Wednesday, August 09, 2000

'ER's' Dr. Romano isn't such a bad guy

        Standing next to the bar, with a beer in his hand, ER's Dr. Robert Romano was trying to bully me, as he has done with everyone on the NBC hospital drama.

        “I don't think that anybody actually HATES me,” said Dr. Romano, also known as actor Paul McCrane.

        He didn't want to hear evidence to the contrary, how people despise his manipulative, scheming chief of staff at County General Hospital.

        “An awful lot of people come up to me — but usually with a smile on their face — and tell me how much they loathe me or what a jerk I am. I take that as a compliment,” said Mr. McCrane, 39, who is starting his second season as a regular, after two years in a recurring role.

Paul McCrane
        “I know when I go home my wife doesn't think that of me, and that's all that really matters.”

        His wife, jewelry designer Dana Kellin, nodded in agreement during a recent NBC party for TV critics. The off-camera Paul McCrane, he insisted, was more like the caring, sensitive, musician he played as an 18-year-old in Fame, the 1980 film about New York's High School for the Performing Arts students.

        But there are similarities between the Philadelphia native and the “gleefully malicious” ER doctor. He was added to create tension in the transition season during the departures of Kellie Martin, Gloria Reuben and Emmy-nominee Julianna Margulies.

        “Is he me under certain circumstances? Sure, you could say that,” he finally admitted. “But I hope if you talk to anybody who knows me well, it's very rare that you see me behaving in the way that Romano behaves.”

        When I bullied the bully, he confessed that he loved putting on this guy's scrubs.

        “I just come in, cause trouble, and leave. It's a lot of fun,” he said.

        He will have even more fun this fall.

        “I'm going to end up being meaner,” he said of his character.

        By the May finale, Dr. Romano had forged an alliance with Dr. Elizabeth Corday (Alex Kingston) by giving her a faculty position to keep from being deported back to Great Britain.

        “There are going to be more strategic alliances formed out of necessity that will be fraught with conflict and tension in the first few episodes this year. But I think that's as much as I'm allowed to say,” he said.

        With the talk of alliances, you'd have thought he was talking about Survivor. And when you think about Mr. McCrane's career, the term “survivor” applies.

        After studying guitar and acting as a child, Mr. McCrane got his big break as the gay teen with a red Afro in Fame. The film also used his song, “Is It Okay If I Call You Mine?,” which he wrote at 16 for his girlfriend.

        “Royalty checks from that song supported my theater habit for a number of years,” he said.

        Tired of playing “sensitive, disturbed, young characters with problems,” he switched to playing bad guys in RoboCop, The X-Files and other shows. When he auditioned for Dr. Romano, it was just a one-shot guest role.

        “When this character first came up, I don't think they (ER producers) knew how much of a (jerk) he'd exactly be. They enjoyed what I did, and kept writing him in, and last year they made him permanent,” he said.

        In three seasons, ER viewers have learned little about Dr. Romano. He has a dog, and he doesn't have a love life, while everyone else on ER has hopped into bed with each other. (Mr. McCrane's prescription for the show would be “to steer away from too many incestuous relationships”).

        With ER losing its emotional center in Nurse Carol Hathaway (Ms. Margulies), Mr. McCrane said ER has a new opportunity for growth among the new characters added last year: Dr. Cleo Finch (Michael Michele), Dr. Luka Kovac (Goran Visnjic), Dr. Jing-Mei Chen (Ming-Na), Dr. Dave Malucci (Erik Palladino) and nurse Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney).

        “All of the characters, with the exception of mine, carry a great deal of sympathy. And you may see a lot of the characters carry some emotional weight that they weren't able to, because of the upheavals last year, and because Julianna was that kind of anchor for the show,” he said.

        Mr. McCrane has discussed with the writers — bullied them? — about how to expand Dr. Romano's character.

        “The writers and I are always talking about the struggle of not losing the edge of this character, and becoming a cartoon like Snidely Whiplash. We also want to show him as a human being, but we never want him to become too sympathetic, because that sort of destroys the role that he plays.

        “Hopefully he'll have moments where you see he's an excellent doctor; moments where he sort of comes in to save the day; and moments when his love and commitment for innovation comes through in patient care.

        “But he is not a nice guy, and never will be.”

        There, he said it. I told you so.

        John Kiesewetter is Enquirer TV/radio critic. Write him at 312 Elm St., Cincinnati, 45202.