There’s a reason you haven’t seen a whole lot of Anthony Edwards since his departure from ER in 2002: He’s been busy living his life.
"You know, I have yet to meet a person who says they wish they spent less time with their kids when they were younger," says Edwards, who nonetheless will make one final appearance on ER Thursday (Nov. 13) as part of the NBC show’s farewell season. "And I’m really lucky that I have that opportunity. So it’s going to be a few more years before my kids are really, really sick of me and want me gone. So when I get the final, ‘You really have to go back to work,’ then my mind will be a little more open to that."
For now, though, Edwards has a production deal at CBS — where he’s developing a script with 30 Rock writer Jack Burditt — the occasional film role (most recently in last year’s Zodiac) and dad duties with his four kids, ranging in age from 6 to 14, to keep him busy. "I’ve been working as an actor since I was 16, so when I hit 40, I was OK about leaving and not doing as much for a while," he says. "I didn’t have that, ‘What’s the next movie?’ [impulse] that I’d had for 24 years before, you know? So that was part of it. I think hopefully a little maturity and some moolah."
Edwards has also thrown himself into philanthropic work since leaving ER. He’s currently working with a group called Shoe4Africa to help build a 250-bed children’s hospital in Kenya, and he says part of his motivation for appearing in the episode was the chance to promote the cause.
He’s also putting his money where his mouth is. Instead of being paid for his guest spot, Edwards asked ER producer Warner Bros. to donate $125,000 to the charity, which has since snowballed: "Steven Spielberg found out about [it] and he matched, and [ER executive producer] John Wells kicked in $50,000," he says.
As for Thursday’s episode, Edwards appears in a series of flashbacks that connect County General’s newest attending physician, Dr. Cate Banfield (Angela Bassett) with Mark Greene’s time. The scenes are set near the end of Greene’s time at the hospital — when he’s undergoing treatment for the cancer that eventually caused his death — and feature several other former ER regulars as well (whose identities we won’t spoil here).
"After about half an hour it really felt like I’d never left," Edwards says. "The same conversations were happening that were happening six years ago, the same dynamics between the crew members, the same jokes. And they had gone to great effort to make it look like it did [six years ago] — you know, when I look at the show now I see how different the ER looks than when I was on it. And they went to great effort to have all the props, everything back to 2002. So it was really — I had a really great four days there."
More from Edwards about his ER swan song:
On the decision to return: "It sounds kind of silly, but I mean, I really did have eight really good years on the show, and so much of that is about trust. And I’d had 180 episodes of trust, knowing that they were going to do interesting stories, and they always did.
"So I really wasn’t — I knew they would take care of him and take care of it. … It’s a funny thing. You feel as an actor that you own the character, but the truth is so do the writers. The writers really feel an ownership of Greene, so they want to do right for him. So there’s actually more people looking out for you than yourself in the end."
On the ease of revisiting the character: "When you do a series and you do television like that for so many years, so much of the character is similar to yourself. Writers pick up on things that you do that they add to the character. So, you know, I’m not as — I’ll never be as smart as Dr. Greene, but there’s a lot of familiarity in who he is.
"So I think that bottom line thing that I always cared the most about him was there, which is that he really loved being a doctor. That’s not a hard thing to jump back into."
On ER‘s place in television history: "I think it’s one of those Gunsmokes of TV. … In its heyday, the numbers and the world that it had.
"I just was in my attic the other day and had all these boxes that had been sent to L.A., and it was full of all these covers of — magazine covers and things, a ton. And you forget — [it was] like, Wow, there was a time when we were on the cover of Newsweek. And so, you know, hopefully you’ll think of it as M*A*S*H. That would be the perfect thing."
Are you excited to see Edwards return to the ER? Which other former cast members do you want to see return?