Making the departure a bit easier for audiences and the production is the fact that Clooney announced his intentions last March, giving the production more than a year to prepare for his absence. But film commitments had already reduced the actor's screen time on the show, and on some episodes Clooney was only on for a few minutes. Also, unlike Jimmy Smits, whose character of Det. Bobby Simone was killed off this season on "NYPD Blue," Clooney has promised to return to "ER" occasionally.
The recent exit of Smits and the addition of Rick Schroder to the "NYPD Blue" roster is a prime example of how viewers adjust. "With our transition, the audience just picked it up and ran with it," Bochco said. "We're getting an amazing amount of positive response from people who didn't think they would like him."
Sandy Grushow, president of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces "NYPD Blue," said the comings and goings in ensemble dramas is a microcosm of what goes on in viewers' lives.
"They love these shows because for many, it mirrors their real-life experience," Grushow said.
In addition, Edwards agreed with executive producer John Wells that Dr. Mark Greene is really the drama's center. That center will be there through the show's next two seasons--all that NBC has currently ordered--with Edwards set for the duration. "Greene has always been the spinal center of the show," said Edwards, whose character represents the human metaphor for the emergency room--steady, ethical to a fault and always there. "It doesn't mean that all the women want to sleep with Greene. But that is not necessarily how you tell stories. There are a lot of different kind of characters who make up the whole."
Tom Fontana, executive producer of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," believes that cast changes can only help a show. He has had to deal with his share of departures, most notably Andre Braugher, whose character was the core of numerous episodes.
"Everyone misses Andre, but the audience hasn't stopped watching," Fontana said. "It's very healthy. . . . For the ones who stay, it means that they're not playing the same scene with the same people over and over."
Despite the ease in which audiences are adapting to cast changes, there are still those occasions where breaking up is hard to do.
Said Bochco: "Even after we made it clear that it was Jimmy's decision to leave the show, and that we were all friends about it, we got some really outraged mail, almost to the point of being abusive.
"There were those people who were so frightened of change, and they were so angry that they lashed out," Bochco added. "It is a kind of grieving. . . . I would sure love to sneak a look at 'ER's' mailbag."
* "ER" airs at 10 p.m. on Thursdays on NBC. The network has rated this week's episode TV-PG.
Staff writer Susan King contributed to this story.