By David Bauder
AP Television Writer
LOS ANGELES NBC's "ER'' will lose its most prominent doctor next year.
Anthony Edwards, who has portrayed Dr. Mark Greene on television's top-rated series since its premiere in 1994, plans to leave after the 2001-2002 season when his current contract is up.
"I think that will be it,'' he said in an interview. "It's been eight years of my family working around my schedule. It's been a long time playing Dr. Greene.''
NBC is contractually committed to the series through at least the 2003-04 season. "ER'' has survived even flourished despite the defections of George Clooney, Sherry Stringfield, Julianna Margulies and Kellie Martin from its ensemble cast.
Two other actors who were part of the original "ER'' cast, Eriq La Salle and Noah Wyle, are also at the end of contracts next year.
A spokesman for La Salle said the actor had made no decision about his future beyond next year. Wyle's representative did not immediately return a call for comment.
Edwards, a four-time Emmy nominee, is arguably the show's lead actor. His character is struggling with brain cancer and recently traveled to New York City from its Chicago setting for experimental surgery.
"Tony is an integral part of `ER' and has been essential to the success of the show,'' John Wells, the program's executive producer, said on Tuesday. "Though we would love to have him stay, we understand if he wants to move on and we will miss him greatly.''
Edwards received a $1 million bonus with other cast members two years ago when Warner Bros. Television reached a new licensing deal with NBC. He said his departure was 99 percent certain and not an attempt to bolster his negotiating position on a new contract.
"If they want to talk to me about that, they should have talked to me a long time ago,'' he said. "I think they know.''
His departure has nothing to do with dissatisfaction over the show or his role, he said. Instead, the father of three young children wants to spend more time with his family and working on a phenomenally successful TV series gives him that luxury.
"I'll be almost 40 when this is over,'' he said. "It will be almost 24 years since I started. I love to act, but to act every day for 10 months a year and not see your kids ... It's more of a family thing.''
"ER,'' which airs Thursday nights at 10, has shown remarkable durability. It's the top-ranked show so far this television season, according to Nielsen Media Research, as it was during 1998-99, 1996-97 and 1995-96.
Edwards is a partner in a film production company, Aviator Films, with a movie premiering on Showtime this spring. He plans to spend more time producing and directing, with some occasional acting, and move from Southern California to the East Coast.
The hard-luck Dr. Mark Greene has endured a divorce, separation from his daughter, a severe assault, the deaths of both parents and, finally, cancer.
Edwards said he would like to see his character exit the show "in flames.''
The cancer would seem an obvious exit strategy, but there is plenty of time for writers and producers to think of other possibilities.
"There are a lot of El trains in Chicago,'' he joked. "You could trip in front of any one of them.''
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