Grey's Anatomy vs. ER: By the Numbers

ABC's medical drama has unseated NBC's groundbreaking series as the longest-running in American primetime TV history, but how do they stack up?

By Billy Nilles Feb 28, 2019 2:00 PMTags
Related: "Grey's Anatomy": By The Numbers

In just a few short hours, Grey's Anatomy will make TV history.

When tonight's brand-new episode, the 15th in its 15th season, the beloved ABC drama will officially unseat ER as the longest-running primetime medical drama in American television history! With 332 episodes on the air (as of tonight) and at least 10 more on the way—Shonda Rimes' baby has yet to be renewed for a 16th season, though that seems like a mere formality at this point—the series has done something that, given the state of the current TV landscape, no show of its ilk will likely ever be able to top.

And what's more, it's done it with four of its original stars having run the entire damn marathon. OGs Ellen Pompeo, Chandra Wilson, Justin Chambers, and James Pickens, Jr. have stuck with the show through thick and thin, dramatic cast turnover and ill-conceived musical episodes, monumental pay raises—here's looking at you, Ellen!—and ratings resurgences, have starred as Meredith Grey, Miranda Bailey, Alex Karev, and Richard Webber, respectively, for the amount of time it would take an infant child to get their driver's permit. And at least one of them has every intention of seeing this thing all the way through to the end—whenever that may be.

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During a visit to the Grey's Anatomy set last month while the cast filmed tonight's record-breaking season, we asked everyone if they thought they might have it in them to give Gunsmoke a run for its money and become the longest-running primetime drama ever. (That's 635 episodes, BTW.) And while Wilson was daunted by the prospect of challenging that other series—"I'd have to start over again to get to Gunsmoke!—she did admit that she's not going anywhere anytime soon.

"From a historical standpoint, would love to be able to say I was a starter and a finisher," she told us. "Actors don't get the opportunity to do that. I'd love to have the opportunity to put that personal star to put on my wall. I still enjoy Bailey immensely, I still learn from her. Until the wheels fall off, I guess."

Similarly, Pickens is hopeful that, when it comes time to film that final frame, Webber will be there standing tall. "To be at this point in my career and still have a job, hard to say maybe it's time to hang up," he told us. "I'd love it when it is time, I want to come in and turn off the OR light for the last time and have the show end there."

Meanwhile, Chambers is a bit cagier when it comes towards his commitment to the future. "Let's just do it season to season and go from there," he said. And Pompeo, well, her future on the series has remained quite the topic of conversation. After all, you can't have Grey's Anatomy without the Grey.

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Speaking with E! News last week at the Sergio Tacchini pop up shop she hosted along with husband Chris Ivery, Pompeo told us that she didn't expect the show to end without her or her fellow OGs. "I think Shonda has said publicly that we'll decide collectively when to wrap it up, and we'll end the show together. I don't think she has any plans to continue the show without me, or any of the originals for that matter...but who knows, it's Hollywood," she said. "They can kick you out any time they want...but I think she has said publicly that we'd like to end this together, and her and I and the other three originals that are on the show...I think we'd like to sort of finish this together."

Of course, ER wasn't able to be so lucky. By the time the groundbreaking NBC series, which premiered in 1994, was signing off after 15 seasons, it did so without any of its original series regulars still in the gig. While nearly every OG—from George Clooney and Julianna Marguiles to Anthony Edwards and Eriq La Salle—popped us as a special guest in that final run of episodes in 2008-09, the show's last continuous original series regular, Noah Wyle, departed in 2005. (Sherry Stringfield would depart in 2006, though that was her second stint on the show, returning in 2001 after her initial departure in 1997.)

With Grey's' big day upon us, it got us thinking about the other ways in which the show stacks up against the series it's about to dethrone. Which show has featured more disasters? Which can claim the highest ratings? And which chopped more of its main characters' limbs? Check out our handy graphic below to see how Grey's Anatomy vs. ER by the numbers!

Melissa Herwitt/E! Illustration

Over the years, Grey's and ER have also employed guest stars with some surprising connections to one another. To see what we mean, check out the list below!

The Rebounding Ryan Murphy Star

After the WB canceled Ryan Murphy's first series, Popular, in 2001, his leading lady Leslie Bibb rebounded with an eight-episode stint on the NBC drama as med student Erin Harkins, who romanced Goran Visnjic's Luka before nearly dying in a car accident and leaving town. Similarly, after Murphy's Glee wrapped in 2015, his star Matthew Morrison chose the ABC soap as one of his first few high-profile guest-star gigs, appearing in four episodes as the abusive ex-husband of Camilla Luddington's Jo.

The Future Couple

In 1999, Holland Taylor appeared in one episode of the NBC series as County General patient Phyllis Farr. Meanwhile, her future girlfriend Sarah Paulson popped up in the ABC series in 2010 as a far more important character—a young Ellis Grey, mother to Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey. The two began dating in early 2015.

The Former Gilmore Girls Star

Two years after her last regular episode as Rory Gilmore, Alexis Bledel returned to TV as Dr. Julia Wise in the NBC hit's very last episode ever. Meanwhile, her TV grandpa Edward Hermann showed up on the ABC soap in 2007 as surprisingly mature intern Norman Shales. Only one would return to their Gilmore roles when Netflix revived the series for 2016's Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Hermann had passed away on Dec. 31, 2014 at the age of 71.

The Future Friday Night Lights Star

Before he was Ornette Howard in the fourth season of NBC's beloved football drama, Cress Williams appeared in 18 episodes of ER as Officer Reggie Moore. And before he was Coach, Kyle Chandler played bomb squad leader Dylan Young in Grey's' season two post-Super Bowl episode. Only one of them literally blew up though.

The Future Scandal Star

Before he was Huck on Shonda Rhimes' twisty political thriller, Guillermo Diaz booked a 1995 episode of ER for what would be one of his earliest TV roles. And before they were the devious Cyrus Beene and Jake Ballard, respectively, Jeff Perry and Scott Foley popped up on Rhimes' first ABC series. Perry famously played Meredith's estranged father Thatcher, while Foley guested as Henry, the ill-fated husband of Kim Raver's Teddy Altman.

The Addams Family Values Star

Nothing creepy or kooky about this! Years after they appeared in the 1993 sequel as Wednesday Addams and her Camp Chippewa love interest Joel Glicker, Christina Ricci and David Krumholtz popped up in one of TV's long-running medical dramas a piece. Krumholtz arrived in season six of the NBC series as schizophrenic patient Paul Sobriki who, you might recall, was the one who broke our hearts when he stabbed Kellie Martin's poor Lucy Knight to death during a psychotic break. Ricci's arrival on Grey's in season two was not quite as heartbreaking—she played the paramedic with her hand dangerously trapped on an explosive in the post-Super Bowl episode—though it was just as intense.

The Keke Palmer

Keke Palmer is one of the few actors who have appeared on both shows. In one of her earliest acting gigs, she appeared in one of Noah Wyle's last episodes ever as a series regular after a decade of playing Dr. John Carter. Nearly a decade later, she would appear in a 2014 episode of Grey's as well.

The Future Frank Underwood Victim

Before either of them were—spoiler alert!—meeting grisly demises on Netflix's House of Cards, both Corey Stoll and Neve Campbell made medical show guest appearances. Stoll showed up in one 2005 episode of ER as Dr. Teddy Marsh, while Campbell appeared in two season nine episodes of Grey's as Liz Shepherd, one of four sisters belonging to Patrick Dempsey's late Derek.

The Future The Help Star

Before either Octavia Spencer or Jessica Chastain could bond as Minny Jackson and her employer Celia Foote in 2011's The Help, they both appeared on ER early in their careers. Meanwhile, their co-star Chris Lowell—who played the boyfriend of Emma Stone's Skeeter Phelan—appeared in two episodes of Grey's before moving on to spinoff Private Practice for another 54 more as Dell.

The SNL Star

A year before she joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2009, Nasim Pedrad recurred on what would become her home network's medical drama as Nurse Suri. Meanwhile, seven years after she was let go from the late-night comedy, Casey Wilson popped up as a patient pregnant with quadruplets on the ABC soap, returning to the network three years after it canceled her beloved Happy Endings.

The Broadway Legend

Who doesn't love a Tony-nominated star of stage? In 1999, Martha Plimpton began a four-episode stint on the NBC drama as pregnant out-of-work waitress Meg whom Julianna Marguiles' Nurse Carol Hathaway tries to help get on her feet. Meanwhile, the legendary Bernadette Peters arrived on Grey's in 2008 for a two-part season five episode.

The Future Breaking Bad Star

Before either would go on to have their lives ruined by Walter White as his wife Skyler and former student-turned-fellow meth cook Jesse Pinkman on the iconic AMC drama, Anna Gunn and Aaron Paul would pop up on NBC's medical drama in 1999 and 2003, respectively. Meanwhile, before Jesse Plemmons sent chills down our spines as he charming psychopath Todd Alquist in Breaking Bad's final season, he appeared in a 2006 episode of the ABC soap.

The Chris

Every show needs a visit from a famous Chris. ER got theirs in 2003 when Chris Pine appeared in an episode in what would be his first acting role. Grey's, on the other hand, saw their famous Chris arrive in the form of Chris O'Donnell, who recurred as Meredith's vet and short-lived love interest Finn Dandridge.

The Ally McBeal Lovers

Once upon a time, Lucy Liu and Greg Germann got frisky on camera as Ally McBeal's oddball Ling Woo and Richard Fish, respectively. They also each appeared on one of the shows in question, with Liu appearing in three 1995 episodes of ER, while Germann currently recurs as Dr. Tom Koracick on Grey's.

The Josh Radnor

Another of the few actors to appear on both shows, Josh Radnor played the gay lover of a Chicago alderman who contracted syphilis in ER's ninth season. Meanwhile, he popped up on Grey's in 2018 as one of Meredith's ill-fated season 15 dates.

The Jeffrey Dean Morgan

We all know Jeffrey Dean Morgan played the heartbreaking Denny Duquette in season two of Grey's—and again during season five's ill-advised ghost sex storyline—but did you know he appeared on ER first? In a 2001 episode, Morgan guest-starred as a firefighter.

The Future Avenger

Before they joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as  War Machine and and Black Panther, respectively, Don Cheadle and Chadwick Boseman both appeared on the NBC drama. Cheadle appeared in four episodes in 2002 as Dr. Paul Nathan, while Boseman appeared in one 2008 episode as a patient named Derek Taylor. Meanwhile, over on Grey's, a pre-Valkyrie Tessa Thompson appeared in two 2006 episodes as Camille Travis, niece of James Pickens, Jr.'s Richard Webber.

The Jessica Capshaw

While we all know that Jessica Capshaw starred as the beloved Dr. Arizona Robbins for 10 seasons on Grey's Anatomy, she also holds the distinction of being the only series regular on either show to have guest starred on the other. The actress appeared in one 1999 episode of ER as Sally McKenna.

The Oscar Winner

When ER needed someone to come in to play Maggie Wyczenski, the bipolar mother of Maura Tierney's Abby Lockhart, they turned to Oscar-winning legend Sally Field, who played the character in 12 episodes from 2000-2006. Similarly, when Grey's Anatomy needed someone to guest star in season 12 as the angry wife of a patient who shows up at the hospital wondering if her husband is dead yet, they looked no further than EGOT icon Rita Moreno. Sadly, Moreno's Gayle only appeared in the one incredible episode.

The Burgeoning Child Star

Audiences got their first taste of future child star Dakota Fanning when she appeared in a 2000 episode of ER, playing Delia Chadsey, a car crash victim suffering from leukemia. Grey's, meanwhile, gave us one of our earlier glimpses at the preternatural talents of Abigail Breslin when she appeared in a 2006 episode as Megan Clover, a young patient who can't feel pain.

The TV Legend

It was a return to the genre that made him a star when M*A*S*H icon Alan Alda joined ER for a five-episode stint in 1999 as Dr. Gabriel Lawrence, County General's new attending physician who immediately clashed with Anthony Edwards' Mark Greene and was ultimately diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Meanwhile, Happy Days fans were in for a treat when Mrs. C herself Marion Ross showed up in a 2010 Grey's episode as Betty Donahue, an elderly patient who reunites with her long-lost love after they're both randomly admitted to the E.R. at the same time.

The Future Man Men Shero

Before they were doing what they had to do to get by in a man's world on the iconic AMC series, Christina Hendricks and Elisabeth Moss each appeared on one of TV's longest-running medical dramas. Hendricks appeared in four episodes of ER in 2000, playing Joyce Westlake, Abby's new neighbor stuck in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend. Meanwhile, Moss appeared in one 2007 episode of Grey's as Nina Rogerson, the daughter of a patient who sadly died after a risky surgery.

The Burgeoning Teen Star

Before she was starring in hits like Bring It On and Dick, Kirsten Dunst had a recurring role on ER, playing Charlie Chemingo, a child prostitute who was cared for by George Clooney's Dr. Doug Ross. Dunst appeared in a total of six episodes between 1996-97. Similarly, before she visited the Upside Down as Stranger Things' breakout character Eleven, Millie Bobby Brown appeared in a 2015 episode of Grey's as Ruby, a young girl who needs the help of Kevin McKidd's Dr. Owen Hunt after an earthquake hits Seattle.

The Roswell Leading Lady

Two Roswells means two Lizs, and oddly enough, each of them have appeared on one of these shows. Shiri Appleby, the OG Liz who starred on the WB/UPN series from 1999-2002, actually appeared on ER twice in her career. Her first appearance, as a teen with ectopic pregnancy, took place in the 1994 series premiere, while her second, as intern Daria Wade, took place over the course of nine episodes in the show's final season. Meanwhile, Jeanine Mason, Liz in the CW's reboot Roswell, New Mexico, recurred as Dr. Sam Bello for 12 episodes of Grey's from 2017-18.

The Harold & Kumar Star

ER got a visit from Kumar himself, Kal Penn, in a 2001 episode when he guest-starred as Narajan, while it was Harold, aka John Cho, who stopped by Grey's in 2006 to guest as Marshall Stone. And no White Castle was consumed during either appearance.

The Disney Kid

Before he began breaking tween hearts everywhere as High School Musical's Troy Bolton, Zac Efron appeared in a 2003 episode of ER as Bobby Neville, a shooting victim who didn't make it out of County General alive. Meanwhile, a year into her Sonny with a Chance run on Disney Channel, Demi Lovato arrived in a 2010 Grey's episode to show fans that she could handle material darker than anything the Mouse House would ever let air. She played Hayley May, a young diasnosed paranoid schizophrenic who had tried to claw her eyes out.

The Future NBC Leading Lady

Before Mariska Hargitay became the iconic Det. Olivia Benson on NBC's long-running Law & Order: SVU, she appeared in 13 episodes of ER in 1997-98 as Cynthia Hooper, a County General desk clerk who developed a relationship with Anthony Edwards' Mark Greene. Meanwhile, before she became the mother of the Big Three on This Is Us, Mandy Moore appeared in a handful of 2010 Grey's episodes as patient Mary Portman, who survived the intense hospital shooting only to not survive her colostomy bag reversal surgery six months later.

The Reality Star

Before she was giving us life as one of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Kyle Richards appeared in 21 episodes of ER from 1998-2006 as Nurse Dori. Meanwhile, as Real World: San Diego participant Jamie Chung made her transition to acting, she appeared on both shows, visiting ER first in 2007 and Grey's next in 2010.

Grey's Anatomy airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. on ABC. Meanwhile, ER's entire 15-season run is available to stream on Hulu.