, more improvisational style.

"ER is a landmark show," he says. "It was in the forefront of all the procedural shows. There's a lot of terminology and behavior that is precise to doctors. I went to a lot of ERs and spent a lot of time watching attending doctors like the one I'm playing, just trying to learn how it's done.

"And then I've got a whole mess of doctors on the set who walk me through each procedure and tell me what I'm talking about. Otherwise, I wouldn't understand what I'm saying because I haven't had 12 years of medicine."

But Leguizamo believes he can still bring a measure of his own style to the series. "Within that format," he says, "I have to find my jazz, the way I can creep into the character.

"I'm looking for that, I'm playing with it and I'm pushing things harder, trying to make things edgier and crazier."

Leguizamo joins ER in its 12th season, at a time when the show seems to be running on creative fumes and is only the faint outline of a drama that once dominated network television.

Although he will make two guest appearances this season, Noah Wyle is no longer a regular, breaking the last connection to the show's glory days when the cast also included George Clooney, Julianne Margulies, Anthony Edwards and Eriq La Salle.

The addition of Leguizamo is one of a number of changes being made in an effort to breathe some new life into the series. Kristen Johnston recently joined the cast as the new chief of nurses. John Stamos, who was going to join ER until his Jake In Progress got a surprising renewal, will guest star in a role that is designed to let him become a regular should the comedy be canceled.

Charlie McCollum writes for the San Jose Mercury News.

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