Jerome Groopman is a nice Jewish doctor - a 6-foot-5-inch-tall professor of experimental medicine at Harvard Medical School. So how did he turn into Andre Braugher? The answer is Paul Attanasio.
For those who don't remember, Attanasio is the brilliant creator and writer of "Homicide: Life on the Street," the former NBC series that was always more beloved by critics and its small but fanatically devoted group of viewers than by the public at large. Among the talents spawned by that show, none made more of an impression than Andre Braugher, a Shakespearean-trained actor of enormous power who, during the show's run, got himself a cover of TV Guide which asked the question in banner headlines: "Is this the best actor on television?"
Paul Attanasio certainly thinks so. So when he picked up a copy of The New Yorker two years ago and read an excerpt from Groopman's book "The Measure of Our Days," about the life-and-death struggles that come his way as a leading researcher in cancer and AIDS, he immediately wanted to turn it into a TV series. There was only one actor, he felt, who had the combination of skills the part required.
Thus, Braugher became Dr. Ben Gideon in "Gideon's Crossing," which debuts on ABC Tues., Oct. 10, at 10 p.m.
"The character had to be somebody who had a real toughness and command but who also had a warmth and a depth and a humanity, and those two things are very hard to find in the same human being," says Attanasio. "And to get Andre, who captures both of those dimensions and is just a joy to write for, was really where that piece of casting came from. We're really lucky to have him."
Even though the casting raises the oft-asked question of why Jewish heroes have to be transmogrified into someone else before they become acceptable to the mass television audience, Groopman says he is more than happy to be represented by Braugher.
"The truth is when I saw the pilot, after the first 10 minutes his skin color was immaterial. He captured what I hoped would be captured in a serious TV representation of the kind of experiences I was writing about. It may take a different external form, but the core is still there."
The core is the essence of Groopman's book, which is as different from the TV medical fare we're used to - the soap opera sagas of "ER" and "Chicago Hope" - as "Homicide: Life on the Street" was from a run-of-the-mill cop show.
First, Gideon is a physician with a strong spiritual bent who really gets involved in his patients' lives, which gives us, the audience, the chance to do so too.
The pilot, which is so good that ABC asked Attanasio to add another half hour to it so as not to lose scenes that would have had to go to bring it in at 60 minutes, is called "Kirk." It was the subject of the excerpt Attanasio read in the New Yorker that started the wheels turning for the series.
Played brilliantly by Bruce McGill, Kirk - an international tycoon, mega-millionaire and force of nature who is used to riding roughshod over the world and buying and bullying his way to power - is dying of kidney cancer. He is simply too much of a powerhouse to die, but if Gideon doesn't take him on, he's finished.
He's a miserable human being who humiliates his wife, has alienated his children and would not be missed. Also, his case is medically hopeless. Nevertheless, Gideon decides to do battle on his behalf. The duel between the two men is positively biblical.
Attanasio says it was the kind of gargantuan tale that you don't find any more on television, or anywhere else for that matter.
"It's the story of a guy who has so much fight to live and of a doctor who responds to that fight by going out on the high wire and taking a chance with a novel treatment. And the guy beats an unbeatable foe, realizes how precious life is and how little in his life he has honored that idea. And now the life that he has fought so hard for is in fact meaningless."
Groopman agrees. "The truth is, not everyone who comes into your office is necessarily likeable or soft and cuddly or someone who is sympathetic, and yet the mission is to transcend those kinds of personal reactions and really search his or her heart to know whether what you are doing is for the good," he said. "I perceived in 'Kirk' a spark of life, and it wasn't extinguished. I felt I was obliged to protect that and to try and see if it could be amplified. In some way, I agonized over it. I felt the odds were incredibly long. But I felt I couldn't play God. I couldn't dismiss him." The Kirk story sets the tone for the series, as it did for Groopman's book.
"The theme of the book is part of what sets the show apart, " Attanasio explains, "which is that illness changes people's lives. Sometimes it enhances or deepens their lives. And doctors are privileged to participate in that event. And so it's very different as a story-telling approach than the other medical shows. You get into really the deeper story of people's lives."
There are other differences as well. Groopman and Gideon preside over a teaching hospital in which the doctor as teacher is God to his residents and interns but much less omnipotent when it comes to the deathly ill patients he is trying to save.
"Even with all of the state-of-the-art technology," Attanasio says, "medicine is still taught the way it was in ancient times - master to apprentice like the medieval guilds."
The other aspect of the story which is news is that Groopman practices cutting-edge medicine at a time when the technology is taking off. To him come the lost causes, the patients others have written off as terminal, but he practices it in the full knowledge and with a spiritual understanding that healing the body is only part of the deal.
The dilemmas are as much moral as they are medical. The dialogue is Talmudic. Gideon may be African American but his world view, which is Groopman's, is Jewish to the core.
"My book was very much a spiritual exploration of illness," Groopman says. "I think it's important that people not be afraid of that spiritual dimension. It's such an essential element of the experience. But typically a Harvard professor and high-tech doctor doing experimental medicine - what's he doing talking about spirituality? He's supposed to be talking about DNA and proteins and computers and all that. But I see a thirst for it among my colleagues even though physicians are being beaten to a pulp like everyone else in the medical system by HMOs and all that."
Groopman, unlike his widower-single father TV alter ego, has a wife, who is also a physician, and three children. He is also an observant Jew whose faith infuses his work at Harvard and the books and medical articles he writes.
His book begins with a prayer from Maimonides: "Let me look at a patient neither as a rich man or a poor man, as a friend or a foe, but let me see only the person within."
If all the stories are as well done as the pilot episode, this show will be the highlight of the new season and many to come.