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Tuned In: Sherry Stringfield brings Dr. Lewis back to 'ER'

Thursday, October 18, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

She left on a train in November 1996, and tonight on "ER" (10 p.m., NBC), Dr. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield) returns.

For Stringfield, it was a self-imposed exile. The actress wanted out of the job. She wanted time to have a life, to live in New York, to escape the glare of the Hollywood lights.

Three years ago she married journalist/author Larry Joseph ("Gaia: The Growth of an Idea") and six months ago she gave birth to their first child, Phoebe. Now, she's ready to check back into the E.R.

Despite her declaration when she left that she couldn't imagine returning, Stringfield said her reason for scrubbing in again is simple: "I changed my mind."

"I really felt like acting full-time again," Stringfield said in a phone interview earlier this week. "I hadn't really felt that way, and when I did, it just made sense for me to go back to 'ER.' "

When she left "ER," her departure was accompanied by a list of restrictions that kept her from working as an actress unless she got permission from "ER" producers until the end of her contract 2 1/2 years later.

"They didn't believe me that I was leaving to get a life," Stringfield said. "They thought, in a very business sense, I was doing it to further my career or start the 'Sherry' show or capitalize on the 'ER' fame. ... As it turns out, I think they saw I was true to my word."

In her time away, Stringfield has taught drama courses and taken up photography. Her "ER" bosses prevented her from taking one role in a non-NBC TV movie, but there are no hard feelings. They'd been trying to get her to return to "ER" since she left.

"They asked me to come back for a couple years and then I was pregnant and then they didn't ask, and then I was like, you know, I want to go back," Stringfield said. Now she's under contract for three more years of "ER."

Her return may put an end to the question she was asked most frequently for years: Why did she leave what was then the No. 1 show on television?

"It's amazing how everyone has an opinion on how you should live your life," she said. "I can understand that [a role on 'ER'] can appear to be a very coveted position. ... I kind of came to understand they didn't have a full understanding of an actor's life. [We] have a million different jobs and we're all used to it. It's rare to have a job more than a year or two."

In the "ER" story, Dr. Lewis has been living in Arizona near her sister while working in a more upscale hospital. Lewis returns to Chicago for a visit and drops by the emergency room to see her old friends.

It takes Lewis some time to remember what working at Cook County General Hospital is like, and Stringfield still isn't readjusted to working with fake blood.

"I do not like blood. I cannot believe I do this show half the time," she said. "And now it's even worse. They have this prosthetic, fake chest cavity they crack open. I almost passed out when I saw that one. Oh, it's so horrible. I could never be a doctor."

She just plays one on TV.

Emmys on again

CBS will broadcast the twice-delayed Emmy awards live Nov. 4 at 8 p.m., the first Sunday in the November ratings sweeps period. It could air opposite the World Series on Fox if a seventh game is required.

In a teleconference with reporters yesterday, CBS president Leslie Moonves said White House officials encouraged the network and TV academy to go forward with a third try at the annual telecast "as part of the return to normalcy they're urging on all of America."

Ellen DeGeneres remains as host, though the participation of Walter Cronkite, tapped to introduce the program for the aborted Oct. 7 broadcast, is uncertain. The dual coast element planned for Oct. 7 with some nominees in a New York studio has been dropped for logistical reasons.

The location of the ceremony has also changed from the Shrine Auditorium to the smaller Shubert Theater in Century City.

Another 'Agency' delay

Last week's episode of CBS's "The Agency" about CIA agents trying to stop the spread of anthrax by a terrorist didn't air because of President Bush's press conference. But it's not airing tonight, either.

A CBS publicist said that "given the circumstances" of anthrax scares across the country, another episode has been substituted. The anthrax episode has yet to be rescheduled.

Nicely done

NBC's "Third Watch" pulled off a moving two hours of reminiscences from firefighters, police officers and paramedics Monday night.

I wasn't sure the show could sustain its format for a full two hours -- victims talking to the camera -- but their stories had impact and their emotions were honest.

For viewers who wondered about the inclusion of "Third Watch" star Molly Price among the interviewees, executive producer John Wells said Price was set to marry a fireman who also sometimes acts on "Third Watch" this past weekend.

Using Sept. 11

It's bad enough that producers have pitched a romantic comedy to CBS about a man and woman who lost their spouses at the World Trade Center only to meet afterward and find comfort in their shared tragedy. (I don't honestly believe that project will see the light of day.)

But ABC's promos for "NYPD Blue" showing a mournful Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz) staring out at a Manhattan skyline minus the World Trade Center towers is just using the tragedy to promote the return of the tired cop show.

If "NYPD Blue" filmed an episode that specifically dealt with the tragedy, such a promotion would make sense. But in an interview, Franz said that's not the case, making the ads misleading and exploitative.

Super goof

The WB didn't bother to tell viewers or critics that the premiere of "Smallville" ran long by 10 minutes Tuesday night, which would have been helpful to anyone setting a VCR.

At press time, the network was attempting to work out a plan with affiliates to rebroadcast the premiere episode over the weekend, but nothing has been determined.

Local trumps national

It doesn't happen often, but local newscasts have been offering some much-needed perspective on the anthrax scares, something missing from NBC's self-indulgent coverage when anthrax was found in its New York headquarters.

Though I'm not fond of his aggressive presentation style, KDKA-TV's Ross Guidotti had a sensible report aimed at calming fears on Saturday night's newscast.

Likewise, WTAE anchor Scott Baker did a studio standup Tuesday at 5 p.m. showing how the odds of dying from anthrax (1 in 500 million) compared to the odds of being hit by lightning, shark attack or a roller-coaster accident. It was simple statistics, but it helped give a broader picture.

A final thought

In this time of crises, it does my heart good to know "Entertainment Tonight" can still give viewers a tour of "JAG" star Catherine Bell's luxurious on-set trailer.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

Thursday, October 18, 2001

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