The Doctor Is In
by Guy Belleranti
The early 1960’s saw the appearance of two successful doctor series on television. Both series began and ended in the same years, running from 1961 to 1966. The programs were Dr. Kildare on NBC and Ben Casey on ABC.
Richard Chamberlain was Dr. James Kildare, a young intern (and later resident) doctor who worked in a large hospital under Dr. Leonard Gillespie. Raymond Massey played Gillespie, and together Kildare and Gillespie tackled the physical and emotional ills of various patients.
Massey had been acting a long time when the program began (he was a wonderful Abraham Lincoln in 1940’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois for example), but Chamberlain was fairly new on the scene. And his role as Dr. Kildare made Chamberlain both a star and a teen heartthrob. Chamberlain even recorded a song on MGM records titled “Three Stars Will Shine Tonight” taken from the program’s theme music.
The Dr. Kildare episodes were 60 minutes long for the first four years. Then, in the final season, the episode length was reduced to 30 minutes and they ran twice a week on back to back nights. All told, 190 total episodes were aired over the series run, with 132 an hour in length and 58 half an hour long.
Ben Casey also followed the experiences of a young and handsome doctor. Vince Edwards was Casey, an intense and idealistic resident hospital neurosurgeon. And like Kildare, Casey also had an older mentor. Casey’s mentor was Dr. David Zorba, played with aplomb by Sam Jaffe (Gunga Din, The Asphalt Jungle). Jaffe left the program in 1965 and Franchot Tone took his place as Dr. Daniel Niles Freeland.
A number of well-known people directed episodes of Ben Casey, including Edwards himself, Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Out of Africa) and Arthur Hiller (Love Story, The In-Laws). 153 episodes of Ben Casey were produced. All were 60 minutes long.
A few additional interesting notes about these two doctor programs:
- Dr. Kildare was the invention of Frederick Schiller Faust, an American western fiction author who wrote under several pseudonyms including Max Brand.
- Dr. Kildare was a popular movie character in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Joel McCrea played Kildare in the first big screen story, and then Lew Ayres took over starring as Kildare in nine more Hollywood films.
- Dr. Kildare was also a radio series in the 1950’s.
- Ben Casey became a popular comic strip, beginning its newspaper run in 1962 and continuing until 1966.
- Both of the doctor programs resulted in a short-lived series of comic books in the early 60’s.
- In 1988 Ben Casey returned to television in a two hour movie appropriately titled The Return of Ben Casey. Vince Edwards also returned in the starring role.
Both Dr. Kildare and Ben Casey were influential in the television world. Each did their part in paving the way for future medical series such as Marcus Welby, MD, Medical Center, St. Elsewhere, Chicago Hope and ER.
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