* Show boosted careers of actors such as George Clooney
* Viewership slipped as original cast members bowed out (Updates with higher figure of 16.4 million from NBC)
By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES, April 3 (Reuters) - NBC hospital drama “ER” ended its 15-year run by drawing 16.4 million viewers for its final episode, the highest viewership for a drama finale since 1996, the U.S. network said on Friday.
The two-hour show on Thursday night brought back “ER” alumni Noah Wyle and Eriq La Salle, as the staff at County General Hospital in Chicago treated a dying woman in labor, an AIDS patient and a comatose teenager with alcohol poisoning.
The last scene showed emergency room staff wheeling in burn victims from a plant explosion as Chicago’s famous elevated train passed overhead, giving audiences the sense that while a TV show may end, life goes on.
The 16.4 million figure was the highest for a U.S. drama finale since the CBS show “Murder, She Wrote” in 1996, which drew 16.5 million viewers, NBC (GE.N) said.
Earlier on Friday the network said the show had drawn 16.2 million viewers.
Throughout its run on U.S. television, “ER” boosted the careers of actors like Wyle, La Salle and George Clooney, who played Dr. Doug Ross on the show until 1999.
The late author Michael Crichton created the series in 1994, drawing on his experiences as a medical student at a busy hospital emergency department.
As original cast members bowed out, they were replaced by the likes of John Stamos, Angela Bassett and Maura Tierney, and viewership slipped.
The show recently had attracted fewer than 8 million viewers per episode. But at the height of its popularity in the mid-1990s it was the top-rated drama in the United States.
Its highest viewership was in 1998 when 25.8 million people tuned in after the finale of NBC comedy “Seinfeld.”
Comedies often have enjoyed higher viewership than dramas in their finales. “Friends” had 52.5 million viewers for its last episode in 2004, and 76.3 million people watched the finale of “Seinfeld,” NBC said. (Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Xavier Briand)