"ER" is losing another original cast member, as producers confirmed Friday that Eriq La Salle will leave the hit NBC series once his contract expires next spring.
La Salle, who plays Dr. Peter Benton, joins Anthony Edwards, who earlier this year announced his own plans to move on after fulfilling his existing deal.
Noah Wyle, the only other key performer to have been with the medical drama from the beginning, has agreed to a lucrative three-year agreement that will extend through a 10th season. In addition, original cast member Sherry Stringfield will return to the show this fall after a five-year absence.
NBC has renewed "ER" through the 2003-04 television season, under an agreement worth more than $500 million cemented last year. Despite the gradual departure of key players--including George Clooney and Julianna Margulies--the program has shown an ability to add and lose cast members and incorporate big-name stars like Sally Field and Alan Alda in limited story arcs.
A La Salle spokesman declined comment, but executive producer John Wells issued a statement through Warner Bros. Television, which produces the series, saying it is "extremely difficult to lose a cast member that is so integral to our show."
A three-time Emmy nominee for "ER" who wasn't cast until after production of the series prototype had begun, La Salle has focused in recent years on working as a producer and director. His credits include directing short films and the HBO movie "Rebound" as well as producing a movie for ABC.
Although "ER" has seen a ratings decline, the program still finished the TV season that ended in May as prime time's second-most-watched series, behind only "Survivor," averaging more than 22 million viewers weekly.