restricted access 3. The Gentleman and the Bull
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3 The Gentleman and the Bull “What the hell are you using for brains?” These unfriendly words were among the ‹rst spoken on TV by Ben Casey, a nasty neurosurgeon who is Topic A in show business these days. The character has become such an entity in its own right that many viewers forget that Casey is a piece of ‹ction played by a relatively unknown actor named Vincent Edwards. On the weekly show (Monday on ABC), Casey is an irate surgeon who has no qualms about tangling with the hospital board, patients’ relatives, other doctors, and most of the human race. As played by Edwards, he runs the gamut all the way from snapping to snarling. . . . And yet Dr. Casey is making feminine hearts go pit-a-pat as they haven’t in a long time.1 Nobody quite like Richard Chamberlain has come along in many a video moon. . . . He had only a few bit roles to his credit when the studio cast him as young Dr. Kildare in the NBC-TV series built around the role created for the movies by Lew Ayres. The show went on the air in September, 1961, clicked almost immediately, and has been in the top 10 for nearly a year. In this short time, Dick Chamberlain has become one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, drawing more fan mail than anybody in the history of MGM. . . . And the nicest part of all is that Chamberlain wears the success like the gentleman he is. . . . He is hard-working, has the great potential of a 69 lasting star, and everybody likes him. Even the hard-bitten studio hands, who can spot a phony clear across the lot, treat him with the fond affection reserved for favorite sons.2 Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare were the hottest television topics of the early 1960s. For their creators, being hot was a heady and lucrative experience . But it wasn’t easy. Young actors with aims that went beyond their medical parts were startled to ‹nd themselves central to a huge fad that often did not separate their medical images from their private personalities . And producers, writers, network of‹cials, and medical leaders often found themselves struggling over medical depictions in an unusually public way. No one working on the programs had predicted the extent of their popularity, or the extent of public discussions about them. The people who had created the show, however, had purposefully chosen trackrecord elements of the doctor show. For them, the doctor formula was clear. The mold had begun to be set during the 1930s and 1940s with Dr. Kildare and Dr. Christian. On television, Medic had pumped new excitement into the form while also indicating what shouldn’t be done. Now the trick was to mix what producers and network executives saw as the combination of setting, characters, and plots that would draw the largest audiences. For the programs’ creators, it meant placing storytelling routines in motion that could navigate the complex, and sometimes contradictory, concerns of networks, advertisers, medical organizations , and medical advisors. What the creators did, and the impact it had on discussions of medicine in public and in the TV industry, is the subject of this chapter and the one that follows. “This Guy Had Balls!” Ben Casey’s beginning is really a continuation of James Moser’s story after Medic. By late 1958, Moser was getting tired of the hack writing he was doing. He was well regarded and he was making a lot of money, but he was unhappy. He recalled: All the other writers I knew, they were at Universal or Warner’s and I looked at the shit they were doing and I said, “I don’t want to do that.” In 70 | PLAYING DOCTOR that interim period I went over to Warner’s and they wanted me to do Colt 45 [a TV western series]. Nice solid little deal. Turn out 26 of them. And I said, “Boy, this is gonna take a year and a half—wow. Who needs it!” Moser’s agent, sensing his client’s frustration, reminded him that he had a lot of unused material left over from Medic and suggested that he ‹nd a way to use it. For his part, Moser had by then gotten past his anger over what he saw as NBC’s refusal to let him deal honestly with medical reality. He also began to see new possibilities for medicine in American television. Increasingly...


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