I think I heard him cry," actor Paul McCrane says, interrupting himself mid-interview in his airy, three-bedroom L.A. house. "Is he awake? I'm sure I heard something. I'd better go check." A moment later he returns cuddling a blue-blanketed, 10-week-old baby. "It's okay," McCrane says, soothing William Thomas, his first child with wife Dana Kellin. "Shhh. It's okay now."
Such jittery attention to every burp and coo is standard operating procedure for first-time fathers—but more than a bit jarring in McCrane, 39, known to ER viewers as arrogant, imperious emergency-room chief Dr. Robert Romano. Since 1997, when Romano first checked into Chicago's fictional County General hospital, he has bullied and taunted his colleagues, most notably Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle), whom Romano fired without warning this season, and Dr. Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston), who was reduced to tears last season after Romano, an unrequited lech, aborted her surgical privileges.
"I have had [fans] who are absolutely irate," reports Kingston, "who say, 'How could you let him do that to you? What a monster!' I say, 'I love him! I really love him!' "
She means, of course, McCrane and she's in good company. Wife Dana, also 39 (a jewelry designer who met him in a yoga class in 1996 and married him two years later), calls him "sweet, sensitive, caring." Especially now that Will has arrived. "Paul is a real hands-on dad," says Dana. "Diapers, baths, he does everything."
Still, the specter of Romano looms large. While wheeling his son through the neighborhood recently, McCrane recalls, "somebody came up to me and said, 'I hope you treat your family better than you treat the people on £R.' But it was all in fun," he adds. "People get a kick out of what a bastard this Romano is."
None more so, curiously, than real MDs. Invited to emcee UCLA's annual med-school alumni banquet on Oct. 20, McCrane tweaked the surgeons in the audience: "I want to thank you and your profession for making me one of the most hated men on television!"
On the set, though, the OR ogre is something of a cutup. "He makes us all laugh," says writer-producer R. Scott Gemmill. "When we sit down with a new script, and [Croatian-born] Goran Visnjic isn't around, Paul delights in reading Goran's part with a very authentic Goran accent." Plus, says Gemmill, "Paul can do great jazz singing. He does these riffs that are just fabulous."
McCrane began displaying his vocal talents early on. Raised in suburban Bucks County, Pa., he was inspired by his parents, James Jr., 71, a medical writer, ad exec and part-time actor, and Eileen, 67, a nurse and amateur singer. "We were all quite musical," sister Barbara, now 36 and a London-based actress, says of Paul and their three siblings. "We would sing together for weddings and other [family] events. And Paul was the guitar player as well."
The kid could also act. At 16, on a break from his Catholic prep school, McCrane made his Off-Broadway debut as Shirley Knight's son in John Guare's 1977 play Landscape of the Body. In his first film, 1979's Rocky II, he was nearly invisible as a fight fan encased in a white body cast. "He wants Rocky to sign it," says McCrane. "So he signs my head."
At 17, though, Fame struck. McCrane, then blessed with a bushy carrot top, won the part of suicidal gay student Montgomery MacNeil. The 1980 film was a box office hit. Still, McCrane declined to join the 1982-83 NBC spinoff. "I felt I would be a much richer man—but less of an actor—if I went to television then." Instead he studied with acting guru Uta Hagen and costarred with Jason Ro-bards in a 1985 Broadway revival of The Iceman Cometh. Then the good parts dried up. Seeking work in L.A. in the early '90s, he says, "I couldn't even get arrested."
But a memorable 1997 turn as a cancerous mutant on The X-Files led to ER's dastardly Dr. Romano. It was a one-shot role, but the writers fell in love with the character ("He's like the Tasmanian Devil," says Gemmill. "He shakes everything up"), and Romano kept returning. In 1999 McCrane won costar status.
Despite a one-episode softening last season, the doctor we love to loathe, says Gemmill, will stay that way: "Romano has not mellowed. No way." No, that will be left to the actor behind him. Though he works an average of three days a week, they can run 12 hours, and, McCrane laments, "one of the tough things is knowing I won't get home in time to put Will to bed." And, of course, his thoughts flicker elsewhere. "Let me give my son a kiss now," he says. Then, to "Will: "I love you. I love you. Have a nice nap."
Michael A. Lipton
Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles
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