Friday, May 20, 2005

You set the tone Carter

Farewell Dr. Carter. The ER will miss you!

A rich portrayal's final scenes
Thursday, May 19, 2005

Star-Ledger Staff

I've been watching Noah Wyle on "ER" for 11 years, but for some reason, I'm always surprised by how strong he is. That's high praise, but well deserved. The actor, who ends his run on the show tonight, is a quiet pro whose excellence sneaks up on you.

Consider last week's episode, in which Wyle's character, Dr. John Carter, made an impulsive trip to Paris. The stated reason was to visit the ill mother of his ex-lover, Kem (Thandie Newton). But Carter was really there to see Kem, an elegant beauty who fell for Carter while they were doing missionary work in the Congo, then bore him a son who died.

The episode was the usual "ER" ensemble bustle, cutting between Carter in Paris and the goings-on back in the hospital, where sewage leaked from ceiling panels and over-eager interns botched every case they treated. The scenes with Carter were so restrained and strong so strikingly adult -- that thinking back on the hour, it's hard to recall the other stuff.

The highlight was the final sequence, when Carter, who was upset to learn Kem had a new boyfriend, took a cab to the airport in pouring rain to catch a flight home. After staring through the rain-slicked window for a while, he stopped the cab, got out and ran to Kem's apartment, knocked on her door, and told her he was going back to Africa and she was welcome to join him.

"I'm not leaving without you, and I'm not living without you," he said. "I love you."

Television and movies have done this sort of scene a million times the stoic loner turning his back on love, then rushing through pouring rain to confess his true feelings.

Yet Wyle made you believe it. Wyle always made you believe it.

Like every other major character on "ER," John Carter is a screwed-up sufferer -- Job with a stethoscope. In addition to losing a child, he escaped death in the Congo, survived a vicious stabbing, developed a drug addiction and overcame it, got entangled in affairs that went south, and endured the death of his grandmother, a tough, rich lady who was there for him when his parents weren't.

But even when the show's plot contrivances were laughable, you took John Carter seriously, because Wyle's performance demanded it.

Every lead actor on "ER" pushed against sentiment; that privilege is built right into the series, a gritty, hospital soap that packaged ridiculous events as kitchen-sink realism, and often made a point of denying you the shameless emotional rush soap operas were created to provide.

But Wyle distinguished himself from many of his peers by pushing against sentiment without making a big deal of it.

Together with the show's writing staff chiefly executive producer John Wells, who wrote some of Carter's best scenes Wyle gave the character an emotional, intellectual and philosophical consistency, and a depth that let us deduce what he was thinking and feeling even when he wasn't speaking.

Wyle never lost track of Carter's essence. He played Carter as an American aristocrat who felt guilty over being born rich, yet who was too considerate and classy to make that guilt a matter of public record, and too well-bred to involve even his lovers and close friends in his private troubles, no matter how grim things got.

Whether laboring to impress his harsh mentor, Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq LaSalle), struggling through rehab with O.R. nurse and sometime lover Abby (Maura Tierney) or working in the Congo with Dr. Luka Kovach (Goran Visnjic), Wyle made you aware, on an almost subliminal way, that Carter was doing penance for his family's wealth.

There were times when he seemed to embrace misfortune, as if he felt he did not deserve to be as smart and decent as he was as if these qualities were another form of inherited wealth.

These character traits were rarely spelled out in dialogue, but they were there, and if you paid attention to Carter, you saw and appreciated them.

Unfortunately, the entertainment business rarely rewards Wyle's idea of good acting. For his work on "ER," Wyle got nominated for five Emmys and three Golden Globes, but never won.

It sounds like scant consolation, but 11 years without a false note constitutes victory of a deeper sort.

Wyle was the heart and soul of "ER," the emblem of the show's best aspirations. Now he's leaving, and we'll have to find somebody else to take for granted.

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