Wednesday, December 10, 2014

DR. KILDARE, Season One - My Diagnosis

I recently finished watching the first season of DR. KILDARE (1961-62) on Warner Archive Instant, the first time I'd been able to view the show since my vague memories from childhood - therefore, for the first time with real adult understanding. This show is very much the medical counterpart to its fellow NBC series MR. NOVAK, which was about teaching; both shows are supremely humanistic and address themselves, in a similarly down-to-earth but aspiring way, to the nobility of their respective professions - something sorely lacking from programming today.

Of course, neither show would work if the lessons learned by their protagonists were limited to their respective professions, and so serve as Trojan horses to learned instruction about how people might better interact with others in a variety of emotionally fraught, everyday circumstances. This being very much what German novelists liked to call a bildrungsroman - a story of education, a character's journey from callow youth to experienced adulthood - the central character of Dr. James Kildare (Richard Chamberlain) learns a bit more in each episode of what he needs to know to become not only a complete doctor (as exemplified by Blair Hospital's chief of staff Dr. Leonard Gillespie, played with eloquence and authority by Raymond Massey) but a more fully rounded human being. I remember a time when Chamberlain was taken less than seriously by the critical establishment owing to his good looks and his side career as a teen idol crooner; he spent years distancing himself from the memory of this show, doing fine work in Ken Russell's THE MUSIC LOVERS and Richard Lester's MUSKETEERS films, among many other productions, but DR. KILDARE is really nothing to be ashamed of. It would not work so well as it does unless he was on his toes as an actor every step of the way. This is his journey and Chamberlain's evolving, deepening character makes us want to accompany him on it.

What stands out to me from this first season are two episodes directed by the season's MVP, Boris Sagal (THE OMEGA MAN): "Immunity", in which a female doctor (Gail Kobe) who fled to her profession to escape her impoverished Polish roots is forced back to them to prevent an epidemic threatening her old neighborhood (this epic colorfully inserts a Polish wedding into the midst of an emergency immunization procedure), and "My Brother, the Doctor" in which far-down-the-totem-pole supporting player Eddie Ryder (as Dr. Simon Agurski) gives an outstanding performance in a story examining his strained relationship with an older brother who is supporting his residency at the cost of his own dreams. (Like "Immunity" with its Polish community background, "My Brother, the Doctor" uses its story to familiarize a broader viewing audience with Jewish holiday traditions.) But the season's highlight is a performance by Dean Jagger in the Paul Wendkos-directed "A Distant Thunder" as a retired Lt. General suffering a nervous breakdown caused by unresolved guilt over leading hundreds of thousands of young men to their doom. I think it might very well be the finest work I've ever seen from this brittle, eccentric but sometimes moving actor.

My earlier awareness of this show was frankly occluded by all the noise made back in the day about Chamberlain wanting in the end to distance himself from the Kildare image, and the fact that the series was spun off into a lot of tacky merchandise, ranging from comic books for girls to toy stethoscopes. Fortunately I was drawn back to DR. KILDARE by its availability through Warner Archive, and also by the rich range of talent who made guest appearances. The first season alone encompasses the likes of William Shatner, Anne Francis, Charles Bickford, Suzanne Pleshette, Dan O'Herlihy (in two episodes!), Edward Andrews, Beverly Garland, Cathleen Nesbitt, Charles Bickford, Dina Merrill, Dick Foran, Edward Platt, Gloria Talbott, Hershel Bernardi, future BEWITCHED husbands Dick York and Dick Sargent, and the ubiquitous Billy Mumy.

In short, classic television well worth revisiting.

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