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In Falling Skies, Noah Wyle shows a quiet intensity in his role as resistance leader Tom Mason (above). — PHOTO: AXN

He was one of the hospital coat-wearing heart-throbs of ER, the long-running medical series that dominated television ratings from 1994 to 2009.

But while Noah Wyle may not be as famous as George Clooney, who went from TV doctor to movie star, he was arguably ER’s hardest-working cast member. He appeared in more episodes than anyone else and became, at one point, the top-earning actor on an American TV drama, reportedly drawing about US$400,000 an episode in Season 10.

He may have a knack for picking winners too: Falling Skies, the first series he has done since ER, has become one of the most-watched shows on basic cable TV in the United States.Set in a post-apocalyptic world where alien invaders have wiped out 90 per cent of the human race, the show – which is executive-produced by Steven Spielberg – has just been renewed for a fourth season, with the third premiering in Singapore on Monday at 10pm on AXN (StarHub TV Channel 511).

For those who loved Wyle as Dr John Carter, the medical student who becomes an accomplished and passionate doctor, it might sound like a stretch to have him battling extraterrestrials.

But as Tom Mason, a history professor- turned-resistance leader, the actor displays the same quiet intensity that he brought to Carter, a role that earned him five Emmy nominations.

As Mason, however, Wyle is the clear star and hero – one brandishing a gun rather than a stethoscope.

The switch terrified him at first, he tells Life! and other reporters at a press event in Los Angeles. “The thing that drew me most to this show was the fact that it scared me so much and held a mirror up to everything that I considered a shortcoming,” says the 42-year-old who, apart from ER, has had a pretty low-key career, doing a handful of theatre productions and small independent films.

“I don’t think of myself as a dynamic action-type actor. I was very comfortable working within the body of an ensemble, and I was nervous about heading one and promoting myself as the big lead on the poster, the guy who saves the day. It’s not really my nature.”

He is also a producer on Falling Skies and runs a Hollywood theatre company on the side.

But just as Mason has been reluctantly taking on more responsibilities in the resistance, Wyle has found himself becoming a leader on the set of the show, which is filmed in Vancouver, Canada. Drew Roy, the 27-year-old who plays Mason’s oldest son, says his on-screen dad “sets a very high standard”, making him and the other younger actors “feel like we can never show up and not know our lines”.

Moon Bloodgood, 37, who plays the lead female character, Anne Glass, echoes this. She reveals that Wyle “is a natural-born leader – very bright, and very much expects us to show up and know our craft”.

“He just brings us all up because he’s such a great actor and so committed to the show.”

Bloodgood, who plays a doctor, says Wyle’s ER experience makes him an invaluable resource for her.

“His mother was a nurse too, so he gives me tips. Like when I had to do chest compressions on a kid in one scene, he showed me how to pump my shoulders up and down, and then kick my knee on the table – little things that you would never do as a doctor, but that look good on TV,” says the 37-year-old.

Wyle, who left ER in 2005, is quick to point out, however, that playing a doctor – even for 12 years – does not mean you acquire any real medical knowledge.

“It’s kind of like cramming for a test,” he says. “I make sure I know it on the day but after that, maybe it stays and maybe it doesn’t.”

He has retained some completely random tidbits, though. “Theoretically, I could do a thoracotomy,” he says, referring to a surgical incision into the chest cavity. “But I wouldn’t want to.”

On Falling Skies, instantly acquiring the appearance of expertise has been far easier. Wyle says he was already a military history buff, which dovetailed nicely with the academic background of his character, who draws on it to come up with strategies to fight the aliens with.

Although battling an invasion sounds like it would be more tiring and complicated than seeing patients, the actor says the biggest difference between ER and Falling Skies is the production schedule, which is much shorter on Falling Skies.

He says of ER: “When you’re doing a 22-episode season, you don’t really know where you’re going to be by the end of the year, and your character can be completely redefined.

“With a 10-episode season, you pretty much know the storytelling you’re going to do before you start, which is a huge advantage.”

Wyle, who has two children – Owen, 10, and Auden, seven – with ex-wife and make-up artist Tracy Warbin, adds: “It also affords you a better quality of life. It’s 41/2 months of work as opposed to 91/2. Totally different.”

Falling Skies Season 3 premieres on AXN (StarHub TV Channel 511) on Monday, August 19 at 10pm.

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on August 17, 2013. For similar stories, go to sph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.