restricted access 4. "Oh . . . Doctor!"
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4 “Oh . . . Doctor!” Press coverage of Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey reached avalanche proportions . Magazines and newspapers claimed to re›ect the excitement that millions of Americans seemed to be feeling as both shows rocketed toward the top of the rating charts. But the press clearly did more than act as a mirror. It explained and channeled the excitement and played certain ideas down while it boosted others. Encouraged by networks interested in promoting the programs and an AMA interested in promoting physician cultural authority, the press recited similar themes about the series across a variety of media. Many of the articles reinforced an illusion that the actors and the roles were in many ways interchangeable. This slant was not new. Claiming that the realism of doctor shows extended to the behavior and personalities of their stars was a publicity approach that harked back at least to Internes Can’t Take Money in 1936. But now magazines and newspapers carried the activity to new heights. They sustained their attention to the programs until the ratings for Kildare and Casey started to drop. When the fervor died, a variety of chefs scrambled to reshape the series. That they were unsuccessful ultimately didn’t matter. The excitement the shows ignited, the image of medicine they presented, and the way the press talked about it had created a solid frame of reference by which creators, production ‹rms, networks , and organized medicine would judge other programs for years to come. 95 “He’s a Doctor” Magazines and newspapers con‹ded that Richard Chamberlain was James Kildare. Likewise, Vince Edwards was Ben Casey. True, neither of them knew that much about medicine, nor cared to. But when it came to their bedside manners, the articles said, each actor was a spitting image of his TV counterpart. Chamberlain’s mother was quoted in TV Guide as saying, “I do sometimes get the feeling that Dick is a doctor. I think it’s because this part suits him more than anything else he has ever played. . . . A casual friend of mine . . . turned to her husband right after watching the show last week and said ›atly, ‘He’s not an actor, he’s a doctor.’”1 His press coverage said that he was “a real doll,” and “squeaky clean.” As soft-spoken as the Blair intern, he could also be as quietly stubborn and intent about his career. He was callow but eager to learn, and he looked up to Raymond Massey much as Kildare looked up to Gillespie. He was described by the same adjectives that Chamberlain used to describe his TV alter-ego: “good, high-minded, trustworthy, loyal, warmhearted, friendly, sincere, and chaste.”2 Vince Edwards’s press image was almost the opposite, and very close to Ben Casey’s. Writers trying to capture him used words such as surly, snarling, and growling. They found him blunt and self-assured. They said he was an inveterate horse gambler who made life dif‹cult on the set by holding up the shooting schedule. He was said to be a good actor only when it came to emoting anger—and then only because he basically played himself. Nevertheless, the public gossip said, he was dedicated to his TV character. He told reporters that he was committed to perpetuating the “godlike kind of man” he felt Ben Casey represented. They obligingly cemented that commitment by blurring the lines between Casey and Edwards. The following headline was typical: “Vince Edwards, the scowling star of the Ben Casey series, electri‹es women . . . with his cantankerous bedside manner.”3 According to the press, both Chamberlain and Edwards appealed to women, but de‹nitely different kinds of women. The accepted wisdom was that Kildare ignited the ‹fteen- to thirty-‹ve-year-old population. Casey, it was felt, was especially attractive to females aged thirty and up. One writer compared their effects to a two-pronged epidemic which 96 | PLAYING DOCTOR reached its weekly peak when the shows aired. Common symptoms of the supposed epidemic were raised blood pressure, faster pulse rate, occasional hypochondria and, “as the psychiatrists might put it, transference of affection.”4 This kind of hyperbole was not rare, and it was not always tonguein -cheek. Magazine and newspaper stories alleged that the two medics had kindled an awesome fever. Speculation on why it was happening yielded two curiously traditional reasons: sex and violence. Richard Chamberlain expressed the consensus opinion about his character’s (and his own) appeal when he ventured...


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