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Former Ambridge resident directs 'ER' episode

Thursday, July 27, 2000

By Rebecca Sodergren, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Working on the set of "ER" for six years has its benefits.

When Marita Grabiak's child ran into a cement wall, she picked up the child and took off for the real-life ER, where -- with no formal medical training -- she described the injury in proper medical terms and told the staff they needed to get a plastic surgeon.

Grabiak, a former Ambridge resident who has served as script supervisor for NBC's "ER" since its pilot, directed an episode that aired in April. Titled "Viable Options," the episode will be rebroadcast at 10 tonight on WPXI.

Grabiak has fought for her foray into directing despite industry odds.

As script supervisor, she's responsible for countless details during filming, such as keeping a log of everything that's shot, timing scenes and making sure the scenes are filmed from the proper angles. Because scenes are shot out of order, one of her responsibilities is to make sure that nothing is missing from the set when the scenes are spliced together. For instance, if a character has a cast on his arm in some scenes but not in others, she has to make sure the cast is there at the right times.

"A lot of script supervisors just take notes," she said, "but the more cerebral ones are involved with helping the director." She considers herself "a second set of eyes" for the director.

She argues that all this experience qualifies a good script supervisor for a directing post, but the industry doesn't typically see it that way. Someone on the creative side of things -- an actor or writer, for instance -- is more likely to be hired as a director. People like Grabiak are called "below the line" creatively and are considered a risk for directing.

But Grabiak wasn't one to let industry norms stand in her way.

With the support of one of the "ER" directors and actress Laura Innes, who plays Dr. Kerry Weaver, Grabiak lobbied to direct. She also prepared herself in other ways -- writing a sample episode of "ER" just to prove she could do it, taking an acting class and riding along with paramedics and hanging out in real emergency rooms to become more acquainted with medicine.

She finally was permitted to direct an episode last season and was told that if she did well, she'd get a second opportunity during the upcoming season -- which she has.

Her goal with the "Viable Options" episode was to create what she calls "mainstream 'ER.'"

"I didn't want to do anything fancy or prove that I knew how to do tricks -- I didn't want to have the camera draw attention to itself."

In the episode, the staff must decide whether to give a drug user a kidney transplant even though he's a high risk for the surgery, or wait and give the kidney to someone else. The episode's title refers to the fact that an organ remains viable for transplantation for only a few hours after it is removed from the donor's body.

Grabiak was one of the few directors to place cast members where she wanted them in all the scenes -- a rarity because most directors let medical experts block the more complex medical scenes. She felt qualified to do it herself after six years of watching episodes being shot.

"That set is my home," she said, noting she felt confident in the director's chair. "I spend much more time on that set than with my husband and kids." Even though the executive producer was afraid she'd be "eaten up," she was far from it. When the filming was completed, the cast and crew presented her with the call sheet transformed into a plaque, the slate from the episode, cookies in the shapes of doctors and nurses, and a photo of herself with the cast and crew. Then she knew her efforts had been a success -- such warmth toward a director is rare, she said.

Her efforts were confirmed when "ER" won in the ratings race that week, beating out "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire," which got first place over "ER" a number of times last season.

Grabiak began her training at Chatham College in Shadyside. She met her husband, Ron Kolodziej, while he was a student at Carnegie Mellon University.

Kolodziej wanted to act, so the couple moved to Los Angeles, where Grabiak finished her training at the University of California at Los Angeles film school. She worked as an extra, directed music videos and began script supervising, working on movies as well as on "ER." Some of the more than 30 movies she has worked on have included "Born on the Fourth of July," "Soapdish" and "Bat 21."

Both a building contractor and an actor, Kolodziej has been seen in commercials for Bayer aspirin, Tylenol and Bank of America.

Their children are Nika, 11; Kristian, 9; and Peri, 3. "I relish every minute I have with them," Grabiak said, noting she tries to keep their childhoods as normal as possible, taking them swimming and to the library during her summer hiatus.

But this week she's already back on the "ER" set, where filming for the upcoming season has begun. This is Grabiak's last season with "ER" -- she's planning to seek a directing post elsewhere next year.

"I'll hang up my stopwatch," she said.

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