Tonight on ER (10 pm/ET on NBC), two-time Oscar nominee James Woods guest-stars in one of those "very special" episodes that promises to get your tears flowing stat! and to possibly prove to be Emmy bait come September. Directing the outing was ER alum Paul McCrane, aka the late Dr. Robert Romano, whom TVGuide.com spoke with about handling heavy hitters such as Woods and about his many grisly on-screen demises.
TVGuide.com: This is your sixth time behind the cameras for ER. What's the first thing you look for when you're handed the shooting script? Do you check to see if there are any big, complicated helicopter crashes in it?
Paul McCrane: [Laughs] The first thing I think about is, "Oh, my god, how the heck am I going to shoot this?" I think the helicopter crashes that would have had any impact on me have passed. No thanks!
TVGuide.com: Outsiders may naively think that all an ER director has to do is say "Go!" and the cast starts hurrying around, spouting medical babble, but it's obviously more complicated than that. After all, you've got a dozen people with, like, 3 cubic feet of space in which to shuttle patients around. Is that a big hurdle?
McCrane: Yes, that is one of the big hurdles. I wish it were as simple as you described tell everybody to "start talking" but it isn't, at least not for me. Hopefully it looks like it is, because in my opinion, that's good directing, when it's not self-conscious and it feels simple. This [James Woods] show was particularly challenging that way, because there are a number of scenes where you have a lot of the principles in the room, just standing around a bed. It's not exactly a trauma, so you don't have that high energy all the time.
TVGuide.com: James Woods is playing a onetime mentor of Abby's?
McCrane: In some ways he was Abby's mentor, yes. The show opens with him arriving at the hospital in a very advanced stage of ALS [Lou Gehrig's disease], unable to communicate without the aid of a computer. There are then flashbacks in which we see him at the various progressions of his disease sort of watershed moments that hopefully illuminate little moments of his past relationships, primarily to Abby, but to others as well.
TVGuide.com: Was directing someone like James Woods intimidating for you? Are you a fan of his work?
McCrane: Oh, absolutely. He's a spectacular actor, and knowing I had the opportunity to work with him was both exciting and anxiety-producing. I must say, he was just spectacular [to direct], [and had] not even the slightest hint of diva behavior. I felt honored. I think I'm a pretty good actor and at moments I've done some very fine work, but I don't think I have the level of genius that some people have. When James sort of locked in [to the scenes], for me, anyway, it was a sort of genius coming through, and that is spectacular to see. It was also that way for the other actors on the show, particularly Maura [Tierney, Abby], who had a lot to do with him, and Ally Walker (Profiler), who did a spectacular job as another guest. The three of them, their triangular relationship drives the episode. James coming on and bringing the kind of commitment he did and hitting it out of the park like he did was really exciting to everyone else and brought them to that level.
TVGuide.com: That usually happens with the Sally Fields and Alan Aldas, those kinds of ER guest stars.
McCrane: Exactly. When someone of that caliber comes on and really brings their game, it is really exciting and reinvigorating for the people who are on the show every week.
TVGuide.com: What's going on with you on the acting front these days? Any guest-star offers of your own?
McCrane: I have had some offers, but I honestly haven't been able to act because I've been directing too much. This past calendar year, I directed five episodics and I've already got two lined up for this year. It's not that I'm not interested in acting, but I just haven't been able to because of directing commitments.
TVGuide.com: What are you directing next?
Paul McCrane: At the moment, I'm directing a Law and Order: SVU, and after that I'm going to do a Close to Home.
TVGuide.com: Aww, Jennifer Finnigan is one of my favorites to interview. She's just a fantastic person.
McCrane: Oh, good! I've seen the show and I've heard from other people who have worked on it that it's a very nice environment.
TVGuide.com: Having directed and acted on the show in the past, what comparisons can you make between today's ER and the ER of nine years ago, when you first started?
McCrane: I was still on the show when most of the current cast had at least joined like Maura, Mekhi [Phifer, Pratt] but there are a couple of new faces. It's sort of "ER: The Next Generation" right now, and I think that was a conscious decision made on the part of the producers. The format of the show is such that it allows for that. As long as they keep introducing and writing interesting new characters, it gives them new vantage points from which to tell these inherently dramatic stories. In some [TV] franchises, it's silly when they try to revolve the door a little bit, but with ER it makes sense. It's an interesting confluence of personal and dramatic stories in the life and death atmosphere of the ER.
TVGuide.com: In reality, that world is very transitional. No one works the ER forever.
McCrane: Very true. You don't see too many 60-year-old ER docs!
TVGuide.com: Regarding your own run, you can count me among those who miss Romano very much.
McCrane: That's kind of you to say. I certainly enjoyed doing it.
TVGuide.com: He was a very entertaining, um, "truth teller."
McCrane: [Laughs] That's a very interesting way of saying it. Romano did certainly tell the truth from his point of view and certainly cut through the... the...
TVGuide.com: "Usual tact"? He never even attempted to mince words or couch things.
McCrane: He called it as he saw it, as abrasive as that may have been. That was one of the fun things about the character he was, for the most part, a two-dimensional Snidely Whiplash kind of guy. They allowed him to actually have occasional flashes of humanity and rationale to his arguments.
TVGuide.com: However, I will probably always best remember your radioactive self getting splattered on the hood of a car in RoboCop one of the more unsettling scenes in '80s movie lore.
McCrane: [Laughs] I've got to say, I've had an interesting history of disturbing scenes. There is that one, and I was in the remake of The Blob, in which I got sort of pulled through a door, breaking my back in the process, and in another film I got blown up. Then, of course, there's ER demise, where the helicopter destroyed me.
TVGuide.com: That was kind of a two-parter "Let's lop off his arm first."
McCrane: Yeah, it was, uh, strange. And you know, one of the first plays I did, when I was 16 years old, was John Guare's Landscape of the Body, in which my character got decapitated. On The X-Files, again, I was decapitated.... Boy, I haven't really thought about it all like this.
TVGuide.com: Time to see the therapist.
McCrane: Yeah, I guess....