Creative Minds: 'Gifted Man' producer Neal Baer talks TV doctors
Neal Baer, executive producer of the CBS series “A Gifted Man,” is best known for his many years running “ER” and “Law & Order: SVU.” Here, he chats about straddling the medical and TV worlds and spirituality versus logic.
You have a medical degree from Harvard and you’re a licensed physician. How exactly did that lead to a career in TV?
When I was a graduate student at Harvard studying sociology, I decided that I didn’t want to be an academic, so I took documentary film courses there for two years and ended up coming to Los Angeles after that to attend the American Film Institute to be a directing fellow. I directed and wrote an after-school special for ABC, and I was hired by my childhood friend John Wells.
You know, people say, ‘Do you have any advice on how to break into the business? Do you write spec scripts?’ I say, ‘No, go to Holly Hills Elementary School in Denver with John Wells.’ John hired me. We ran into each other in a grocery store and I told him what I was doing. He was already working on ‘China Beach,’ so he brought me in as a freelancer and that was the start of that.
I ultimately decided to leave when my son was a year old in 1991 to go to medical school, even though I had done ‘China Beach.’ When I was in my fourth year of medical school, John Wells came through and sent me the pilot episode of ‘ER’ that Michael Crichton had written. He asked me what I thought and I told him it was like my life — about medical students, residents, from the perspective of the physician and the physician-in-training. I told him what was outdated and what new things could be put in. So, I came out for two months in 1994 with 100 stories of things that had happened to me as a medical student. And I ended up staying seven years on “ER” and became a show runner and executive producer.
I remember watching the first episode of "ER" with my mom and being hooked.
So you might remember the episode I did where George Clooney saves the kid in the tunnel.
That’s a classic! He was in a tuxedo.
Yes! And to put George in a tuxedo—that was my big accomplishment. Seriously. Put George in a tuxedo and have him rescue a child. I think there were, like, over 40 million viewers for that episode. Those were the old days.
Yes. And I’m working directly with Eriq La Salle. He was just on the set in New York the other day. He’s not in scrubs, though. He’s very well-dressed.
On “ER”, the dynamic between spirituality and logic came into play often. That seems to be at the heart of “A Gifted Man.”
It’s interesting because there is so much of medicine that we really don’t understand as physicians. There’s a lot of issues of faith and questioning that goes into medicine, both on the patient side and on the physician side. This show allows us to play out those questions more than we did on ‘ER’ because of the character of Anna (Jennifer Ehle), who plays Dr. Michael Holt’s (Patrick Wilson) deceased ex-wife.
Some people think she’s his conscience, some people think she’s a ghost. It really doesn’t matter — she’s an entity that forces him to confront issues that he’d rather not confront. He’d rather have the pat and dry world of a surgeon, where he goes in and cuts out the tumor and is done with it. But she’s opened up a world to him that has a lot of messiness. We’re always confronting the spiritual sides — and also issues of prevention. Anton (Pablo Schreiber ) runs a wellness center in the clinic, so we can take on issues of smoking and exercise and meditation — things that Patrick’s character doesn’t want to hear about. You know, things like how acupuncture can reduce pain and other modes of healing that are often not paid attention to on television.
Had you been a viewer of other medical shows over the years?
I remember as a kid watching “Marcus Welby” and “Medical Center." And then “Mash,’ which was medical but was really a black comedy. And then “ER” comes around, which is very different because it takes on more of the doctor’s point of view. I think the other element of “ER” that was so profoundly influential was Lance Gentile and I were actually the first doctors who wrote for television. In the past, medical series had doctors who would sort of read the scripts and sprinkle a little medicine in, which is why everything was usually patient-oriented.
There’d be no “House” without “ER.” ‘ER” used real doctors and took you into a world of medicine one didn’t know. There was no going back to old versions of doctor just chatting with the patient. We showed so much about medical research and medical science and the ethical dilemmas. I think that was the big shift.
-- Yvonne Villarreal
Photo: Neal Baer. Credit: Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images