CBS' medical drama "Chicago Hope" gets an infusion of new blood Thursday when Emmy Award-winner James Garner checks in for a four-episode stint.
The veteran actor plays Hugh Miller, the ruthless head of an HMO who causes havoc among the doctors when he decides to slash the budget after his company buys the hospital.
"They don't know if I'm a good guy or a bad guy," says Garner, who starred in the classic TV series "Maverick" and "The Rockford Files." "I don't know myself yet," he says. "Everybody is unhappy [at the hospital]. I run head to head with a few of the doctors."
It's also discovered that Miller had a brief, torrid affair with senior thoracic surgeon Dr. Francesca Alberghetti (Barbara Hershey). "Complications arise with his arrival," says executive producer Michael Pressman. "He's a dynamic force and someone to be reckoned with . . . but he's lovable in whatever he does."
Despite several new cast members this year, including Hershey, Lauren Holly and Carla Gugino, "Chicago Hope" has only been averaging 9.8 million viewers in its sixth season and ranks No. 71 for the year. (Its highest rating was No. 23 in the 1995-96 season.) The show was initially holding its own last fall opposite "Frasier" in its 9 p.m. Thursday slot, but ratings are down 22% since January because of ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" juggernaut. As of now, the future of "Chicago Hope" is still uncertain.
"Our biggest problem has been 'Millionaire,' " says Pressman. "We were doing wonderfully before all of this happened."
Pressman points out that Garner's arrival wasn't primarily intended to help the series' ratings. "His addition to the cast is sort of a welcomed creative choice," Pressman says, "which hopefully will also boost our numbers. We're quite thrilled with what the season has brought us creatively. The rest is left in the hands of the network's decision vis-a-vis the ratings."
Pressman says there has been interest in Garner for quite a while. "He is a TV icon," he says. "Both [creator and executive consultant] David Kelley and myself have been James Garner fans for a long time. So the idea was to find out if he was interested at all in coming back to series TV. Secondly, he, in our minds, appeared to be an actual potential perfect match for 'Chicago Hope.' There is something about his authority as a person and an actor and a presence that was perfect for the character we were exploring."
Just prior to starting "Chicago Hope," Garner, who has had 19 surgeries on various parts of his body, including knees, back and heart, had both of his knees replaced.
"It was absolutely the most painful operation I have ever had," says Garner. "But after six or eight weeks, the pain starts to go away and you're all right. I went out yesterday for the first time to play golf. I wanted to see what I could do and I played 11 holes and I played pretty good."
Garner signed on with "Chicago Hope" before his surgery and reported to work five weeks after the operation. The actor thought the series would be the perfect opportunity to get "back into the groove" of working without having to carry a series.
"I liked them and I thought it was a good show," says Garner. "They are wonderful people and I am having a lot of fun."
"We love him," Pressman enthuses. "He has been such a gift. He fits in so naturally with the rest of the cast. The crew naturally gravitates to him. He's a director's and a producer's dream. He's one of the best people I have ever encountered."
Though CBS skews to an older demographic, Pressman believes Garner, 72, appeals to all age groups. And there's no denying that he's still a major star. In November, his CBS reunion movie with frequent co-star Julie Andrews, "One Special Night," was the second-biggest made-for-TV movie of that sweeps period.
Earlier this year, Garner was the voice of the Almighty in the NBC animated comedy "God, the Devil and Bob." The series ran into trouble with religious conservatives and several network affiliates refused to air it. NBC pulled the plug on the series after just four airings.
The controversy surrounding the series didn't surprise Garner, who charged that those protesters "can talk about God, but nobody else can. Any time you have an image of God up there [on the screen], they are going to jump you because they have their own [image] and everybody else is wrong. I don't pay much attention to them."
Last week, cable's TV Land began airing repeats of "Maverick," the lighthearted '50s western that made Garner a star. The actor seemed please to learn the series had resurfaced.
"I'll have to find that station," he says. Though Garner has good memories of the series, "it's kind of a blur, really. I was so young, and so I didn't know what I was doing. I was just learning."
This summer, Garner will be seen with Donald Sutherland, Clint Eastwood and Tommy Lee Jones in the film "Space Cowboys." Eastwood, who also directed the movie, was once a guest on "Maverick."
"It's about four old geezers going into space," Garner explains. "Clint is just the best thing to work for. I found out that Tommy Lee and Donald and Clint all have great senses of humor, which I didn't know. I never met Donald or Tommy Lee before. Tommy Lee doesn't say much, but when he does he can be very funny. Donald has a caustic sense of humor. Like me, he's an old curmudgeon. We'll pick on the world but with a sense of humor."
There's been talk that if "Chicago Hope" returns for a seventh season, Garner will come back as a regular. "That remains to be seen," says the actor. "They are talking to me about it, but I haven't made any decision at the moment. So I don't know. Maybe. Maybe not."
"We would love to have him back," says Pressman. "I think he's entertaining the possibility."
* "Chicago Hope" airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on CBS. Repeats of "Maverick" air weekdays at 9 a.m. on TV Land.