Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Quentin Tarantino Directs "ER" (May 11, 1995)

Fifteen years ago today, on Thursday, May 11, 1995, "Motherhood," the penultimate episode of the first season of NBC's "ER" hit the airwaves. Written by Lydia Woodward, the episode was directed by none other than Quentin Tarantino, fresh from his Oscar win for Best Screenplay for the previous year's Pulp Fiction. It was, as fate would have it, the Mother's Day episode (as that greeting card holiday fell on the following Sunday, May 14, 1995).

In recognition of this anniversary, we here at Chronological Snobbery will briefly review the episode, survey the media coverage and reaction to it, and feature an interview with Abraham Verduzco, a former child actor who appeared in this episode (as well as 1995's Desperado). To play along at home, you can find the episode on Disc 4 of the "ER" first season DVD set.

The episode focuses on the characters' difficulties starting or maintaining their family relationships. Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney), a true commitment phobe, must choose between moving in with his girlfriend Diane (Lisa Zane) or frolicking like a bachelor. Dr. Peter Benton (Eriq La Salle), who has so often given patients' relatives terrible news, learns what it's like to be on the other side of that equation when his mother passes away at her nursing home. Carol Hathaway (Julianne Margulies) faces the perils of planning her upcoming wedding and the headaches of dealing with her fiance's visiting relatives. Dr. Mark Greene (Anthony Edwards) attempts to balance his hectic work schedule with his obligations to his wife, Jennifer (Christine Harnos), and their young daughter. Dr. Susan Lewis (Sherry Stringfield), left to look after her pregnant sister Chloe (Kathleen Wilhoite), ends up delivering her own niece. In so doing, she must navigate through some family politics, as her mother Cookie (Valerie Perrine, who played Eve Teschmacher in the Superman movies) does not want to help raise her granddaughter. Only Dr. John Carter (Noah Wyle) is not worried about family; his dilemma is whether to choose between the ER or surgery sub-I. Dr. Carter is rejected for the surgery sub-I by Dr. Angela Hicks (CCH Pounder, still years away from her role as Claudette Wyms in "The Shield"), and he learns from Dr. Lewis that's its too late for him to accept the ER sub-I, his second choice.

In mid-1995, Tarantino was at the peak of his game, and dorm rooms across the nation were plastered with posters depicting scenes from his films. When it was announced he would direct an episode of a popular television show, it was a big deal indeed. It was not his first bit of television that year, either. In February of 1995, he had appeared on an episode of Margaret Cho's ill-fated sitcom, "All-American Girl," (which we here at Chronological Snobbery analyzed in some detail back in November of 2007). And of course, his "ER" episode had a number of staples of a Tarantino flick: bloody violence, pop culture references, and cool women. (In fact, in 1994, Entertainment Weekly published this chart comparing the episode to Pulp Fiction.).

But the pictures speak a thousand words, and the images of sunglasses wearing beauties and bloody, overdosing patients confirm the presence of the director. Behold:

Above, you see Hathaway and Lewis sunbathing on the roof of the hospital building complete with retro sunglasses. (They're also barefoot, which fits in with Tarantino's oft-revisited foot fetish.). In the next scene, the two women pause in the hospital hallway, still wearing the sunglasses, to glance across the way. The next two images depict a overdose in progress, while the next depicts an irate female gang member, holding her severed ear in her hand, about to charge into emergency room and punch a rival gang member on the operating table. Last but not least, there's Dolores Minky (more about whom anon), played by Kathy Griffin, once a member of Tarantino's stock company of actors in the mid-1990s.

According to an interview with Margulies at the time, the sunglasses were a sticking point with Tarantino. On this point, in the May 8, 1995 issue of Time magazine, Belinda Luscombe noted:
QUENTIN TARANTINO, master of shoot-'em-up films, is trying suture-'em-up TV. He directed the May 11 episode of nbc's ER. The show is called "Motherhood," but the director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction hasn't gone totally wholesome. "This is the most skin anyone's seen on ER," says JULIANNA MARGULIES, who has a sunbaking scene with SHERRY STRINGFIELD. "Quentin picked out the sunglasses and was adamant we wear them." At least he didn't ask them to sing; Tarantino once played an Elvis impersonator on The Golden Girls.
Looking back fifteen years, the episode holds up pretty well, although as some of the critics noted at the time, the episode is not so much a part of the Tarantino oeuvre that you would recognize him as its director if you watched it without that knowledge. Of course, the limitations of network television in 1994 were much, much greater than those of independent films of that era, and much of what audiences associate as Tarantino-esque would never make it past the NBC censors. Further, Tarantino himself did not write the episode, and it's unknown to what extent he worked with Woodward, the episode's writer, to pepper the episode with his own unique style and taste. Some familiar Tarantino staples that did make it into the episode:
  • Angela Jones, who previously appeared in Pulp Fiction as the chatty cab driver Esmerelda Villalobos, and would would go on to star in 1996's Curdled, makes a brief appearance here as Michelle, the concerned wife of a man brought into the ER for chlorine gas poisoning.

  • In a deleted scene in Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) remarks that one is either a Beatles person or an Elvis person. (Tarantino obviously fancies himself the latter, as indicated by his appearance as Elvis on "The Golden Girls," about which we here at Chronological Snobbery wrote in some detail back in November of 2007.). Chloe, however, is obviously a Beatles person. In the episode's opening scene, she begins to go into labor at her sister Susan's apartment, but refuses to leave for the hospital without her cassette of The Beatles' White Album. In the delivery room, the cassette cannot be found, so Chloe and Susan sing "Blackbird" a capella in an attempt to calm Chloe down prior to the delivery. The episode ends on a similar note: Susan holds her baby niece in her arms and sings the song again, this time with the knowledge that she will be playing a much larger role in raising the child than she initially (or ever) suspected.

  • Griffin appears as Dolores Minky, a Ranger Scout Mother tending to eight flatulent Ranger Scouts suffering from diarrhea. The boys are treated by Dr. Ross. Griffin previously appeared in Pulp Fiction and would go on to appear ever so briefly in Four Rooms, released later that year. Blink and you'll miss her in Pulp: After Butch (Bruce Willis) hits Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) with a car, Griffin's character comes to check on him.

  • Angel Aviles, who appears in the episode as Ramos, also appeared with Tarantino in Desperado.

  • Clooney went on to appear alongside Tarantino in From Dusk Till Dawn, written by Tarantino, directed by Robert Rodriguez, and released in theatres less than a year later.

  • Brenda Hillhouse appeared in the episode as Mrs. Schaffer, the mother of a fifteen year old boy who dies after being impaled by a metal beam. She appeared in Tarantino's very first film, My Best Friend's Birthday, as well as Pulp Fiction (as Butch's Mother) and From Dusk Till Dawn (as Gloria Hill).

  • Anthony Edwards played Goose in 1986's Top Gun, a film which was the subject of Tarantino's character's monologue in the 1994 film, Sleep With Me.
Not surprisingly, there was a plethora of media coverage of the episode due to Tarantino's involvement (much of which is not available online due to its publication in the very early days of the Internets). Below you'll find a sampling of critical comments:

1. How did you get the part in the episode of "ER"?
Like the majority of the child actors in Los Angeles, I auditioned for the part, the only advantage I would say I had was that I had previously worked with Quentin Tarantino on the set of Desperado.
2. What was it like working with Quentin Tarantino, George Clooney, and Kathy Griffin in your scene? Do you have any memories of that shoot? Was there more than one day of shooting?
Working with Quentin Tarantino, George Clooney, and Kathy Griffin was a great experience. A few funny memories I had were watching Quentin film the whole episode wearing scrubs the whole time, and playing basketball with George Clooney, he's a good player by the way, but then again he did have about two feet on me. Other than that the whole cast and crew of "ER" were great people to work with. I believe also that I did only one day of filming.
3. Looking back at the episode of ER, what do you think 12 years later about the episode generally and your performance specifically?
I think the episode is still good after 12 years. The show, "ER," in general has always been entertaining. Looking back on my performance it's kind of hard to judge whether I played a convincing Boy Scout with diarrhea or not, I guess I'll the fans decide that one.
4. You mentioned something in one of your previous emails about being a former child actor. Did you make a decision not to pursue acting once you grew older? Why?
My decision to quit acting came about when I was 17 years old. The main reason for me quitting was the competition. There are far to many young Hispanic actors in Los Angeles, and rolls were hard to come by. A bit of it was also the fact that I got tired also of being type-casted as well. I was always playing the roll of gangster #1, or Poor Hispanic kid number #3, and I got tired of that. I also found that music was a better art form for me to express my-self. I am currently attending Yavapai College, in Prescott Arizona, to become a music teacher.
As usual, Usenet was abuzz with talk of the episode. Michael Nist, editor of an Internet based TV newsletter TV Tonight, previewed the episode in his May 11, 1995 edition:
Quentin Tarantino directed tonight's "E.R.," and was merciful enough not to star in it. Q.T. pulls off several directorial stunts (watch for an unbroken -- and eventful -- two-minute shot), and elevates a good series to greatness, at least for one night. Valerie Perrine guest stars. (NBC, 10.00)
As late as 2001, Usenet users were trying to obtain bootleg copies of the episode. Of course, not everyone was aware of the potential cinematic significance of the episode. The following day, on May 12, 1995, Susan Cohn posted the following to the Usenet newsgroup, rec.arts.tv:
I must not get out enough, who is Quentin Tarantino, and why is his directing this weeks episode of ER (which I really enjoyed) such a big thing. Just wondering.

Above: Dr. Lewis (Stringfield) reflects upon her new dilemma.

Finally, one of the highlights of the episode was an extended shot early in the episode:

For other reading on Tarantino, please see:

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