Long Day's Gurney

UPDATED 01/16/1995 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/16/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

IT'S THE CRISIS-OF-THE-MINUTE ON ER, NBC's hit, hyperactive medical drama. Cook County General's halls are packed with gurneys, and the gurneys are packed with the battered—bloody from a pileup on a Chicago expressway. The emergency team is on red alert, code blue and any other color signifying overdrive.

Then an extra bumps into a camera operator and ruins the shot.

Elsewhere on the set, outside a momentarily unused trauma room, Eriq La Salle, who plays surgeon-in-training Peter Benton, rehearses some snappy diagnostic patter: "Right B-K amputation. Bilateral hemothorax. 750 cc from left thoracostomy..." In couch-potato terms: The patient's right leg has been severed below the knee, and he's down about a quart. "As long as I say it with a certain urgency," notes La Salle, 32, "you know it's not good."

Of course, as everyone knows by now, the prognosis for ER itself is excellent. Giving a weekly adrenaline rush to 30 million TV addicts, the show has enjoyed the highest-rated first season of any dramatic series since Charlie's Angels jiggled to life in 1976.

It is also one of the fastest-paced TV offerings ever: This episode alone will involve 29 patients in a dozen story lines. "We've cracked more chests in 10 episodes than I've done in 20 years as an emergency-room physician," says Dr. Lance Gentile, 45, the show's technical adviser and a staff writer, who still works in two Los Angeles-area medical centers. Each week he takes cast members through the pertinent class in what he jokingly calls the Gentile School of Medicine. "We start out with tapes of pronunciation," he says. "Then we have rehearsals with dummies where the actors learn how to use the medical props."

The actors, no dummies themselves, also logged hours with Dr. Gentile and other ER docs before the series began filming. Some adapted better than others. Julianna Margulies—Nurse Carole Hathaway—nearly passed out when she saw a patient spurt blood. "I thought I was much stronger than that," says the Spring Valley, N.Y.-born Margulies, 27, whose ad-writer father, Paul, coined the immortal Alka-Seltzer line, "Plop plop fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is."

Sherry Stringfield (straight-shooting Dr. Susan Lewis) could have used some quick relief herself after spending six hours observing Gentile in action. "It was nonstop patients, one after the other," says Stringfield, 27, who last season played David Caruso's ex-wife on NYPD Blue. "It was intense."

Still, all that exposure has paid off. After spending hours pretending to intubate a patient (the process of inserting a tube into the trachea), "you start to believe you can do the real thing," says George Clooney, 33, the Kentucky-born veteran of eight TV series (including NBC's Sisters) who plays smoothy pediatrician Douglas Ross. (Clooney's singer aunt, Rosemary, guest-starred on ER last October.)

By critical consensus, the actor who most looks like an intense emergency-room doc is balding, bespectacled Anthony Edwards, ER's Dr. Mark Greene. "I wish I had Greene's patience and analytical ability," says Edwards. "I'm much more impulsive."

Best known as Tom Cruise's doomed pal, Goose, in 1986's Top Gun, the actor credits ER with curing his recent career blahs. Not too long ago, says Edwards, 32, "I was doing movies like Delta Heat in Yugoslavia." Now the steady work of ER has given him a chance to live at home—with his wife, Jeanine Lobell, 30, a makeup artist, and their year-old son, Bailey—even if he often doesn't get home in time to see them awake.

Edwards and his colleagues have been logging 12-hour days at Warner Bros.' Burbank lot. The strain shows—which only adds to the verisimilitude. "Sometimes you turn up with bags under your eyes and stubble on your chin—perfect!" says Noah Wyle, who, as emotionally raw intern John Carter, has an edge on his costars: His mother is an orthopedic nurse in L.A., and Wyle, 23, often turns to her for technical advice. On Thursday nights, he boasts, "her whole hospital tunes in."

What they and others—doctors, nurses and patients alike—don't see are the small touches on the set, jokes both in and outlandish, that give cast and crew a sense of camaraderie. There was, for example, a time when a TV interviewer grilled each major cast member, buttering them up with glorious praise. Finally he came to String-field. "So, Sherry, you were a Texas cheerleader?" Stringfield, a native of Spring, Texas, a Houston suburb, who has never picked up a pom-pom—got cranky. Even more so when the reporter began focusing on her love scenes on NYPD Blue. Turns out the journalist was buddies with Clooney, ER's prankster in residence, who boasts, "I do jokes that take years to unfold."

But Stringfield got her revenge. She had Abraham Ben Ruby, the burly, 6'8" actor who plays ER's admissions clerk, Jeffrey, grab Clooney's arms while she tickled him. "I hate that," he says. "And they think it's hysterical. But I will get them back...." For now, though, laughter is not the best medicine. Those gurneys are rolling in.

TOM CUNNEFF and LEAH FELDON-MITCHELL in Los Angeles

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