Doctored Pittsburgh-set medical drama finally premieres


HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- Sometimes a TV pilot airs with nary a tweak. In other instances the entire pilot is thrown out and re-shot, which is what happened with CBS's "Three Rivers."

Actor Alex O'Loughlin, who stars as transplant surgeon Andy Yablonski, returned to Pittsburgh in August to shoot a scene of a rugby game for the new first episode. The scene was filmed at Bigbee Field in Allentown with Downtown Pittsburgh as a scene-setting backdrop.

In mid-September, that scene was cut because the episode was running too long; the rugby game was expected to turn up in a different episode. About a week later, CBS pulled the intended series premiere in favor of an episode that had been scheduled to air second.

Those are a lot of changes for a new series to endure, but it's not the first time a new program has faced growing pains. Results vary. ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" had a troubled birth and went on to become a hit. But often shows that have difficulty getting up and running quickly crash to earth.

Viewers can judge the results for themselves when "Three Rivers" premieres tonight at 9 on KDKA-TV, although football overruns could delay the start time.

Series creator Carol Barbee, a veteran of the CBS series "Jericho," "Swingtown" and "Judging Amy," said this summer that a confluence of factors led her to set the show in Pittsburgh.

With "ER" ending, CBS executives put out a call for a new medical show. Barbee was introduced to a pitch for a drama about a transplant hospital, which fit her sensibilities as a storyteller.

"I knew what I'd do with transplants," Barbee said. "I said I'd do it from three points of view: Donor, recipient, doctor. Each one was so compelling."

Barbee had never visited Pittsburgh, but when an assistant drew up a list of the top transplant cities in the world, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center was No. 1. UCLA was No. 2. With three rivers mirroring the show's three points of view, Barbee picked Pittsburgh as the setting and did her research at The Cleveland Clinic with Dr. Gonzalo Gonzalez-Stawinski, who also tutored O'Loughlin.

The pilot for the Pittsburgh-set medical drama was filmed in Western Pennsylvania in March and April, using the closed Brownsville Tri-County Hospital and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center for hospital interior scenes. But after CBS announced in May that "Three Rivers" would be on its fall schedule, executives and producers decided to tinker.

Recasting, a typical post-pilot practice, resulted in actors Julia Ormond and Joaquim de Almeida departing the series and Alfre Woodard joining. That required re-shot scenes for the pilot. Ultimately, the decision was made to shoot a whole new episode as the premiere and possibly use some of the Pittsburgh-shot scenes in a future episode.

"We were happy with the first pilot," said CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler in August. "We knew we were recasting and we had a chance at re-doing the sets."

A high-tech, more visually appealing hospital set was built on soundstages at Paramount Pictures.

Dr. Robert Kormos, co-director of heart transplantation at UPMC, also provided input. His hands subbed for O'Loughlin's hands for surgery close-ups in the first pilot that was shot in Pittsburgh. After the pilot, Kormos met with the writers in Los Angeles.

"I've been helping them look at the script," Kormos said in August during a visit to the Bigbee Field location. "I think they really have this right. I helped them a little with story lines, but the field of transplantation is dramatic anyway. I was just trying to get across certain points about interaction with families and interaction with patients and how the surgeons interact on a day-to-day basis."

Barbee said transplant surgery pioneer Dr. Thomas Starzl visited the set when the "Three Rivers" pilot filmed at the Brownsville hospital, and Barbee showed him a plaque made for the show's set honoring a fictional transplant pioneer whose resume was based on Starzl's accomplishments.

"I felt like I was meeting the Beatles," Barbee said. "He was brilliant and sweet and smart and wanted to talk about real issues. It was just such a thrill to meet him in Pittsburgh."

Although "Three Rivers" is primarily about transplants, Barbee said the show will not unleash a steady stream of depressing stories in which someone has to die for another character to live.

"There are live donors, so someone doesn't have to die," she said. Another change to the show after the first pilot was the decision to add an emergency room set and an ER doctor, Lisa Reed (Amber Clayton).

"We wanted to show how stories come in through the ER and turn into perhaps a donor story," Tassler said, noting it's also an opportunity to expand the franchise somewhat beyond transplant stories. "We also wanted to show what the emergency room looks like versus the high-end [Intensive Care Unit]."

To accommodate both an ER and an ICU, production designer Philip Toolin's set required that corridor-sized holes be cut between the wall connecting stages 19 and 20 on the Paramount Pictures lot. Toolin, who spent last fall working on the horror movie "Sorority Row" in Pittsburgh, made a point of giving the high-tech hospital some decidedly retro touches.

"The sense of the old and the new is what I was struck by in Pittsburgh," Toolin said during a tour of the set in late July. "So much of the old is still there; neighborhoods are still intact and there's grand old architecture."

Toolin said Three Rivers Medical Center's ICU is an addition to an older hospital, evidence of which can be seen in a limestone exterior behind a glass wall. "We framed it almost like a piece of art to honor the old hospital and then we have names of donors etched on the glass wall."

Barbee said some thought was given to mimicking the interior of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center as seen in the original pilot, but Toolin said they wanted to avoid the white interiors that characterize the look of Seattle Grace on "Grey's Anatomy."

"We wanted it to feel like home," Toolin said.

"Like a five-star hotel," set decorator Beau Petersen said, joining in.

"Where you just happen to get your lungs transplanted," Toolin added with a laugh. "We gave them a lot of wood, saturated colors, trees outside the windows where you look across at classic old architecture."

Of course, no discussion of "Three Rivers" would be complete without bringing up "Heartland," the bland 2007 TNT medical drama, which was also set in a Pittsburgh organ transplant hospital. Barbee said she hadn't heard of or seen "Heartland" when she pitched "Three Rivers."

"After I sold the pitch, people started saying 'Heartland,' so I heard about it afterwards," Barbee said. "One thing we did get from 'Heartland' was the prop woman who worked on 'Heartland.' She came in with knowledge and the ability to say 'these are the [medical] machines you need.' "

Although the series will be shot in Hollywood, Barbee said if the show is successful the intention is to return to Pittsburgh to film exterior scenes that will be inserted in episodes.

"The hope and plan is for us to go to Pittsburgh once or twice a year and save up scenes from different episodes and shoot scenes that show we're in Pittsburgh," Barbee said. "I really want to get those rivers and bridges in there. I really want to do a big funicular scene. We have to use that."

Oram's Donuts in Beaver Falls gets a shout-out in tonight's series premiere and Pittsburgh's famous Primanti Bros. got a mention in the original "Three Rivers" pilot.

Why such an interest in local delicacies? Barbee discovered in researching the world of transplant doctors that they're often concerned with what food is brought along for plane flights when teams go to collect organs for transplant. In the pilot script, Barbee had one doctor order a new transplant coordinator to get him a sandwich from Primanti's.

"I went online and when I looked for famous food from Pittsburgh, Primanti's came up a thousand times," Barbee said. On her visit to Pittsburgh to shoot the pilot, Barbee made a pilgrimage to Primanti's with other members of the production crew. "I bought everybody a T-shirt that says 'Primanti Bros.' and 'Bite Me.' "

Contact TV editor Rob Owen at or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at First Published October 4, 2009 4:00 AM


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