TV hits are cyclic. There will be a span of five years or so when, for example, medical dramas are all the rage. And even though shows from ER to House have been trumpeted as "redefining the genre," every one of them has borrowed heavily from the handful of classic medical dramas that first acquainted audiences with life behind the surgical curtain.
1. The Medic
The first medical television series that emphasized the physician's skills and the latest technology (rather than the steamy goings-on in the break room) was The Medic, which starred Richard Boone and aired on NBC from 1954-1956. The show's creator (and chief writer), James Moser, had previously worked on Dragnet and used Jack Webb as his mentor. The Medic's scripts were based on actual case histories and the scripts were double-checked by medical professionals. Many scenes during the series were filmed in actual clinics and hospitals in the Los Angeles area, and as a result The Medic became the first prime-time series to show film footage of an actual childbirth. The Medic was ground-breaking in many ways and would probably be better remembered today if NBC hadn't aired it Monday nights in the same time slot as the CBS juggernaut I Love Lucy.
2. Dr. Kildare
Two medical dramas premiered on competing networks in September 1961. NBC's entry, Dr. Kildare, was based on a long-running radio drama by the same name. Richard Chamberlain starred as the young intern title character who was simultaneously trying to deal with the problems of his patients while trying to please the senior doctor (Raymond Massey). Massey, as Dr. Gillespie, told Kildare on his first day "Our job is to keep people alive, not tell them how to live," advice which Kildare of course ignored in every episode. With his soft, almost pretty facial features, Chamberlain was a natural to become a teen idol, and thanks to frequent exposure in rags like 16 Magazine, young girls tuned in by the millions to make Dr. Kildare a hit that enjoyed a six season run.
3. Ben Casey
Ben Casey, the CBS series that challenged Dr. Kildare, was created by James Moser, that stickler for accuracy who was behind The Medic. Unlike intern James Kildare, Ben Casey was a full-fledged resident neurosurgeon on the staff of Metro General Hospital. And unlike the warm, fuzzy, compassionate Dr. Kildare, Dr. Casey was gritty, gruff and demanding. "What are you using for brains?!" he'd bark at nurses during surgery, and he was forever at odds with any rule or hospital official that stood between him and an experimental treatment of a patient. Casey's mentor, and the only hospital official who could "tame" him was Dr. Zorba, played by Sam Jaffee, who'd apparently attended the Larry Fine school of hair styling. Dark, brooding Vince Edwards (who played Ben Casey) became a matinee idol in his own right, while Jaffee's intonation of "Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity" during the series' opening credits have become something of a pop culture icon.
4. Marcus Welby, MD
The current American health care model has made family practitioners like Marcus Welby, MD, all but extinct. Dr. Welby, played by Robert Young, ran his own small practice with the assistance of a young and brash associate, Dr. Steven Kiley (James Brolin, as the resident Dr. McDreamy) and one nurse. Dr. Welby had known a lot of his patients since birth (because he'd delivered them), so there wasn't much that escaped his gimlet eye. During a routine appointment, he might note the stunted growth and apparent fatigue of his Italian-American patient's young daughter, ask the father a few pointed questions then confidently pronounce, "I'm going to recommend that you see a pediatric hematologist, but I'm fairly certain Maria has Beta Thalassemia, also known as Cooley's Anemia." Dr. Welby could spot anything from multiple sclerosis to leprosy at fifty paces, and would always be in the surgical theater observing whenever one of his patients went under the scalpel. Marcus Welby, MD, ran from 1969 to 1976, and even at that time his style of medicine was an anomaly. Both ABC and Robert Young received thousands of complaints from real-life doctors who found the number of malpractice suits filed against them escalating at an alarming rate simply because "they weren't like Marcus Welby."
5. Medical Center
Medical Center ran on CBS from 1969 to 1976 and starred Chad Everett as Dr. Joe Gannon, an associate professor of surgery at a university hospital. Medical Center tended to deal with more controversial issues than Marcus Welby, such as gang violence, racial and sexual discrimination within the hospital ranks, rising health care costs, and abortion. Dr. Gannon led a far more interesting life than Dr. Welby; he frequently fell in love with patients and was also the victim of stalkers, irate cops and paternity suits. One memorable two-part episode starred Brady Bunch patriarch Robert Reed as a prominent physician who came in search of a sex change operation. Transsexualism was a pretty outrageous concept to present in the living rooms of 1975 Middle America, and Reed won an Emmy nomination for his very poignant role.
Who is your favorite TV medico? Whether old school or new, who is the sawbones you wouldn't mind giving you a complete physical?
For more great TV stories, check out Kara's complete TV-Holic archive.