Screen, Please, Doctor

By Nicholas Kralev
The Financial Times Magazine

August 26, 2000

LOS ANGELES — Noah Wyle has never heard of the “Carter scale”, a phrase coined by University of Edinburgh medical students addicted to “ER” — the highly rated US TV drama that has made Wyle a star — as a gauge of male attractiveness. He is certainly aware of the international fame that the role of the sweet and earnest Dr John Carter has brought him, and admits that it has changed his life on every level. But he comes across as the most unlikely Hollywood luminary, still striving to reconcile his shyness and the rewards of celebrity.

We’ve been talking for 15 minutes, Wyle having driven for two hours to Los Angeles from his 45-acre ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley, near Santa Barbara, California, which he bought from actress Bo Derek last year for a reported $2.5m (£1.7m). Simply but elegantly dressed, in a stylish brown jacket and blue jeans, the 6ft 2in Wyle clearly anticipates my comment on his beard, which made a brief but controversial appearance on “ER” a couple of years ago.

“I wouldn’t say that vanity is a top priority for me,” he tells me, “but the only time my pride ever got wounded was when Warner Bros.’ president asked me to shave off my beard, saying that viewers were calling the studio to complain.”

He says that he now spends just 30 seconds in make-up: “One thing that’s good about our show is that we don’t shave and we have dark shadows under our eyes.” He also has a reliable consultant at home. In May, Wyle, 29, married 33-year-old make-up artist Tracy Warbin, whom he had met in 1996 on the Maine set of “The Myth of Fingerprints”.

Wyle is not the first Hollywood bachelor to fall for a woman who does his on-screen face. His “ER” colleague, Anthony Edwards (Dr Mark Greene), and the actor Rob Lowe are both married to women they met in the make-up room. “There is a certain symbiotic relationship between an actor and his make-up artist,” Wyle says. “A make-up artist has compassion and empathy that a fellow actor may not have. They understand the shorthand of what you do every day without being competitive.”

Wyle certainly needs an understanding partner. He works “12 hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year, which can be invading on my personal life. We don’t make any dinner plans during the week, and save everything for the weekend.”

Although television is fully responsible for his enormous success, Wyle never had an affinity for it before “ER”. In 1994, he returned from Vilnius, Lithuania, where he had shot “Guinevere” (“a really horrible cable movie”), and instructed his manager not to send him TV scripts. He soon received 110 pages of what looked like a feature film set in a Chicago emergency room, so he “flipped over it”, liked the character and decided to audition for the part of a naïve — but capable and charming — medical student. When he learned that the script was actually the two-hour pilot of a TV show, he went along with it: “It had a good pedigree, and I thought they’d probably shoot 13 episodes and cancel it, and I’d take the money and go and do something else.”

But after 13 episodes, “ER” was on the covers of the top US news magazines, having broken every debut show’s ratings since “Dallas” and “Dynasty”. It was soon the most-watched drama on US television, and its stars, including George Clooney and Julianna Margulies, became overnight sensations.

“It all happened very quickly, once we were on the air,” Wyle recalls, “but initially ‘ER’ wasn’t either the studio’s [Warner Bros.] or the network’s [NBC] favourite show for that season [1994-95]. In fact, NBC’s west coast president, Don Ohlmeyer, watched the screening of the pilot episode and hated it; he screamed at everybody, ‘It’s dark and depressing — nobody is ever going to watch this’.” Luckily for “ER’s” creators, the projectionist showing the tape liked what he saw and suggested that it be “tested” in front of an audience before “they pulled the plug on it”. So the audience of “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” was brought into a theatre. “It went through the roof,” Wyle says, still excited by the memory.

Since then, “ER” has won numerous awards, and Wyle alone has received five Emmy and three Golden Globe nominations. While someone has yet to “articulate” the key to the show’s international success, Wyle’s explanation is based on the universal nature of the medical profession. “Law fluctuates from country to country, and the police are different. But a medical show translates very easily. Everybody has hospitals, doctors and nurses, who are usually under-paid and under-appreciated, under-slept and over-worked. Anybody can picture themselves getting hurt, going to a hospital and being taken care of, and not knowing what will happen at any of those stages.”

In spite of “ER’s” reduced star power after the departures of Clooney and (as UK fans will discover in the next series) Margulies, Wyle says his character “still has twists and turns left to play”. He’s grateful that Carter was unlike the other main characters, who all had a certain level of proficiency at the show’s start. “I had weeks and months to be a bumbling idiot. But I had a really good work ethic and wanted to do a good job and be respected.”

He says he delivers “what’s on the page”, unless his opinion is solicited by the writers. “They have an uncanny way of writing exactly what my instincts tell me Carter should do next. That was really evident last season. I didn’t quite know how to keep playing a character who was on such a linear track. So, around Christmas time, they decided they were going to stab me in the back and give me a serious drug addiction. That was an opportunity to re-prioritise my character and shake him up a bit. He’ll be a different guy next season, with colours we haven’t seen yet.”

Wyle has been very careful in his other choice of roles. As a rule, he says, the first script that comes to an actor who has been on a successful TV show is invariably a romantic comedy. “Friends” star Matthew Perry was cast in “Fools Rush In” (1997), in a romance with Salma Hayek, and fellow “friend” Jennifer Aniston fell for her gay roommate (Paul Rudd) in the 1998 film “The Object of My Affection”. But Wyle says he’s never found his Sabrina: “If they are done well, romantic comedies are the best. But when they are not so good, they are like watching bad Shakespeare. I never read one that rocked my world. So I kept waiting, and the more I waited, the more I realised that I was setting myself up for being too choosy and had let myself out of the ballgame.”

Unlike Perry, Aniston, Clooney and other TV stars who rose to fame at the time he did, Wyle has had only four film credits since he took the “ER” job. In addition to “The Myth of Fingerprints”, he has played in “Can’t Stop Dancing” (1999), the TNT film “Pirates of Silicon Valley” (1999) and in a live production of “Fail Safe” earlier this year.

“I’ve been plodding along from one good script to the next, but not really saying yes to that big-studio commercial movie. Not because I don’t like them — I’ve enjoyed many of them — but because I haven’t found the right one to follow up the success I’ve had with ‘ER’. I want to make sure that when I do take that step, I have enough work, so that if it’s a bomb, they don’t say, ‘That was your one chance kid — you are done’. And if it’s a huge hit, it’s not a fluke, because I’ve had a nice body of work leading me in that direction.”

Wyle received good reviews for his role as Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs in “Pirates”, although the film wasn’t very warmly accepted by the critics. He was enticed to the project by a tape that TNT sent him with the script, a documentary in which Jobs was introducing the Macintosh for the first time at the 1984 Apple shareholders’ convention. “I just looked at this man: he knew that this was the combined effort of hundreds of technicians and programmers, but he was the only one on stage, playing father to this piece of technology that was going to revolutionise the world. That was the most self-satisfied grin I’d ever seen.”

Wyle didn’t meet Jobs while preparing for the role — he and Anthony Michael Hall, who played Bill Gates, were asked by the network not to contact Gates and Jobs out of concern that if they read the script, they could find something libellous. But the day after the broadcast, Wyle’s phone rang. “Hey, Noah,” the voice said, “this is Steve Jobs. I’m just calling to say you did a great job. I hated the movie and the script. I think if you had spent a little more time, money and attention to detail, you could have had something. But you were good.”

Last summer, Wyle got to play his character again, this time before an audience of 10,000 invited by Jobs to impersonate him at the MacWorld convention in New York. (Although Jobs had been ousted from Apple in a boardroom coup in 1985, he was summoned back in 1996). So when Jobs’ name was announced, Wyle took the stage and read the first five minutes of Jobs’ speech. Then the “real guy” stormed in. The audience was entranced.

During the filming of “Pirates”, Wyle experienced, for the first time, the audience-pulling power of his name and the sacrifices an entire production would make to keep him on board. The film was being shot in Toronto and, since the “ER” season had started, Wyle had to fly three times a week from LA and back, usually at night. One day he said: “I’ll get sick and I’m not going to do a good job on either production, so I think it’ll be best if I let it go.” The next morning, he received a call telling him that shooting would be relocated to LA. The move cost TNT about $1m.

Wyle’s work in cinema may be limited, but he has dedicated much of his “ER”-free time to theatre. In 1990, he and a friend, Daniel Henning, founded the Blank Theatre Company in LA, and two years later they started a festival for young playwrights. Every year, people aged 19 or younger from across the US send their work, and the 10 best plays are staged by professional directors and actors.

“It’s probably one of the most gratifying things I’ve done,” Wyle says, and tells me the story of a “17-year-old big guy, athletic and not particularly cerebral or sensitive”, who lost a bet two years ago and had to write a play. “So he wrote this play about three football players who pick on a weaker kid and eventually hurt him, and he ends up dying. We flew him in and produced the play. After the show, he was sitting in the parking lot and I asked him how he felt. He turned to me and said: ‘That was the first play I ever saw’.”

Wyle had his first encounter with show business at a very young age. Born and raised in Hollywood, he received his first lessons in “great films” from his stepfather, Jim Katz, whom Wyle’s mother, Marty Katz, married after divorcing his father, Stephen Wyle, in 1977. Katz, a producer and film restorer, created and headed Universal Pictures’ classics division and later became the studio’s vice-president. “That gave me pretty good access to Universal’s screening rooms,” says Wyle, who spent much of his time as a child in LA cinemas.

Although he attended classes at Northwestern University in Chicago during high school, he never enrolled in college, but instead took acting lessons with Larry Moss, a name often mentioned in Oscar acceptance speeches. He landed his first (one-line) role at 19, in the TV mini-series “Blind Faith”, but “served time” as a bus-boy at a Sunset Boulevard hotel restaurant until he left to do “Guinevere”.

His salary is now estimated at several million a year, and he’s recognised almost everywhere; during a holiday by the Dead Sea in 1998, a busload of German tourists spotted him and shouted: “Das ist Carter!”

But one place his celebrity went unnoticed was the war-ravaged Balkans, in the final days of the Kosovo crisis last year. He was invited to visit refugee camps in Macedonia by a medical relief organisation called Doctors of the World, which had asked him to help publicise its work several years earlier. Wyle, accompanied by Warbin and his mother, flew to Skopje, the Macedonian capital, and stayed in a house with six doctors who were taking care of 12,000 people in the Senekos refugee camp, about 30 minutes’ drive from Skopje.

A few days later, at the Blace border crossing with Kosovo, the doctors and their “guests” met a new group of about 3,000 refugees. “It was hot,” Wyle says, “but since it was easier to wear all your clothes than carry them, people had six or seven layers of clothing on them, so they were passing out, completely dehydrated.”

Unintentionally, Warbin and Wyle brought some joy into the gloomy day of hundreds of Kosovars. They decided to take some pictures with a Polaroid camera. But before they knew it, they were surrounded by refugees, begging to have their photographs taken — they had hardly had time to think about cameras and photo albums as they had been driven away from their homes. “That was the first time I saw any smiles and heard laughter,” Wyle says, with a trembling voice.

He hasn’t forgotten the images and sounds of “absolute hope against absolute brutality — it’s something you never think you’d experience and something you never forget”. He says he made some good friends among the refugees and tried, unsuccessfully, to help a family come to the US.

His “ER” contract expires in two years and, after having thought “long and hard”, he has decided not to renew it. “I’ve never looked at ‘ER’ as a landing spot so much as a taking-off,” he says. “It’s not easy for actors to find that kind of quality material on a regular basis, where you get to play as dynamic and multidimensional a character as the one I get to play.”

He acknowledges the possibility that “I may not have a career after ‘ER’,” but sees no reason to fret over it. “Because I’m a young man, and relatively new in this business, I have time on my side. I’ve killed my 20s probably in the best possible way, doing the best television you can do. If I have to disappear for a couple of years because I’m unhireable due to the exposure, so be it. They subsidise that time for me in my contract by paying me a king’s ransom. But I don’t have any grand illusions about where I should be.”