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Deep in the creative recesses of Manhattan and Burbank, network suits are doing what they always do in this season of joy and rebirth: sweating out the sweeps. But if the guys with the peacocks on their calling cards are worried about this year's Nielsen numbers, someone should give them a Xanax, or maybe a clue. Besides Friends and Seinfeld, NBC has ER, a show that in its second season has become half hit, half weekly ritual. How will Dr. Peter Benton deal with his impending health crisis? When is Doug Ross going to settle down? And if Mark Greene is really getting a divorce, why does he keep winding up in the sack with his wife? Story lines spin out and interweave, drawing Americans around the electronic hearth each Thursday evening.

Why does ER entrance us? One obvious reason: Women really, really like these guys. Over the past two seasons, the men behind the surgical masks have triggered an epidemic of coronary flutters for which there is, blessedly, no cure. To be sure, they are as mixed a bag of sex symbols as they guys they play: George Clooney really is classically cute and carefree. Eriq LaSalle seems, at first, to be 64" of awfully serious stud. Meanwhile, Noah Wyle is one appealingly ingenuous history buff. And Anthony Edwards stands out by looking unapologetically ordinary.

Yet they remain elusive figures. Where did they come from; what do they dream about? Let us now ponder the mysteries of America's most potent medicine men.

What date turns on Noah Wyle? Try 1863

Think of Noah Wyle as your kid brother. George Clooney does; since the two began working together at County General Memorial, he of the crooked smirk has been all too happy to offer his costar a healthy dose of Life Advice—along with the keys to his 1960 Olds-mobile Dynamic 88. In Hollywood, you see, one must be prepared to handle not only stardom's highs and lows—but the babes too. "This car has always been lucky for me," Clooney told his pal when he gave him his so-called makeoutmobile as a gift last fall. "I hope it's the same for you."

Fat chance. For Wyle, 24, best known as John Carter, a wild time might mean a cup of black coffee and an all-nighter pondering the rise and fall of the Confederacy. Sneak a peek at Wyle's bachelor pad: an unassuming home in Hollywood Hills that he shares with his dog Charlotte, his cat Mik and shelves of heavy reading. "He's a real Civil War buff," says his friend, actor J.P. Manoux. And after a trip to Israel last year, Wyle, whose father is Jewish, is intent on studying the Dead Sea Scrolls too. "I do a lot of thinking," says Wyle. "I kind of live my life between my ears."

The second of three children of Stephen, an electrical engineer, and Marty, a registered nurse, Wyle was born and raised in Los Angeles. His parents split in 1977, and the next year Marty married film restorer Jim Katz. As Katz tells it, Wyle would sometimes march out of the house with mismatched socks—and announce to anyone who noticed: "I like it that way." In 1984 he enrolled at the Thatcher School in Ojai, northwest of Malibu—gangly, shy and, on the baseball field, slow. Says his coach Tim Regan: "We could time him with a calendar."

Wyle wasn't much better in school musicals. "He couldn't carry a tune," says Regan (also the drama teacher), "and he danced like a chair." But, boy, could he act. In such school productions as Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit, "you'd just lean back and watch him," says Regan, "and feel 'Wooosh!' " College was of no interest to the devoted thespian. After graduating in 1989, he headed for Hollywood and started waiting tables. Within a year he had landed his first professional role, in the 1990 TV mini-series Blind Faith. A few small parts later (including a role in 1992's A Few Good Men) he was cast as ER's, young medical student.

Fame has meant many things to Wyle. For one, he is no longer taking pasta orders. And then there are the women. According to Manoux, not a few have approached Wyle on the street and declared, "From the moment I saw you, I knew I had to have you"—or words to that effect. "You don't even know me," Manoux says Wyle replies. "We might not like the same music."

Since breaking up with a longtime girlfriend last fall (whose name he has kept out of print), Wyle has dated little. The most important woman in his life, it seems, is his mother, who critiques her son when they watch ER at her home most Thursday nights. "If he is doing anything wrong technically," says his stepfather, "he certainly is told." Otherwise, says Manoux, Wyle mostly sticks to shooting pool with his pals at the Hollywood Athletic Club: "Noah doesn't seem to be yearning for married life or romance right now."

George Clooney is ER's Bachelor No. 1

There is a fireplace in the bedroom. And a foosball table in the living room. The garage holds a Ford Bronco and a 1959 Corvette. And inside the eight-bedroom Hollywood Hills home, two buddies—housemates Matt Adler and Ben Weiss—putter about while a 300-pound pig named Max trots around with a message gently scratched into the dry skin on his back: "Matt, get milk." If you haven't gotten the picture yet, let us state it plain: bachelor, big time. "George has a list of girlfriends as long as my arm," says MTV-veejay-turned-Revlon-model Karen Duffy (who is, she says, just a friend). "He will never let true love stand in the way of a good time."

Your mother, in other words, warned you about men like this. Yet so great is the allure of the 35-year-old Lexington, Ky., native, pediatrically known as Dr. Doug Ross, that not even the deadly reviews of his vampire flick, From Dusk till Dawn, could slow his career momentum. A few weeks ago, Clooney began filming One Fine Day, a romantic comedy costarring Michelle Pfeiffer due out next year. Steven Spielberg has tossed him $3 million to star in next year's action-adventure The Peacemaker. And next summer, Clooney will succeed Val Kilmer as the Caped Crusader in Batman and Robin. "Wait till you see him in black rubber," says director Joel Schumacher. "George will be totally different—more witty, less tortured."

Tell it to his buddies; as many see it, the only thing tortured about Clooney is his wit. On the set of One Fine Day, where he plays a newspaper columnist, Clooney amuses the elementary-school-age extras by pretending to puke. Around ER he is known to walk up behind castmates with a spray bottle of Evian in hand—and fake a sneeze.

Call it performance art—or old habit. Clooney has never not sought center stage. His father, Nick, was the host of a series of television variety and talk shows in Ohio and Kentucky, his mother, Nina, was once a beauty queen, and Rosemary Clooney, the singer, is his aunt. "At family reunions," says Nick, now the daytime host on cable's American Movie Classics, "everyone had his shtick. George determined that his was going to be better than anyone else's—and by golly it was."

Clooney was 21 when he packed up the rusty Monte Carlo he called the Danger Car to take his schtick to Hollywood. "I thought it was the dumbest thing I ever heard," says Nick. He was wrong. Clooney handled showbiz fine; affairs of the heart were another matter. While acting in a local play in 1984, Clooney fell hard for costar Talia Balsam. They dated, but she eventually left him. "It broke his heart," says Clooney's friend Richard Kind (Mad About You). When they reunited, he proposed marriage. Three years later, in 1992, they divorced. "In marriage you're bound by what's expected of you," says Kind. "He doesn't want to be expected to do anything."

Freedom, of course, has a price. Some say Clooney's is loneliness. "If you hang out with George for even 10 minutes, you would sense a sadness to him," says his actor friend Tom Hinkley. "He believes you have a choice: You either have a career or you have love." These days, he says, Clooney's career leaves him little time for any of his private passions: a round of golf with the guys (Clooney has a 13 handicap); giving his beloved pet Max a bath; even women. "He can't commit because he's too busy," says pal Thorn Mathews, also an actor. "He doesn't want to break anyone's heart."

Spiritual Eriq LaSalle has a guardian Angela

The grilled vegetable salad had just arrived in front of Eriq LaSalle during a recent business lunch at West Hollywood's trendy Ivy bistro when the ER star's head sank toward his chest. "Are you all right?" his companion asked. Silence. Then, a few seconds later, the actor replied, "I'm fine. I was just blessing my food."

Yes, there's more to LaSalle, 33, than chiseled cheekbones and a karate-sculpted physique. In fact the deep faith his prayer reflects is just one of his old-school virtues. "He's very strong-minded," says actor Ving Rhames, LaSalle's friend since the two studied at Juilliard in New York City in the early '80s. "He won't B.S. around."

Often his feelings tend toward the moody, Rhames and other pals say, which is one reason they consider LaSalle blessed to have found his current, and very understanding, girlfriend, a financial executive they will identify only as Angela. The pair met five years ago, through friends, and have been dating for two. Although she doesn't share the actor's rented Los Angeles home, "He's very happy with her," says old buddy Butch Robinson, who's helping produce the HBO movie Angel of Harlem that LaSalle is directing during his ER hiatus. "I get the feeling they're going to be together for a long time."

Romantically speaking, LaSalle's ER alter ego, surgical resident Peter Benton, is in a different place. Benton's fling with a sexy physical therapist ended because of his hypercritical perfectionism—a state of affairs with which the actor says he can identify. "I'm very hard on people," LaSalle told PEOPLE in 1994. "I'm not as serious as [Benton] is all the time, but we definitely share the overachiever syndrome."

Having high expectations for himself was something LaSalle learned back in Hartford, Conn., from Ada Haynes, a foster mother who juggled several jobs to support her brood. It helped him through the rough patches, like being dropped from Juilliard, where he was a scholarship student, because, he has said, the faculty didn't think he would be able to shed his inner-city speech. (He later picked up his degree and diction worthy of Masterpiece Theatre at NYU.) Before being cast on ER, LaSalle knocked out a screenplay about a female black militant, Psalms from the Underground. And when he couldn't sell it, LaSalle, by then on the show, spent $140,000 of his own money to turn it into a short film. Mel Gibson bought the rights and plans to turn it into a full-length feature. "He's really passionate and smart," Gibson told the Los Angeles Times.

Driven though he is, LaSalle does find time to kick back. He hosts fight parties for friends who gather to watch boxing matches on his giant TV. And, with Wyle, he likes to play pool at the Hollywood Athletic Club. But he's not interested in playing the field. "Eriq has no reason to look—he's got an incredibly attractive, smart girlfriend," Robinson says. "He wouldn't run the risk of getting smacked by his old lady."

Anthony Edwards has a sexy secret: he listens

Anthony Edwards is normally not one to gossip. But as he arrived on the set one recent morning, he was bursting to talk about a phone call Sherry Stringfield, who plays Dr. Susan Lewis on the show, had received from an avid admirer. Edwards is no snoop: the call was made by his son Bailey, 2, on a toy phone. "Bailey has a crush on Sherry, and Tony heard him pretending to call," explains Laura Innes, Dr. Kerry Weaver on the show. "Tony loved it. He's such a great dad."

As County General Memorial's dedicated chief resident, Dr. Mark Greene, Edwards, 33, is the dramatic equivalent of comfort food. "Hunk is shorthand for a guy women fantasize about," says Joanna Gleason, who plays Edwards's new ER love interest, hospital exec Iris Rasmusson. "But in real life you want to spend time with a guy. Tony has brains, a sense of humor, and he really listens to you. That's sexy."

To be sure, with his receding hairline and oval glasses, Edwards is no conventional heartthrob. And his romantic life hasn't been action-packed. Edwards met his wife, Jeanine Lobell, 32, a makeup artist, on the set of 1992's Pet Sematary Two. They soon began living together in his Spanish house in L.A. But they didn't marry until last September—and then only on a whim. After spending a weekend in their vacation home in the mountains near the Nevada border, the couple missed their plane in Reno. "They had a few hours to kill," explains Edwards's father, Peter, an architect.

But if Edwards seems casual about such a decision, don't be fooled: the actor is a man of rustic values. He built that log cabin in the mountains by hand. Above all, friends say, Edwards prizes hard work. When he described his ER character to the Los Angeles Times last year—"[Greene] loves what he does. He's maybe too obsessed with it, but it doesn't matter"—he could easily have been talking about himself.

Edwards got his taste for the limelight doing magic tricks for friends at his home in Santa Barbara, Calif.; he took up acting in junior high. Often, when his father and his mother, landscape painter Erika Plack, took his four siblings on ski trips, Tony, the youngest, would stay behind to be in a school show. "He was so eager," says his high school drama teacher Marjorie Luke. "He'd mop floors, paint, do whatever was necessary."

In 1982, Edwards left his acting studies at USC after his sophomore year for a spot on the Patty Duke sitcom It Takes Two. His breakout role came in 1986, when he played Tom Cruise's copilot in Top Gun. (On the set he met. Meg Ryan, who played his wife, and the two dated for over a year. "She was very funny," says Peter Edwards. When the relationship ended, a friend says, Anthony took it hard.) He won raves on CBS's Northern Exposure, which he joined in 1990 as a hyperallergic lawyer forced to live in a bubble, and in 1994's The Client, playing Susan Sarandon's legal assistant.

Edwards isn't all work. Last season, recalls Ming-Na Wen, former ER med student Deb Chen, the cast spent long hours on the birth scene in the famed, wrenching episode in which a mother dies during delivery. During a break, Edwards and a staffer hid a green alien figure from the sci-fi series V on the operating table in place of the prop baby. "We're shooting and this ugly monster comes out," says Wen. "The girls started screaming. I love that he can be such a rascal."

KAREN S. SCHNEIDER, PAM LAMBERT and GREGORY CERIO, with bureau reports