The Doctor Is In, and He's The Producer

Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

Wander into the spacious office of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" executive producer Neal Baer and you'll see water almost everywhere.

The office is in the Wolf Films headquarters on the fringe of Universal Studios, where the hit detective drama is written and produced. On one wall is a freshly framed photo from an "ER" episode. It captures an angry confrontation in a torrential rain between nurse Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney) and her mother, Maggie Wyczenski (Sally Field), who suffers from bipolar disorder. Baer, a former executive producer of "ER," wrote the episode, which aired in 2000.

Another photo is from one of "ER's" most memorable moments: Pediatrician Doug Ross (George Clooney) looks heavenward, as if seeking divine intervention, as a storm rages. He's cradling a young boy he's rescued from a flooded storm drain. That episode, "Hell & High Water," was also written by Baer.

Both scenes are very important to Baer, an outgrowth of his desire to put his characters in situations where they must make critical emotional breakthroughs and confront their true natures. His connection to the scenes is both intense and emotional.

"There were just two of the most dramatic situations I had ever seen filmed," says Baer. "I felt that I was really witnessing something ... when I saw [the Clooney scene] being filmed. It was a defining moment both for George, his character, and for me. George wasn't a big star yet, and it showed his heroic side. And Maura's and Sally's characters really had to confront their demons, and each other. I feel those were two of the real highlights for 'ER.' I knew I was part of something special."

But creating emotional realism for his characters is only part of Baer's life. He has another identity far from the lights, camera and action. A graduate of Harvard Medical School, the 43-year-old is finishing up his internship at Childrens Hospital in East Hollywood. His specialty? Pediatrics, like the fictional Doug Ross.

"He's the real George Clooney!" quips "SVU" co-star Mariska Hargitay. Well, not quite. Unlike the scheming, womanizing Ross, Baer is happily married and has a young son he adores. But like Ross, he has passion and drive.

And his workload is not likely to decrease any time soon. Last week, he signed a multiyear deal with Studios USA to continue as executive producer and head writer for "SVU," and develop other projects.

Baer's not the first TV series producer to straddle the disciplines of medicine and entertainment. Harvard Medical School graduate Michael Crichton is a novelist, screenwriter and co-creator and executive producer of "ER." Jerome Groopman, Harvard Medical School professor and physician, was a consultant and inspiration for the canceled ABC medical drama "Gideon's Crossing." Several practicing doctors have squeezed in writing assignments for "ER" and other medical dramas.

But Baer is a rarity--overseeing a high-profile network drama as he simultaneously keeps his hands in medicine. These days, Baer spends just six hours a month at the hospital. But in July, he'll begin 12-hour days, five days a week in the emergency room. In August he's switching to one of the pediatric wards full time. He'll also be on call every fourth night. At the same time, Baer will be working on the "Law & Order" miniseries for May, which brings together all three "Law & Order" dramas ("Law & Order," "SVU" and the upcoming "Law & Order: Criminal Intent"--all produced by Studios USA).

He approaches both professions with ease, not appearing to be stressed out by the combined pressures despite the workload. Low-key and unassuming with fashionably long salt-and-pepper hair, Baer is a professional who favors jeans no matter which job he's at.

In fact, the unusualness of Baer's double life is matched by his modesty and understated style. With his Zen-like calm in the eye of the storm and dry wit, Baer seems more scholarly than the show business force he is on his way to becoming. A cell phone is not permanently attached to his ear. There's no earring or ponytail. He does not socialize in Hollywood circles. His dinners are at home, not at Morton's.

Even David E. Kelley, the award-winning creator of "The Practice" and "Ally McBeal" whose quiet manner and relentless ability to churn out scripts have spawned descriptions ranging from genius to distant workaholic, seems to have more presence than Baer. Yet Baer clearly enjoys being among creative types, particularly actors, without being swept up by the glamour. Nor is pleasing audiences a constant concern.

"I never think about the audience when I write," he says. "That's too daunting. I think about the story and the bigger questions." He pauses, then adds, "Well, I don't think about [the audience] until the ratings come out the next day." If Baer has creative demons, they must be on hiatus.

With few exceptions, television producers get the two trade papers--Daily Variety and the Hollywood Reporter--delivered at home so they can read them first thing in the morning.

Baer does not. They are of little consequence to him in the early hours when he's on his exercise bike at his home in the Los Feliz hills near Griffith Park. That time is reserved for reading medical journals and magazines such as Contemporary Pediatrics and the New England Journal of Medicine. Before leaving home, he will have gone through the Los Angeles Times and New York Times as well.

"They're all for knowledge, and I'll also be looking for something that will spark an idea," he says. The news of Hollywood wheeling and dealing can wait.

On a typical day, shooting on "SVU," which has an ensemble cast led by Hargitay as Det. Olivia Benson and Christopher Meloni as Det. Elliot Stabler, is already well underway in New York, and Baer will be on his cell phone, early, getting updates, making suggestions.

When he's scheduled to do his hospital rounds, Baer makes the short drive from his home to Childrens Hospital, a massive medical center in a community marked by other large hospitals (Kaiser Medical Center among them) and mixed neighborhoods of struggling families and yuppies.

Inside the brightly lighted pediatrics ward, the activity is frantic. The waiting room is filled with crying children and anxious parents. The walls are lined with medical articles nestled against drawings and scribblings from kids.

Baer, dressed in jeans and a casual shirt covered by a blue hospital coat, conducts most of his examinations in rooms barely big enough for him, the child and the parents to maneuver. Many of his patients are Latino. He doesn't speak Spanish, so he uses an interpreter if the parents don't speak English. How well do the children sleep? What do they do after school? What kinds of foods do they eat? Are they up to date on their vaccinations?

During one recent examination, Baer looked concerned as he pressed a stethoscope against the skinny chest of a young, nervous Latino boy.

As the boy's mother looked on, Baer asked him to lie down, and he felt the boy's throat. The exams usually take about 15 to 20 minutes. He is calm and reassuring, and his demeanor is confident, clearly comfortable with the environment and his duties.

After each exam, he leaves the family in the room and goes around a corner to the office of Dr. Barbara Korsch, professor of pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine and attending physician at Childrens Hospital. She is his supervisor.

While Korsch sits patiently behind a desk, Baer goes over his notes, describing symptoms, and delivering his analysis of what they need and what they lack. It's clear from the interaction who is the teacher and who is the student. Korsch fires pointed questions at Baer, making sure he's noticed all the right things.

Korsch and Baer then return to the examination room, where they talk to the family together about treatment, prescriptions, future appointments.

Some on the staff know about Baer's other life, and a few have even gotten small parts on "ER." And while his hospital work and research are continual sources for stories, Baer says he never uses actual cases he comes into contact with for his TV scripts: "I just use them for springboards and for exploring larger issues," he says.

It's clear to Korsch that Baer doesn't take his medical career lightly: "He's very keen on being a physician, and he is committed to being a physician. He doesn't rush through things.

"There are some doctors who experience things during training, and it may affect them to the point where they become less sensitive," Korsch adds. "Neal is more mature and has this other outlet, so it makes it easier for him to deal with those situations."

While Korsch says Baer is able to perform double duty without a lot of strain, she wonders if he may have missed out on some of the camaraderie among doctors because of his split life. Still, she says, "he does an amazingly good job of giving the appropriate priority to whatever he's doing."

There are no children's drawings on the walls of Wolf Films on the studio lot in Universal City where Baer spends most of his time. At the moment, his job as a show runner on "SVU," which ranked 29th this past season and is one of the more successful dramas on network television, is occupying all of his attention. It's a task made more difficult by its bicoastal structure--the writing takes place in Los Angeles, and filming is done in New York. The series focuses on the frightening, unseemly world of sex crimes and the detectives who investigate them.

Little more than a 10-minute drive separates the two poles of Baer's work life, but Childrens Hospital seems a world away. The blue coat is left behind. Lining the halls at Wolf Films are huge posters featuring the various film and television projects of Emmy-winning producer Dick Wolf, creator of all the dramas under the "Law & Order" banner.

Baer's office is large, with comfortable couches. Although Baer's manner is still low key, it is clear he is on top of what's going on. He is on the phone at least six or seven times a day with executive producer Ted Kotcheff, his counterpart in New York who oversees "SVU" filming. Baer wanders from office to office, checking up on his writers as they crank out scripts. He communicates easily with them, making jokes and suggestions on how to punch up scripts. The mood is relaxed, yet the cloud of deadlines is ever present.

Each day, Baer and his producers see the dailies from the previous day's shoot in New York. The footage is sent by overnight express to Wolf Films, where it is developed. Baer makes suggestions to Kotcheff after viewing them, then returns the film to New York. They've developed a kind of shorthand: "I'll say, 'The dailies look great,' " said Baer, "or 'We should try to pick up the pace a bit.' "

Wolf admits that Baer isn't like most extroverted show runners. "Still waters run deep," says Wolf. "Neal is very passionate about the job, and he is so well-liked by the cast and the crew. In fact, they like Neal better than the show runners on any of my shows. He is attentive to actors' needs. There should be a plaque outside his door that says, 'The doctor is in.'

"But for all his quiet demeanor," Wolf adds, "Neal is also very competitive. He likes to succeed."

Wolf believed Baer's twin specialties made him an intriguing choice for the executive producer post, even though Baer had never run a show before and might not seem the most obvious person for a series about detectives grappling with deviants, sex addicts, child molesters and rapists.

"If I know anything, I know how to hire obsessive people," says Wolf, referring to the almost continual revolving door of cast members and producers on "Law & Order." "Anyone who can write on a medical show and is putting himself through Harvard Medical School has a type-A personality. He's the atypical Hollywood profile--someone who works in episodic TV but also deals with kids on a regular basis."

As for Baer's initial lack of expertise in the detective genre, Wolf hasn't found that a problem: "We explore the sex crimes aspect of this show, but we also deal with the psychological aspects. And Neal has an insight into those psychological underpinnings more than most experienced writers. There's just this emotional quality about him. Anyone who has spent as much time as he has caring for children can easily tap into those qualities."

Baer remembers Wolf's instructions when he was first hired to co-run "Special Victims Unit": "I'm going to throw you in the deep end of the pool. I hope you don't drown." He embraced the challenge and the change of pace and genre. The territory would be familiar yet fresh.

His wife, Gerrie Smith, who works with City Hearts, an agency that helps homeless children through art, had initial concerns about him taking on a show that regularly explores one of the darkest sides of human behavior.

"She felt it would be gruesome," he says. "But I knew through being familiar with Dick's work and with 'Law & Order' that the show would be intelligent and stimulating. If it were going to be the rape of the week, I would not be interested.

Among the topics addressed this season were whether violent personalities are inherited and what should be done with sex offenders who can't be rehabilitated. Next season will take on recovered memory and whether it can be determined if someone with such a memory is really telling the truth.

"SVU" is more than just dramatic entertainment from Baer's perspective. He's on a mission.

"I want to take a subject and explore the bigger type of questions about life and behavior," he says, the usually measured pace of his speech quickening with excitement. Like Kelley, he wants to use stories to explore the overlapping of good and evil, how heroes are not necessarily all good and villains not necessarily all bad.

Adds Kotcheff: "Neal feels that TV can be a wonderful tool, and he refuses to compromise. He's constantly reaching for that deeper, raw emotion.

"I've seen times when Neal has been really relentless about something, and people will say to him, 'Hey, this is only TV,' and he'll say, 'Not to me it isn't!' "

In the season finale in May, Richard Thomas played a brutal murderer suffering from tertiary syphilis. "I read about a case like this in some obscure medical journal, and that served as the germ for the whole episode."

And in one of the season's most provocative installments, a young murderer (played by Chad Lowe) suffering from piquerism, a sexual fetish involving sharp objects, is also having a physical relationship with his mother (Margot Kidder). In the show's final graphic scene, the detectives discover the mother and son together in bed. He has just killed her, and they both are covered with blood. "It was my idea to put them in bed naked together," Baer said. "Showing him in an incestuous relationship with his mother made us clearly understand why this guy is a killer. I don't just want to show the crime. I want the audience to understand the victim and the perpetrator, and what kind of effect they have on our cops. It's not about good guys and bad guys. I don't want to give the easy answers.

"Like with Gloria Reuben's character on 'ER.' [Reuben played a physician's assistant who contracted HIV.] Would you want to be treated by someone who is HIV-positive? Now with this show, there are other questions that fascinate me: Would you want a rapist or child molester who's been released from prison living in your neighborhood? What are your rights? What are that person's rights?"

Says Kotcheff: "Neal in his practice sees some real repellent, unbelievable things. But he also has great feeling for the patient."

Referring to the increasing dark nature of his ideas, Baer says, "Everyone has a dark side. I get to exorcise my demons through my shows. But I also have my romantic side. I like to have the sexual tension between characters. In the 'Hell & High Water' episode, I wanted to show George in a tuxedo. He had done an episode ... where he'd worn a tux, and he looked so good I wanted to bring him back in one."

In that episode, Clooney is on his way to the opera when his car breaks down. There is a sudden storm and soon he is caught up in a dramatic rescue. "It was like having George as an action figure in a tux," Baer said. "Now I've got to find a way to get Chris Meloni in a tuxedo."

Hargitay, Meloni and others associated with "SVU" credit Baer with revitalizing the drama during its second season, injecting it with a more humanistic and compassionate identity that sets it apart from the unemotional, just-the-facts nature of "the Mothership," as "Law & Order" is affectionately christened by the "SVU"-ers. Baer joined the series in November, replacing David Burke, who left the drama in a mutual and amicable agreement.

"[Neal] has peppered this show with subtle but yet powerful human moments," said Hargitay, who had worked previously with Baer when she appeared in "ER."

In a sense what Baer is doing for the detectives of "SVU" is what he's doing in his life--finding a way to mesh and at times completely separate two very different worlds. And so this season found Hargitay's character getting frustrated in her attempts to have a social life outside of work. And Meloni's character, in one particularly intense episode, bonding with a suspected child murderer by telling of his own brush with wanting desperately to kill someone. Tensions between colleagues now regularly rise to the surface.

Says Meloni, "We definitely didn't want to be just like 'Law & Order'--we wanted to have more personality--and Neal really understood that. We didn't want to have things like interrogation scenes where everything is so cut and dried. There needed to be a compassionate edge to the characters and to the material."

And of course, there is darkness, sometimes graphic, sometimes bloody, always disturbing. But what the cast and crew always mention is Baer's upbeat nature. "Neal really brought a sense of enthusiasm and positivism to the production," says Meloni.

The pictures in Baer's office may relate to emotional and physical storms in his fictional projects, but there are few clouds hovering over him now.

Juggling two heavy-duty interests is not new for Baer. He was in the midst of completing medical school when his childhood friend John Wells tapped him to be a staff writer on "ER." He eventually became an executive producer on that series, and used his medical background and expertise on several episodes. His two worlds feeding into each other.

His hours spent in the clinic help remind Baer what real human moments are.

"It's just really good to have this dose of reality each week by working in the hospital and clinics," said Baer, rubbing his fingers through his hair. "It's very refreshing, actually, not a challenge at all. This is really the best way to practice medicine."

He paused, then added, "I get to go to this place where the issues and life are totally different. I spend time worrying about cost overruns on re-shoots, then I go to this hospital where I see a kid who needs a heart transplant. That really puts things into perspective. All studio executives in Hollywood should be required to visit hospitals. When actors on 'ER' used to whine or complain about something on the set, I would say, 'You're actors . You're not doctors."'

When Wells, one of the creators and executive producer of "ER," asked Baer to join the drama in its first season, he was tapping into a relationship and a range of shared experiences that were deep-rooted. The two grew up within six blocks of each other in Denver and had known each other since they were 10 years old.

"Neal looks exactly the same now as he did then," Wells says. "Only he's shorter now."

At age 8, Baer announced that he wanted to be a doctor, following in the footsteps of his surgeon father. He used to go to work with his father: "He was so busy, the only way to spend time with him was to go on his rounds with him."

But Baer also always had a love of movies. He still fondly recalls the first film he ever saw "West Side Story." "I was just always interested in movies."

In what he called an act of rebellion when he grew up, Baer attended the American Film Institute as a directing fellow in 1983. Afterward, he tried his hand in Hollywood, writing and directing an ABC Afterschool Special dealing with sexually transmitted diseases and co-writing an episode of "China Beach."

When most of the projects fell through, Baer made his way back to medical school in 1991. "I gave up on it. I didn't think I would ever come back here."

A few years later came the call from Wells for "ER."

"I wanted Neal to use some of his medical expertise for our show," Wells said. "All that time he was on our show, he was also working on his residency. So many of our stories came from Neal. He's obviously very bright. There's an extremely intelligent writing manner with him which comes along with emotion, the things he has learned by working in medicine."

Still, Baer was more than a little anxious about trying his hand in Hollywood again.

"It was 1994, and I was a fourth-year medical student," Baer recalls. "My good friend actress Diane Baker had a big house in the Los Feliz hills, and we stayed there. We weren't sure what was going to happen with the show. The predictions for 'ER' were not great--it was a new show and a new structure, and we thought 'Chicago Hope' [CBS' medical drama, which initially aired opposite 'ER'] would kill us."

Baer caught on quickly to the drama's formula, which combines frantic medical emergencies with the romantic and personal entanglements of the staff. He'd often consult his father. "I would call him and he would want to teach me stuff, while I would really want to get to the material I could use."

His days were split between medical school and "ER." "I would work weekends at Venice Family Clinic--two years of Saturdays was equal to two months of required rotation at Harvard. We lived with Diane for a year and a half. After that, I said, 'Well, I guess 'ER' is for real, so maybe we better get our own place."

He received his medical degree in 1996, and the balancing act continued.

Although he loved his stint on "ER," Baer said he needed a new challenge, prompting his decision to leave last year. "I just felt that all of the compelling stories had been told. Dick Wolf offered me the opportunity to tell new stories."

Baer's approach to the show business side of his life is simple and pragmatic. "I stay calm by surrounding myself with the best people," he says. "This show, no kidding, has what I feel are the best writers in television. I also try to make everyone have a good time so they don't mind working these incredibly long hours." He is obviously in awe of actors, heaping praise on the cast and guest stars such as Lowe, Khandi Alexander, CCH Pounder.

His own long hours have taken a toll on his home life. "My 10-year-old son, Caleb, is always calling me, asking me when I'm coming home," Baer says. "If I say, 'Oh, in a half hour,' he'll say, 'That means two hours."'

Most nights he makes it home early enough to eat dinner with the family. After dinner, he and Caleb read together. "I like to read to him, and he loves telling stories," Baer says. "Sometimes we'll read the same book. We just finished 'Holes,' about a teenager who is falsely accused of stealing tennis shoes. We talked about injustice."

One thing the two don't do together is watch "SVU." "That's an adult show. I've caught him trying to watch it when the reruns are on USA Network and I stop him."

As he moved around "SVU's" quarters in New York recently on one of his trips back to connect with the cast and crew, Baer said, "I like to come here. I'm spending time with the regular cast, thinking about building new sets. We're reassessing how to make the show better."

One change may bring the series closer in formula to its parent. Meloni said there has often been an uneasy balance between showing his character's home and work lives. There may be more focus on the job next fall.

Baer is looking to the future for another reason. In a few months, he will have his medical license and says he wants to practice in "underserved communities." His plan is to work some mornings and weekends at Venice Family Clinic, the oldest and largest free family clinic in the country. And he'll soon be back at work on a new season of "SVU."

"This [dual life] helps keep things interesting for me," said Baer with a smile. "I don't know if I would want to do either of these jobs day in and day out .... It might get boring."

*

"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" can be seen Fridays at 10 p.m. on NBC. The network generally rates it TV-PG14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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