Reporting for rounds as hunky pediatrician Luka Kovac on the Burbank set of NBC's ER last summer, Goran Visnjic didn't waste a heartbeat. "He immediately wanted to go to the emergency room," says Neal Baer, a pediatrician who serves as the show's coexecutive producer. "We taught him how to suture because he had a scene where he had to suture a boy." But it was not the actor's first exposure to medical procedures. "I was observing in the ER in Zagreb, first," he told the Gannett News Service last month. "I did my homework in Croatia," which happens to be where Visnjic, 27, grew up.
All that preparation has paid off. In his first few weeks on the hit series, Kovac not only stitched up that kid with aplomb, he goaded a wife beater into assaulting him so the guy would wind up in the psych ward, pretending to be a priest to comfort a dying patient, and, not least, has made a smitten nurse, Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies), and millions of female fans forget, at least temporarily, about the actor the broodingly handsome, 6'4" Visnjic replaced: George Clooney.
"Women really love him," reports Baer. "He walked onto that show a filled a void," agrees Risa Bramon Garcia, who cast Visnjic in a bit part in 1997's The Peacemaker, a thriller that, coincidentally, starred George Clooney. "I'm a lucky girl!" says Margulies, who describes her new costar as "diligent and funny." However, she adds, "I have never seen Goran as filling in George Clooney's shoes. Goran fills in his own shoes quite nicely."
And quite modestly, "I cannot see myself on the screen, and I cannot hear my voice," Visnjic told PEOPLE (as our Sexiest Import) last year after viewing one of his films. "I feel it's awful." Back home in Croatia, "there are no stars," explains the classically trained actor. "No one is driving around in a black limo. In Dubrovnik, where I've done Hamlet for six years, they're like 'Oh, Goran's in town again. Hi Goran.'"
Born in the small village of Sibenik on the Adriatic coast, Visnjic, the younger of two sons of a saleswoman and her bus driver husband, plunged into acting at age 9. "A guy from the [local] amateur theater asked my teacher who was good at reading stories, and she said me," he recalls. He continued to perform through school, then at 18, entered the army for a year's required service, training as a paratrooper.
In 1991, as his tour of duty ended, war broke out between Croatia and neighbouring Serbia. Visnjic voluntarily stayed on for three more months of combat. "I felt I had to do it to defend my country," he says, modestly adding, "that's normal." After his acceptance into Zagreb's Academy of Dramatic Arts, he was allowed to leave the army. His older brother, now 29 and a salesman, eagerly took his place. (Croatians discourage siblings from serving at the same time.) "He couldn't wait until I went out," says Visnjic.
The rising thespian went on to make several Croatian-language movies before being discovered in Welcome to Sarajevo, an acclaimed 1997 feature about the Serbo-Croatian war. At the film's premiere he met actor-director Griffin Dunne, who asked him to audition for Practical Magic, a 1998 supernatural comedy. The role of Nicole Kidman's Texas redneck boyfriend was rewritten for Visnjic, who played him as an Eastern European who idolizes American cowboys. "It was a physically demanding role," says Dunne, "because for two weeks he had to pretend to be dead! He had to lie on a table with needles in his eyes and candle wax dripping on him."
Since then the very animated Visnjic has resisted the urge to go Hollywood. No starlets for him. He has settled in L.A. with his Croatian wife, Ivana, a sculptor. And he remans in awe of the America beyond that glittering coast. "The Grand Canyon is like, who digged such a huge hole? It's too big for my mind," he said last year. "In Croatia I could walk," he added. "Here, everything is highway. You could just put a stone on the gas pedal and say, 'Okay I'll see you there.'"