Richard Chamberlain first became known to me via the 1983 TV Miniseries THE THORN BIRDS. It must have been a huge spectacle at the time because I seem to recall us watching it as a family at the time it came out (and then later on VHS perhaps). It was probably over the heads of my sisters and I in a lot of ways, but I distinctly recall we connected to it at the very least via the fact that Rachel Ward's character was named "Meggie" and that was a nickname for one of my sisters. When you're a kid it's always a kick to hear your name mentioned on TV. Even though it's not you, its was like the television is addressing you for a second. So Chamberlain was the priest character in the THORN BIRDS and I must have heard my mom talk about him or something, but there was a sense there of him being a handsome actor who had been around for a while. Little did I know that he was a film star extraordinaire and had been in other TV Miniseries as well as his big hit show DR. KILDARE in the 1960s. The show was a legitimate phenomenon (see a few of the collectible trinkets below). Chamberlain had done some acting work prior to KILDARE, but it was truly his breakout launching pad (it catapulted him from relative obscurity to teen idol status) and it's easy to see why. On top of him being a handsome fella, it was just a great show that tried to position itself on the cutting edge of some medical issues contemporary to the period it was on television. It is important to remember that TV was quite a young medium in 1961 when KILDARE first aired. Though TVs were something of a novelty for rich folks just after WWII ended, by ten years later almost two thirds of American homes had a television set. So this is only six years after that. People were very much still getting used to the idea of inviting characters into their homes at night as they sat gathered around the TV. I mean, think about the relationship we have today with TV shows and TV characters. We get really attached to them and we've all grown up with that. So imagine having a strong, charismatic character like Dr. James Kildare suddenly start showing up in your house once a week. It must have been pretty powerful stuff. On top of that, it was an early TV medical drama and we've obviously seen how those shows have continued in popularity even up to right now (mu wife and I were watching NURSE JACKIE just the other night as a matter of fact). It's easy to see the draw of a medical drama in a lot of ways. We all get sick and or know people who've been sick and had to go to a doctor or a hospital for treatment. That relatability combined with human drama is a highly potent combination for sure.
I'm a relative newcomer to the James Kildare character in general. I only saw many of the Lew Ayres films for the first time over the past year or so and I had never seen the TV show until after Warner Archive released it. I had a great fondness for the films and found them a reawakening for me as far as my conception of Ayres. The films were of course greatly aided in their enjoyability by the presence of Lionel Barrymore as the crotchety but wise Dr. Gillespie. That role would be taken over by Raymond Massey in the TV series. Barrymore leaves some incredibly tough shoes to fill as Gillespie is easily one of his greatest roles (and that's saying something). I find that Chamberlain is a great and obviously a bit more dynamic actor to take over the the Ayres role. It is of course not really necessary to compare the show and the films at all, but having seen them in such close proximity, it was hard for me not to at least think about it for a moment or two. That being said, the TV show is really quite spectacular. Sure, some of the medical stuff is a little dated, but I was surprised how much it has a continued or at least parallel relevance considering its age. From each episode's stylish opening freeze frames onward, it is a show that hints at the classy, engaging drama within.
The first season of the show (which is now available in HD on Warner Archive Instant), has a remarkable cavalcade of guest stars (as TV of this period often did) which elevates it to must see status. I marveled as actors like Lee Marvin, Ellen Burstyn, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Malone, Margaret O'Brien, Mary Astor, Ted Knight, Suzanne Pleschette, Harvey Korman, Gavin MacLeod, Anne Francis, William Shatner, Dick York and Martin Balsam paraded by. Chamberlain establishes Kildare as a driven, no-guff-taking, free-thinker within the first minutes of the first episode and never loses sight of that. The series really establishes Blair General in a very engaging way and portrays the inner workings of a hospital in a way that must have been quite revelatory to audiences at the time. Issues of vaccination and potentially epidemic communicable diseases (which I've been reading a lot about in the news lately), malpractice, institutionalization and others often still feel
contemporary. Season Two continues and gets stronger as it includes guests like Carroll O'Connor, Gloria Swanson, Robert Culp, Peter Falk, Leonard Nimoy, John Cassavetes, Bill Bixby, Harry Guardino, Ed Begley, Olympia Dukakis, Claire Trevor, Murray Hamilton, Barbara Barrie, James Caan, Everett Sloane, Henry Silva, James Franciscus, and Mariette Hartley. It even has a very special episode filmed in "Living Color" with a young Robert Redford guest starring as a cocky medical student. Several episodes of this season were directed by Jack "CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON" Arnold. Season Three is highlighted by what is almost a standalone movie in the middle. It is a two-part episode called "Tyger, Tyger,..." and it stars Clu Gulagher and Yvette Mimeux (at the height of her cuteness only 4 years after her adorable turn in WHERE THE BOYS ARE). The two play surfers and Mimeux s brought in to Blair General after falling off her surfboard due to some fainting spells she's struggling with. She's called Pat Holmes and she's quite the free-spirited beatnik type. Kildare is immediately taken with her and becomes fascinated with her freewheeling lifestyle. He even feels the pull of the waves himself and allows her to teach him how to surf. The majority of the story is focused on Pat's struggle with epilepsy. Epilepsy was rarely if ever addressed in film and TV at that point especially in the way the show goes about it. The episode also has cult actress Anjanette Comer (THE LOVED ONE) as an alcoholic drying to dry out in a smaller subplot. In addition to that, the third seasons features walk ons by the likes of Gena Rowlands, Caesar Romero, Loren Bacall, Jack Lord, Ralph Bellamy, Sal Mineo, Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell.A quick silly thing of note for me was to notice that Elliot Silverstein directed 14 episodes of KILDARE and he also directed a favorite of mine in THE CAR (1977). Also, Boris Sagal directed 7 episodes and also did another movie I love - THE OMEGA MAN.
Season One of DR. KILDARE is available on Warner Archive Instant and on Warner Archive DVDs. Seasons Two and Three are only out via Warner Archive DVDs.