A Q&A with actor John Aylward. He is well known on Seattle stages, but he also made an indelible impression on TV as Dr. Donald Anspaugh, the gruff but sensible Chief of Staff at Chicago's County General Hospital on "ER" — the long-running NBC show that ends April 2.
John Aylward doesn’t appear in tonight’s “ER” series finale, and you can’t blame Seattle’s best-known stage actor for being mildly disappointed. After all, Aylward had been a member of “ER’s” extended family since becoming a supporting cast member in 1996.
Aylward made an indelible impression as Dr. Donald Anspaugh, the gruff but sensible Chief of Staff at Chicago’s County General Hospital. Anspaugh set more than a few milestones during “ER’s” celebrated 15-season history: He resigned following the death of his son, staying on as a prominent surgeon; saved the life of Dr. John Carter (Noah Wyle) after a near-fatal stabbing; fired the much-hated Dr. Romano (Paul McCrane) and replaced him with Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes); and encouraged recovering alcoholic Abby Lockhart (Maura Tierney) to advance from ER nurse to attending physician. It was a role that Aylward played with consummate finesse.
Thanks to “ER,” Aylward, 61, is getting frequent film roles and has appeared on many of TV’s highest-rated series. Speaking by phone from Los Angeles after attending a lavish “ER” wrap party, the native Seattleite shared some thoughts and memories about working on TV’s most celebrated medical drama:
Q: How was the “ER” wrap party?
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A: Everyone was pretty jubilant, with a lot of schmoozing and speeches. It was nice to see people I hadn’t seen in a while, especially some of the crew. They were very much a family after 15 years, and television is such an ephemeral world, so I think everyone felt pretty lucky to have stayed a family for so long.
Q: Were you able to give Anspaugh a character arc, or were you at the mercy of the writers?
A: In television you’re totally at the mercy of the writers. I was never under contract on “ER,” which was my first job in television. The initial deal was five episodes, and evidently they got enough good response, or they liked me well enough, to keep me around for a long time. In the early years I was doing 17 or 18 episodes a year. I have mixed feelings about those days because people assumed I was a regular, and that prevented me from getting other work. But looking back, not being offered a regular contract was probably the best thing that could’ve happened to me because it kept me free to do so many other things, and being on “ER” opened so many doors. Now I’m established and have a career.
Q: Even being at the mercy of the writers, your character had depth that was revealed over time.
A: A couple of things gave Anspaugh added dimension, such as having a son who died of cancer. I was more included back then. As the years progressed they kept me on so they could bring me in to yell at people, which meant that Anspaugh was never a fully developed character. I was hoping they’d bring me in for the finale and push me down an elevator shaft or something, but it didn’t happen.
Q: When George Clooney returned to the show a few weeks ago, as Dr. Doug Ross, he reminisced with current “ER” characters and asked, “is Anspaugh still there?” It gave the episode a nice touch of history.
A: That may be the final reference to my character. I can’t say for sure, because I haven’t read the scripts for the final episodes.
Q: Anspaugh became larger than life because the ER staff frequently made ominous references to him while he remained off-screen.
A: It’s nice to have your character referenced because it keeps you in the zeitgeist, but it would’ve been a lot better for me, financially, if they had actually used me! But, frankly, one of the reasons I wasn’t used as often as they may have wanted me is because it costs them more to bring me in than someone else, and TV is all about pinching pennies. I thought it was apropos that Clooney’s character would be the one to ask if Anspaugh was still around. And I loved the response when everybody said “Oh, yeah, he’s still there,” as if to say, “that old [expletive].”
Q: Viewers enjoyed your character because, for all his gruffness, you could always sense his humanity.
A: I wanted him to be more than just a one-dimensional hard-ass. The show was true to the medical profession, and to the characters’ behaviors. Anspaugh was pragmatic and sensible about his job. He had a lot of experience, and he cared about the young Dr. Carter, toward whom he felt sternly paternal. I tried to bring as much humanity to the guy as I could.
Q: You could always tell that the cast had a genuine, easygoing chemistry.
A: The producers and casting directors always did an excellent job hiring really nice people. There was never a bad apple in the group, and a lot of prominent people appeared on the show. At the wrap party they displayed photos of [guest stars] who had been on the show, and you were struck by the fact that just about everyone in Hollywood appeared on “ER” at one time or another. There was a lot of team spirit and we all worked very, very hard.
Q: You definitely had your share of the now-legendary long-take Steadicam shots, where the camera followed characters in an unbroken take as they weaved through the ER set.
A: I loved those, because it was like doing a little one-act play. You definitely don’t want to be the one who screws up one of those shots. There’s a lot of pressure when there’s so much choreography involved. When we finished one of those shots, there was always a real sense of accomplishment. Anyone who had difficulty doing those shots would not be invited back.
Q: You worked closely with Laura Innes, who went on to direct several episodes. What’s it like to be directed by a fellow cast member?
A: I worked with Laura when she was directing, and also with Paul McCrane, but direction in television is not all that hands-on. The directors usually trust the actors to know their stuff, and most of the direction is concerned with the technical side of it. There’s not a lot of hand-holding unless a given performance is really off the charts. As an actor, you’re usually left to your own devices.
Q: Does TV work nourish stage work, and vice versa?
A: It’s a different set of muscles. I like the pace of TV and film, and the fact that it’s over and done with. I’m a quick study, and I like to show up prepared because you can really have fun when you’re secure enough in your dialogue that you’re not searching for words when the camera’s rolling. That’s where stage work really pays off, but it’s apples and oranges in terms of the gratification you get. On stage it’s so immediate because the audience is literally the other elephant in the room, and you need that to make the experience work. In television it’s so technical, where you can be doing something very intimate with 15 other people in the room, all doing a different job. But I like it a lot. I’ve done a lot of plays, and will continue to do them, but it’s not like I’m dying to get back into theater.
Q: Do you have any funny “ER” anecdotes to share?
A: Here’s one: When I was doing “Death of a Salesman” at ACT (in 1998), I was still appearing frequently on “ER,” and it was right after the season in which Anspaugh’s son had died. It was a Monday (off-day for theater actors), and I was in the checkout line at the grocery store, and this woman came running up to me and said, “Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, I’ve been out of the country … what happened to your son?” And I said, “Oh, he died.” The lady says “Oh, no!” and I said, “Yeah, we buried his ass last week!” and the girl checking out the groceries turned as white as a sheet, so I had to stop and say, “We’re talking about a TV show!” I could tell she was thinking “Who is this heinous man who talks about the death of his kid like that.”
Q: Were you informed that you wouldn’t be in the finale?
A: No, but you can’t expect that kind of thing. For all familial closeness that occurs on the set, there’s very little loyalty in television when it comes to business matters. It’s a pretty cutthroat world. Unless you were a contract player, nobody ever got a heads-up about anything. I’d only get a two-week notice when they wanted to know if I was available for an episode, by which time it was pretty much a done deal anyway. For years I couldn’t really plan my life, because I had to be available.
Q: Now that you’ve moved on from “ER,” what’s next?
A: I just finished the pilot for David E. Kelley’s new series “Legally Mad,” which was a lot of fun.
Q: You still reside in Seattle, but you’re also living and working in Los Angeles a lot.
A: It’s been half-and-half Seattle and L.A. for the past 13 years. The “ER” chapter is over, but I don’t feel like I’ve been thrown out in the cold. I’ve been on a lot of other shows and keeping busy, so it’s not like things have come to a screeching halt. I consider myself very lucky in that regard.