Peter MacNicol leaves 'Chicago Hope' determined not to overstay his welcome
by Ray Richmond, Daily News of Los Angeles, Oct. 26, 1995
|Peter MacNicol's last episode on "Chicago Hope" will air sometime in November. But it's not what you think.
"Some article said that I was suffering from Caruso-itis," said MacNicol, the pint-size, stage-trained actor
who made such a memorable impression playing an attorney (Alan Birch) on a doctor series over the past
By Caruso-itis, MacNicol naturally refers to David Caruso, the original "NYPD Blue" regular who left that
show after little more than a season to try his hand as a movie star -- finding himself instead saddled with
a pair of duds called "Kiss of Death" and "Jade."
It's true that MacNicol has a co-starring role in the forthcoming Mel Brooks comedy, "Dracula: Dead and
Loving It," in which he stars with Leslie Nielsen. The film opens Dec. 22 and figures to lead to more feature
Of course, film audiences already are plenty familiar with MacNicol. He starred first in 1981's
"Dragonslayer" and then -- more prominently -- in 1982's "Sophie's Choice," portraying the young, naive
Southern writer Stingo who falls for Meryl Streep and holding his own opposite heavyweights Streep and
Kevin Kline. And more recently, he appeared in "Ghostbusters II" and "Addams Family Values."
But anyone who thinks that MacNicol is simply ditching the small screen for the bigger one just doesn't get
it, he insisted.
"It's the quietest little story, really," MacNicol (who declines to give his age) said. "The only reason I
signed on to play the role of a lawyer in a doctor series in the first place is that I knew it was being written
by David Kelley. I trusted that he would take the character under his wing and he did."
But beginning this season, the native Texan knew that Kelley's involvement in "Chicago Hope" would
steadily decline as the writer-producer devoted himself to new projects. And when Kelley's writing
contributions dwindled, there was nothing to keep MacNicol excited.
"I knew in my heart that with David cutting back on his writing duties, I had to take myself out, too,"
MacNicol said. "I existed because of him, and in his absence I made far less sense than in his presence."
MacNicol is right, of course. His Alan Birch was, last season, one of the most vivid and originally drawn
characters in prime time. He was, quite possibly, the most sympathetic lawyer on the tube since the prime
of "Perry Mason."
Birch was the guy who kept the fictitious Chicago Hope Med Center afloat, who supplied a passionate,
razor-sharp layer of legalese between the surgeons and a litigious public. Through Kelley's words and
MacNicol's talent, Birch was the most lovable bureaucrat you ever did see -- a lawyer you wanted to
squeeze and take home, but one who clearly knew what he was doing. You didn't mess with Al.
"I owe David so much for creating a character that had such breadth of humanity," MacNicol said. "I was
there to act as a mouthpiece for David's love of debating complex medical and ethical issues, and it was
just the greatest job I could ever have in television.
"I was able, through this character, to turn that lawyer stereotype on its ear."
But that was far truer last season. This season, Birch -- a single man who adopted a baby girl suffering
from a heart defect late last season -- was transformed into a wimpy Mr. Mom type who dragged his kid
The parenting role so overwhelmed Birch that he lost his drive on the job, along with the rougher edges of
MacNicol pretty much agreed that his character had painted itself into a corner.
"It was no secret that there was a problem," MacNicol said. "But it was fixable. The bigger concern for me
was that David wasn't going to be around anymore. The future wasn't bright there for me. And after
talking it over with my wife, we decided that sometimes it's better to leave too early than too late -- when
you're too familiar and you've started to disappoint the audience."
Looking at Birch, MacNicol saw "a limited horizon." He figured that by continuing on, he risked taking some
of the thunder from the new members of the "Chicago Hope" cast who "need their turn at bat."
"My character has been fully explored," MacNicol said. "I had a wonderful go with this fellow in a short
time. It was like forcing a hothouse plant into bloom."
But MacNicol wants it known that he is leaving the show with no animosity, and none directed at him.
"David totally understands," he said. "How could he hold it against me?"
In fact, the show's cast and crew threw MacNicol a party on the set a few weeks ago to celebrate his
departure. It's the sort of thing that "Chicago Hope" is getting used to. Mandy Patinkin's final episode as a
regular is being broadcast Nov. 13.
Unlike Patinkin -- who expressed a desire to spend more time with his family in New York as a chief reason
for leaving -- MacNicol has no children. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have child concerns.
"With Mandy's concert dates occupying more and more of his time," he said. "I want to be there to raise
the man's family. I never want to let it be said that I wasn't there when his kids were in high school."
MacNicol said he is contractually bound not to reveal how his character departs the show. The inside word
is that Birch is definitely getting killed off, and his infant daughter will be adopted by Patinkin's character,
Dr. Jeffrey Geiger.
In any case, MacNicol claims to be happy with the way it's all coming down. He has a 4 1/2-page
monologue (written by Kelley) coming up on the Nov. 6 "Chicago Hope" that he describes as "sheer
The one thing that MacNicol doesn't worry about is what he's going to do next, he insists. He may go back
to the stage, his first love, where he worked in "Crimes of the Heart" on Broadway and played title roles in
the New York Shakespeare Festival productions of "Richard II" and "Romeo and Juliet."
Or MacNicol could accept a few of the many film roles coming his way.
"I'm just going to take a little time to weigh things," he said. "But I'll tell you this: We were a neat, volatile,
fascinating little family over there at 'Chicago Hope.' I'll miss them in the extreme."