Looking Back At Classic TV’s “Kind-of-Twin” Top Doctors
I pattern my actions and life after what I want. No two people are alike. You might admire attributes in others, but use these only as a guide in improving yourself in your own unique way. I don’t go for carbon copies. Individualism is sacred! — Richard Chamberlain
We all know the commercial.
“I’m not a doctor. I just play one on TV.”
That certainly was and remains the case for a number of actors best known for portraying physicians on television’s most prominent medical shows through the years, beginning with Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey, from the early 1960s all the way up to more contemporary ventures like ER and House.
But certainly, Kildare and Casey, side by side, if not on the same network (or even in the same medical facility) were two of the first TV doctors to earn a strong medicinal-like following from the home viewer. Both premiering in the fall of 1961, Kildare, starring Richard Chamberlain (on NBC) and Casey, starring Vince Edwards (a.k.a. Vincent Edwards) (on ABC) proved to be a one-two thumpity-thump on the hearts of TV fans across the country.
On Kildare, Chamberlain portrayed the dashing (first name, James) young lead doctor who set hearts afire, on-screen and off. Author John Javna, in his book, Cult TV, said it perfectly:
Kildare was “every mother’s dream, and every girl’s desire,” as he fought nobly to “save human lives every week.”
By Kildare’s side as a mentor: the much-older Dr. James Leonard Gillespie, played by Raymond Massey. President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961 and, as Javna assessed, a new era of politics, and a fresh spirit of “optimism and idealism” was delivered to America, encouraging the country’s youth to “get involved”…“make a difference” and to create life-changing interest groups and organizations like the Peace Corps.
Dr. Kildare, the character, was “the first bona fide TV hero of the 60s,” Javna assessed: someone who represented the “best hopes” of this new generation. “Young, intelligent, committed, the evil he fought was an assortment of diseases. His weapons were a good education and a willingness to care about people. Teenagers loved him [over 2 million watched him every week]. His popularity also reflected the growing esteem in which doctors were being held. America was turning to science for salvation, and doctors were the new gods.”
The silver-tongued Kildare was so popular, in fact, that Chamberlain received more fan mail than silver screen legend Clark Gable (and three times as much as Vince Edwards and Ben Casey). Chamberlain also had a hit record with a lyric-based edition of the show’s theme, while his likeness was spread across a Kildare comic book that sold over five hundred thousand copies in six months. The show’s adventures were even popular abroad, in quite surprising places like behind the Iron Curtain, where the Polish Communist Party rescheduled its meetings from Wednesday to Thursday because, on Wednesday, all eyes were glued to viewing Kildare on the tube — and no one attending their meetings. Now that’s popular!
“What you see on my face is indignation.” — Ben Casey, as played by Vince Edwards on the show’s fourth season episode, “Minus That Rusty Old Hacksaw.”
On Ben Casey, Vince Edwards played the straightforward, yet unconventional lead neurosurgeon at County General Hospital. He was more rugged-looking and less classically handsome than Chamberlain, but like Kildare, had a mentor — this one named Dr. David Zorba, as portrayed by Sam Jaffe (and whose voiceover, “Man, woman, birth, death, infinity,” opened every episode).
As John Javna observed, “Casey wasn’t just a doctor — he was a macho doctor. His shirt was always open, revealing a thick mat of chest hair. He didn’t respect authority, and he didn’t kowtow to anyone. The only man who could talk to him was the wise old grandfatherly Dr. Zorba.”
In comparing Casey to Kildare, the former had almost the exact same run as the latter. Casey debuted only a month after Kildare and was canceled only five months earlier. Thirty-two million people watched Casey every week, while Edwards became as big a sex symbol as Chamberlain.
Both had paraphernalia like pins that said things like “Doctor Kildare Is a Doll” and “I’ve Got a Case on Ben Casey.” There were even competing board games, The Ben Casey, M.D. Game — The Drama of Life in a Big Metropolitan Hospital and Dr. Kildare: Medical Game for the Young. As with Kildare, the Casey theme song became a hit record, sung by Valjean (a pop-artist of the day). The only main difference is that Casey had a shirt named after him . . . a replica of which he adorned on a weekly basis.
John Javna, for one, doubted whether Casey would have found an audience, had not Kildare been along for the ride. “But you really can’t separate them,” he noted. “They were always thought of by viewers as a single unit. Together, they were the most visible manifestation of an early 60s phenomenon — the emergence of doctors as media heroes.”
Pop-culture scholar Jeff Thompson put it this way:
Ben Casey was a full-fledged medical doctor whereas James Kildare was an intern. Dr. Kildare was a softly handsome blond and Ben Casey was darkly handsome. Or to use a seventies analogy, one was more the Robert Redford type to the other’s Burt Reynolds.
Historian/author Rick Lertzman added:
When Richard Chamberlain assumed the role of Dr. Kildare in 1961, he possessed many of the qualities of his predecessor in the role, Lew Ayres, who was the star of the MGM motion picture series [1938–1942] of the same name. Chamberlain was handsome, tall and charismatic. Despite his youthful appearance, he seemed far older than his chronological age. He oozed class, manner, and elegance. As Dr. James Kildare, Chamberlain portrayed an idealist that directly conflicted with his ability as a skilled internist. Unlike many of his contemporaries starring in television dramas (including Vince Edwards as Ben Casey), Chamberlain’s James Kildare represented the optimism of the Kennedy era. As a member of the Camelot generation, his Kildare mirrored the youthful exuberance of our young President.
A classically trained actor, Chamberlain brought a realism to his role that appealed to viewers of all ages. Dr. Kildare still resonates with viewers who remember this well-crafted program and its leading man, Richard Chamberlain.
Either way, Richard Chamberlain and Vince Edwards ignited and sustained their mainstream media mainstay as two of classic TV’s top docs.
For my money, Dr. Kildare was the superior of the two shows. The scripts were terrific, as was the acting, the directing and the overall quality.
Ben Casey was an acceptable show, and the guest-star talent was of equal caliber to that showcased on Dr. Kildare. But Casey had a few strikes against it. Edwards did not deliver as likable a performance as did Chamberlain on Kildare. The general tone of Casey was melodramatic and over-done. And the background music was way over-the-top, bordering on annoying.
But to each their own.
Both Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey found their own audience and their own following — which remains today. And that’s the way it should be. That’s what television — and creative freedom of choice is all about.
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This article is edited material from the book, DASHING, DARING, AND DEBONAIR: TV’S TOP MALE ICONS FROM THE ’50s, ’60s, AND ’70s. For more information, please visit www.HerbieJPilato.com.