With big stars, big hearts and edge-of-your-seat action, CBS’s Code Black may make some viewers feel like they forgot to breathe — while others will just need a good cry.
Over the course of his 40-year career, Luis Guzmán has played almost every type of guy, from “goon no. 1” on Miami Vice to a doomed DEA agent in the Oscar-winning 2000 film Taffic.
But his role on Code Black has earned him a nickname he’d never heard before. “This morning, i was out on a walk, and this woman came up to me and said, ‘I don’t want to bother you, but I love you, Mama,’” the actor says with a raspy laugh. “I get called Mama all the time. it’s beautiful.”
In the CBS drama’s 2015 pilot, Guzmán’s character, head ER nurse Jesse Sallander, introduced himself to the new class of residents at L.A.’s fictional Angels Memorial Hospital by telling them, “I’m your Mama. You think you’re smarter than your Mama? Well, you’re not. Your Mama knows when you’re lying, crying or dying.”
Meanwhile, the facility’s staff refers to Marcia Gay Harden’s stern but sympathetic residency director, Dr. Leanne Rorish, as Daddy. The monikers reflect not only the characters’ positions of authority within the institution, but the familial bond the show’s viewers feel with them. “It’s the writing and the stories that keep people coming back,” Harden says. “We have a strong, loyal audience.”
Those fans have gotten hooked on Code Black’s adrenaline-fueled pace. The title refers to a situation when the needs of the patients in a crowded emergency room exceed its resources. It’s said to happen five times a year in an average hospital, but at Angels Memorial it occurs 300 times.
Creator–executive producer Michael Seitzman (Intelligence) based the series on a 2013 documentary of the same name by Ryan McGarry, a real-life ER physician who’s also an executive producer on the show (other exec producers are David Marshall Grant, David Von Ancken, Marti Noxon and Linda Goldstein Knowlton).
“We focus on three elements,” Seitzman explains of the show, a production of ABC Television Studios in association with CBS Television Studios. “The first is to make it breathless — for large portions of each episode, it’s edge-of-your-seat action. The second is authenticity — does it feel like you’re in a real ER? The third is emotion. There’s a moment — if not two or three — in every episode where you feel incredibly emotional. That takes a lot of craft, thought and hard work.”
That ambitious regimen takes a toll on the cast. “This is the hardest job I’ve ever had in my life,” says Guzmán, who draws on his experience as a social worker at New York City’s Henry Street Settlement House in the ’70s to play his character.
“Honestly, when I go to work, I don’t feel like I’m going to a TV set. I feel like I’m going into a hospital shift. That’s the attitude I have. We’re surrounded by real medical people using real medical instruments.” (Many of the 900-plus extras in each episode are actual doctors and nurses.)
For Harden, Code Black represents a more grueling physical challenge than her earlier roles on the drama The Education of Max Bickford and the comedy Trophy Wife. “It’s not what I call a ‘cush job,’” she says. “It’s exhausting. After 15-hour days, I’m incredibly boring. I don’t go anywhere on the weekends. I’ve fallen in love with a crockpot. But I’m blessed to have this life.”
The Oscar-winning actress (Pollock) was initially cast in a supporting role. While shooting the pilot, the producers decided she had the required gravitas to play the lead, which had originally been given to Lost alum Maggie Grace.
“In retrospect, it was always meant to be,” Seitzman says. “Marcia brings genuine authority, knowledge and a really strong moral compass.” Harden adds: “It was exciting to take on that responsibility. Women of a certain age are playing strong roles on TV, so I feel honored to be a part of that.”
The character of Leanne also comes with a tragic backstory: her husband and children were killed by a drunk driver.
“Leanne was shut down in the beginning — when people asked if she believed in magic, she said, ‘Nope,’” Harden notes. “In the second season, slowly but surely, she began to develop more smiles, more laughter. I love that it wasn’t about a man coming into her life — it was just about her softening the world around her.”
Daddy does share a special connection, albeit not a romantic one, with Mama — as do the actors who play them. “Luis is my heart,” Harden says. “He’s so dear to me.” The admiration is mutual. “Marcia and I go together like peanut butter and jelly — we blend in really well,” Guzmán says. “When we hug, it’s a true hug. For me, working with Marcia is an absolute gift.”
The rest of the ensemble took some time to gel. With only four episodes to go in the first season, Boris Kodjoe (The Last Man on Earth) joined the roster as Dr. Will Campbell, the new chief of surgery. He came in with a mandate to cut costs and immediately butted heads with Daddy.
Off camera, though, Kodjoe was a perfect fit. “He’s a top-notch person, beautiful inside and out,” Harden says. Enthuses Kodjoe: “The whole cast and crew were so welcoming and nice — it was easy to come on as a newbie. There was an immediate feeling of kinship.”
Kodjoe’s character proved more complicated than he first appeared. “The idea was to bring in a character who’s tough and a real antagonist and make the audience really hate him,” Seitzman says. “Over the course of season two, we find out there’s an origin to his madness.”
That transition came via a storyline that Kodjoe brought to the show from his own life. He and his wife (and former Soul Food costar), Nicole Ari Parker, have a 12-year-old daughter, Sophie, who’s had spina bifida since birth. Through the charity Sophie’s Voice, they raise funds for family outreach programs, prenatal education and surgical studies for kids and adults with the condition. On the show, viewers learned that Campbell, too, has a daughter with spina bifida.
“I wanted to bring awareness,” says Kodjoe, whose on-screen child underwent a surgery much like Sophie’s. “On the other hand, I was afraid of reencountering some of the emotions I had experienced and hadn’t dealt with in eight or nine years. It was definitely therapeutic, and I’m glad I did it. A lot of people wrote in and said they felt like they weren’t alone anymore, and that finally people understand.”
Kodjoe’s coworkers marveled at his achievement. “It was absolutely beautiful, and he rocked it,” Harden says. Seitzman concurs: “That was intensely emotional — it hit so close to home in his own life. It was one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen.”
The show underwent growing pains of its own between the first and second seasons. Raza Jaffrey and Bonnie Somerville left the cast in a move Seitzman says was “heartbreaking for me on a personal level. but you can only have a certain number of series regulars on your show due to budgetary reasons, and CBS made a calculation that these characters would be let go after season one. A portion of our audience was upset by it, which I understand.”
Their departure made room for a major addition to the ensemble: Rob Lowe. Coming off the cancellation of his Fox comedy The Grinder, Lowe wasn’t sure he was ready to go back to the grind.
“Then I started watching the first season, and I was struck by a couple of things,” Lowe says. “One is how beautifully it’s shot — it looks like a movie. I’ve been a fan of Marcia’s forever, and the same with Luis. I think he’s our national treasure. And some may call it old-fashioned or throwback, but I really liked the storytelling because it’s so accessible, human and relatable. The closer was, those bastards make me cry in every episode.”
Lowe, who signed on for the show on July 4, 2016, only four days before he started shooting, brought several new elements to Code Black. “He added a richness, a star power and a sex appeal,” Harden says. Adds Kodjoe: “He’s a legend. It’s fascinating to watch him work. He’s such a seasoned actor that he knows exactly how to use his instrument. We all watched his movies in the ’80s and ’90s. To have him as part of our family is great.”
Lowe’s character, Dr. Ethan Willis — a U.S. Army colonel assigned to Angels General through the Combat Casualty Care research program — created a complicated new dynamic within the ER. As Seitzman learned from a representative of the real-life Department of Defense program, embedded physicians don’t report to the hospital administration. They report to their military superiors.
“That’s when my TV-writer antennae went up,” Seitzman says. “You take a character out of combat with that cowboy mentality, and he’d be natural enemies with Campbell, the new head of the ER. In the wild, these two would want to kill each other.”
Creating such a serious conflict turned out to be a challenge for Lowe, who’d been stretching his comedic muscles for years on NBC’s Parks & Recreation prior to Fox’s The Grinder. “I’ll be totally honest: for the first episode and a half, all I could think was, ‘If I could turn the dial one click to the left, I could make this scene lighter,’” he confesses. “It was really hard to shut down the instinct to find the funny. But I feel so fortunate that I’m able to do different genres.”
Dr. Willis also allowed the show to get out of the ER more and go to the scenes of various catastrophes and natural disasters; one episode took place largely inside a nuclear submarine. The character quickly became a fan favorite — to such a degree that it even surprised Lowe.
“People will tell me Dr. Willis is their favorite character I’ve ever played,” he relates. “I’m like, ‘Really? Not The West Wing’s Sam Seaborn or Parks & Recreation’s Chris Traeger or St. Elmo’s Fire’s Billy Hicks?’ I think it’s the same reason I wanted to do the show in the first place; it has such mass relatability on a deeply human level.”
The cast members, in fact, feel a profoundly personal affinity for their characters. “My mother works in administration at a hospital,” Guzmán reports. “She’s 77, and she won’t retire. I absolutely admire her for that. She loves what she does, and people love her. I love what I do, people love me and I love them back. Having her DNA in me has carried me through.”
As for Kodjoe, “I can relate to my character because my dad was a doctor, so I spoke to him when I first got the show and he gave me some really interesting advice,” he recalls. “He told me two things. He said as the head of a hospital, your heart rate should never be over 50. Like the captain of a boat or the pilot of a plane, you can never lose your cool. The second thing he said was that any time you enter a room, you have to be the answer. That gave me a very profound insight into this guy.”
Kodjoe’s father died last year. “Every time I step on stage, it’s a cool feeling to have him watching over me,” he says. “I get to represent him.”
Harden feels a parental connection to Daddy as well. “My father was a naval officer in the military — he had a sense of giving commands that wasn’t degrading,” she says. “And my mother is one of the most honorable people you can imagine, so I tried to combine those qualities in Leanne.”
There’s no question the cast and creators have honored their parents’ legacy.
“I’m really proud of this show, particularly because it’s on [broadcast] network television,” Lowe concludes. “As the chasm becomes greater between cable, streaming and network, Code Black proudly carries the torch of those times when great drama really did thrive on network television.”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 5, 2017