Anthony Edwards sits hunched over a newspaper at a window table in an Italian coffee shop in Silver Lake--a lanky, sandy-haired guy with a monkish balding spot and two day's growth of beard. In an open white shirt, black jeans and Timex watch, he looks less like a Hollywood actor on TV's hottest series than, say, an emergency room doctor on his day off.
Of course, Edwards is more easily recognized in hospital greens and round glasses as Dr. Mark Greene, chief resident at Cook County General in Chicago, on NBC's "ER"--the rookie medical drama that has hit the top of the ratings charts six of the last eight weeks.
He's the quiet one--the diligent physician, husband and father whose marriage has turned sour because his lawyer wife (Christine Harnos) has gotten a prestigious clerkship for a federal judge in Milwaukee, and they hardly got to see each other.
Tonight, in a star-turn episode for Edwards, Greene faces the crisis of his career as his patient, a seemingly healthy woman in her ninth month of pregnancy, develops complications that threaten her life and that of her baby. The focus of the hour, rare for this hyper-paced series, is on the woman (Colleen Flynn) and Edwards' character.
Over lunch, Edwards, who won a People's Choice Award Sunday for best actor in a new series, recalls that when he first got the role of Greene last year, he suggested to executive producer John Wells that "it'll be interesting to see what makes him really mad, what makes him really happy and what makes him lose it--because in crises, we find out more about (a) person."
"The pilot kind of set up (that) he could do no wrong. St. Mark. He puts in unbelievable hours. As chief resident, he organizes people's shifts, and is able to be compassionate to patients and tough to others, and we're seeing some of the results of that in that the marriage is failing. Actually we're going to see. . . ." Edwards pauses, not wanting to give away the plot. "It's not a great medical episode for Dr. Greene."
That it was Edwards who won the People's Choice Award--not resident hunk George Clooney or Noah Wyle, heartthrob of Younger Generation X--is ironic. His was the character Newsweek described in a cover story on "ER" last fall as "balding, chinless, almost nondescript."
"I was shocked, " a smiling Edwards jokes about that article. "It was very sweet: My fellow cast members were very upset by it. I didn't take any offense. . . . (The writer) was writing a love letter about the show, and he did it honestly, rather than saying 'Hunk of the Year.' "
What attracted Edwards to the role--before anyone knew the phenomenon "ER" would become--was "the character of Mark Greene" and the pilot script by Michael Crichton, "which just felt very real to me."
"John Wells and I hit it off. We talked the same language about the script--a desire to not spoon-feed emotions to audiences. Let them witness it like a fly on the wall, as opposed to present them. And that's definitely inspired by the writing. Michael Crichton is not a writer who writes with any extra amount of emotionality. He's so intellectual and technical . . . like Einstein finding religion in numbers."
As for Greene, "he loves what he does," Edwards says. "He's maybe too obsessed with it, but it doesn't matter. It's fun to play people who are genuinely interested in what they're doing. You're not playing frustration or being disgruntled. There's a real love for medicine."
Which is the way Edwards, who grew up in Santa Barbara, feels about acting.
As the youngest of five--his father, Peter Edwards, is the architect who designed the oceanfront Red Lion Hotel, and his mother, Erica, is a painter of landscapes--he maintains he was always acting. "Everybody performs to get attention."
He began acting more formally at Santa Barbara Junior High School and credits a teacher, Marge Luke, who ran the theater department, with sparking his interest.
"I probably did 30 shows by the time I got out of high school. I was really small, skinny. I didn't grow till I was 17," says Edwards, now over 6 feet 1. "I liked athletics, but I couldn't really compete, and theater was a place where all sizes and shapes and sexual persuasion--everybody was allowed."
At 16 he began driving to Los Angeles, found an agent and got roles in McDonald's and Countrytime Lemonade commercials. He also studied ballet, and the summer after high school attended a workshop at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.
He left USC after his sophomore year in 1982 to play the son in the ABC comedy series "It Takes Two," starring Patty Duke and Richard Crenna. Meanwhile, he got his first two back-to-back movie roles--in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982) and "Heart Like a Wheel."
Edwards has appeared in 18 movies, including "Top Gun," in which he played Tom Cruise's doomed sidekick Goose, and "The Client," in which he was Oscar nominee Susan Sarandon's secretary. He also spent part of a season on CBS' "Northern Exposure" as a hyper-allergenic lawyer who lived in a bubble home.
"Top Gun," he notes, allowed him to do more arty movies like "Miracle Mile" and "Mr. North." But he also makes no apologies for "Revenge of the Nerds II," which he says "was work, and that's what I do."
Edwards and his wife, Jeanine Lobell, met on the set of "Pet Sematary II," where she was a makeup artist. Their son, Bailey, was born 14 months ago at Good Samaritan downtown (its emergency room area was one of the hospitals where Edwards hung out to prepare for his "ER" role).
Edwards was the first of "ER's" six principal players hired last March by Wells, who particularly remembered "Miracle Mile" and "Mr. North." The day after Edwards read, it looked as if he would have to pass because of a commitment to direct the low-budget feature "Charlie's Ghost," but Wells said he knew immediately he wanted Edwards for the role of Mark Greene.
The production team read 75 to 80 other actors but Wells said: "I kept going back to casting director John Levey, saying, 'Nobody has really been as interesting as Anthony.' And then we got a call on a Thursday afternoon (that) they had pushed the movie back, that he had 24 hours (to) tell them he had another job. But we hadn't mentioned him to the network because we thought he was unavailable. So before we cast the other people, we brought him in by himself on a Friday afternoon. He was the only person who read at (NBC) for the part, and (he) got it in the room. He was terrific."
Edwards "brings a quality of honesty and simplicity to his performance, which is not easy to find," Wells said. "He doesn't bring melodrama."
Now it's as though Edwards has absorbed Greene's persona. When a lunch partner hesitates over ordering the antipasto, he encourages: "The Italians have been living a long time. That's being healthy ."
* "ER" airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39).