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"ER' actor Edwards operates on both sides of camera

Anthony Edwards is the most self-effacing of ER's stars, well-matched to his humble, hard-driven character, Dr. Mark Greene. Yet beneath Edwards' unassuming attitude is an iron drive to be a master storyteller in both television and film.

Through his Aviator Films company, Edwards is developing feature film projects at Warner Bros.

Recently, he directed his second ER episode, called "Of Past Regret and Future Fear," which airs at 10 tonight on NBC. It includes ER's signature mix of swirling emergency room action, plunging high-powered stars George Clooney, Eriq La Salle, Julianna Margulies, Noah Wyle and Gloria Reuben into trauma cases involving the victim of a chemical burn who has only hours to live and a drug-addicted infant.

"Well, they didn't fire me, so I guess they're happy," Edwards, 35, joked recently of directing the show.

"Directors are hired before our scripts are written," Edwards said. "So I could work with the writer (Jack Orman) in advance. I worked with him on continuous action in the second scene 'cause I wanted to try blocking and shooting in one shot. More than recreating Hitchcock's Rope (the 1948 film shot to look like a seamless stage performance) I wanted to get what's true to our show _ that a lot of stories are going on next to each other in the emergency room.

"So we put a tremendous weight _ literally _ on our camera operator, David Chameides, because he had to carry a lot more minutes of film in his Steadicam, and it was harder to maneuver. We also asked the actors to be off book (memorize their lines) for the whole act."

Engrossed in directing, Edwards took only a small role in Thursday's episode. Bossing his fellow actors was no biggie, he says.

"On ER, I already know how everybody feels. The best talent a director can have is being a good audience. The actor's job is to show up with an idea. A director can help shape and articulate it. I know both as an actor and as a director that what actors really need is enthusiasm and a vision. We'll go anywhere for that.

"And as a director, you should learn how to act, so you won't be afraid of actors."

Yes, Edwards is thinking of eventually switching from acting to directing _ "Yeah, absolutely."

Meanwhile, he's under contract to ER for two more years, and Mark Greene is "growing slowly, like a nice redwood."

This season, Greene teetered on the brink of nervous breakdown after he was physically attacked at the hospital and sued by the family of a young black man who died _ and who accused Greene of racial prejudice. Greene also endured a needy, strained romantic relationship.

And Edwards endured a grueling shooting schedule.

"The grind gets to me sometimes. I burned the candle at both ends by directing."

Born in Santa Barbara, Calif., Edwards appeared in many plays and musicals as a teenager. His early films include Heart Like a Wheel, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Revenge of the Nerds and Top Gun.