“Man. Woman. Birth. Death. Infinity.” The dark medical drama Ben Casey

“Man. Woman. Birth. Death. Infinity.” The dark medical drama Ben Casey

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

The halls of L.A. County Hospital were crowded with Hollywood infiltrators in 1960. “Which screenwriter are you?” the staff would ask. Walter Brown Newman, working on the feature The Interns, was there, as was E. Jack Neuman, who would pen the pilot script for a TV version of the MGM B-movie series Dr. Kildare. And so was James E. Moser, a talented and unjustly forgotten television writer-producer, whose original creation, the soaring hospital melodrama Ben Casey, would debut in October 1961.

A protégé of Jack Webb, Moser came to prominence as a prolific writer for Dragnet, and he would imitate the literal-minded minimalism of that show— which purported to draw upon actual police cases—in all his future work. Moser had already done a doctor show, Medic (1954-1956), a half-hour quasi-anthology hosted by and occasionally starring a stone-faced Richard Boone as all-purpose doctor Konrad Styner. Obsessed with realism, Moser filled the scripts with technical jargon and shot scenes in actual L.A. County operating rooms. But the dramatic aspects of Medic were often creaky and stiff, paralyzed by idolatry for science and the nobility of the medical profession. Moser resolved to correct those flaws in his next doctor drama, even as he immersed himself again in research. He spent a year living in the doctors’ quarters at County and found his hook when he met Dr. Allan “Max” Warner, a brash young neurosurgeon who agitated for progress and often clashed with his superiors. A doctor who was also a rebel—one with a cause—was Moser’s “eureka” moment. By fashioning Ben Casey in Dr. Warner’s image, Moser defied the assumption that TV heroes should be conventionally likable, and thus created a significant precursor to the alpha-male anti-heroes who continue to dominate the post-HBO era of television drama.

There are two crucial misconceptions about Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare, which debuted five days apart and became rivals in the ratings and the press—misconceptions that may have kept them out of the historical pantheon of great television in which both shows belong. The first is that they were derogatorily considered “soap operas,” which has become a derogatory term hurled at any show whose fan base happened to be mostly female. Although Casey and Kildare did owe their success to the heartthrob factor, both series were more ER than Grey’s Anatomy. They were sober dramas intent on exploring the human condition as ardently as any of their contemporaries. Mary Ann Watson, one of the few scholars to focus on television in the Kennedy-Johnson era, placed Ben Casey in the company of the more critically lauded East Side/West Side, Naked City, and The Defenders, all part of a wave of what she defined as “New Frontier character dramas… programs based on liberal social themes in which the protagonists were professionals in service to society.”

The second misconception about Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare is that the two shows were interchangeable. Though they had superficially similar premises—a promising young doctor counseled by a wise mentor—the dueling doctor dramas were opposites in style and attitude. If Kildare was light, Casey was darkness. James Kildare was an intern, a wide-eyed novice who fought for his patients but deferred to his superiors. Ben Casey was further along in his career—already a resident neurosurgeon—and he was epically surly and combative in temperament. Dr. Zorba, the chief of Casey’s department, was not so much an advisor as a protector, whose calming presence shielded the feather-ruffling Casey from pissed-off hospital administrators and patients’ families. (Or, as one TV aficionado, a Casey partisan, put it to me: “Dr. Kildare was a wimp. Ben Casey didn’t take shit from anybody.”) 

And, if sex appeal really was the key factor in making hits out of both Kildare and Casey, it helped that the actors who played the two doctors were polar opposites. Richard Chamberlain was the boy next door—blond and soft-spoken (and closeted). Vince Edwards was rough trade—dark, hirsute, broken-nosed. (“All in all, a bit butcher than Dr. Kildare,” said Chamberlain.) Edwards, a body builder, had been a movie villain for a decade prior to Ben Casey, culminating in leads in a pair of existential, low-budget crime films that independent filmmaker Irving Lerner (later a regular Ben Casey director) made for Columbia’s B-movie unit. By the time Moser found Edwards, he was getting desperate—Cliff Robertson and Jack Lord later claimed to have declined the role—but he realized immediately that the hulking bad-boy represented the kind of against-type casting he needed. “A gangster with street manners and moist Latin eyes in a doctor’s suit was magic,” wrote John Meredyth Lucas, a Ben Casey writer-director.

Moser’s selection of the supporting cast was equally shrewd. Compelled by the network to change the name of Casey’s mentor from Rosenberg to Zorba, Moser prevailed in indicating the senior doctor’s ethnicity by casting Sam Jaffe, an actor with a European-Jewish vocal cadence, and giving him lines like “Such a boy!” Another doctor, Maggie Graham, was designated as a putative love interest for Casey. But the actress who played her, Bettye Ackerman—in real life married to the much older Jaffe—had so little charisma with Edwards, and projected such a levelheaded competence, that Maggie became a friend and colleague to Casey rather than a love interest. It was one of television’s more positive portrayals of a professional woman at that time.

Packaged by one independent company (Bing Crosby Productions) and filmed at another (Desilu), Ben Casey was about as non-corporate as a network show could be in the early ’60s. Moser had the leeway to give his series an austere, offbeat feel. Composer Gerald Fried recalled scoring one segment with “11 saxophones and nothing else.” Each episode opened with a shot of a hand drawing the corresponding symbols on a chalkboard as Jaffe’s voice (and later Edwards’s) somberly intoned: “Man. Woman. Birth. Death. Infinity.” Much parodied, this abstract signature was a succinct warning to viewers that they were entering heavy territory. Ben Casey was the most interior hit show ever done on American television. Its hospital set was featureless and seemingly windowless, a warren of barren, eerily empty corridors. At County General, it felt like it was always three in the morning. The show’s stark imagery, which suggested the influence of German expressionism, externalized the anxiety and fatalism that accompanies serious illness—and also, as Ben Casey writer Barry Oringer suggested in a recent interview, the brooding personality of the main character.

Moser, who scaled back his day-to-day involvement early on, appointed a talented screenwriter, Matthew Rapf, to be Ben Casey’s day-to-day producer. Rapf sought out many blacklisted actors and writers who had been prevented from working in recent years—actor Leo Penn (father of Sean) had a semi-regular role as a psychiatrist, and became one of the show’s key directors—and also had a keen eye for young talent. Sydney Pollack, a 28-year-old actor with only a handful of directing credits, became the show’s most important early director, setting its tone by guiding actors through intimate performances and the camera through tight, efficient compositions and forceful, fluid moves. Pollack and his friend Mark Rydell, who began his television-directing career on Ben Casey, had close connections to the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio, which helped them attract many guest stars who rarely did television, including Rod Steiger, Patricia Neal, Jerry Lewis, Van Johnson, and Shelley Winters. Under Pollack’s direction, the legendary Kim Stanley won an Emmy playing a morphine-addicted lawyer in a seminal two-part episode.

Within its oppressive setting, Ben Casey could work in a variety of story-telling modes. Sweeping, hospital-spanning episodes like “Imagine A Long Bright Corridor” and “The Night That Nothing Happened,” in which Dr. Casey tended to half a dozen patients at once, now feel like prototypes for a typical segment of ER. There were straightforward social-issues stories, like Oringer’s “Allie,” in which two African-American characters, an embittered doctor (Greg Morris), and a patient (Sammy Davis Jr.), clashed in a debate over assimilation into the white world; or the unintentionally hilarious “A Slave Is On The Throne,” which catalogued dozens of euphemisms for a limp dick and confidently blamed guest star Jack Klugman’s impotence on his wife’s wealth and professional success. There were even occasional comedies, like “Did Your Mother Come From Ireland, Ben Casey?,” which featured Tom Bosley as a leprechaun (kind of).

But the real blueprint for Ben Casey was the fourth episode broadcast, the Emmy-nominated “I Remember A Lemon Tree,” in which George C. Scott guest-starred as a promising surgeon concealing a drug dependency. As this detailed synopsis shows, “I Remember A Lemon Tree” did not hesitate to scale the heights of melodrama; writer Jack Laird delivered his punches in the form of “arias” for the characters that Sydney Pollack singled out for praise 30 years later. This was the mode in which Ben Casey excelled. The detailed, carefully vetted science that Moser insisted upon (and which contemporary critics tended to fixate on, to the exclusion of the show’s other virtues) was not an end unto itself, but a framework for lush, unapologetically emotional stories about people facing the worst crises of their lives. (Indeed, the show’s willingness to depart from the documentary style of Medic made it unpopular among many doctors, who blanched at the warts-and-all depiction of doctors and at Casey’s fiery disregard for authority. Max Warner, the model for Casey, switched his specialty to psychiatry, apparently because he believed that his association with the series was a barrier to his board certification in neurology.)

The show’s best writers were not the hard-charging social realists of The Defenders, but specialists in mood, character, and dialogue. Their scripts were unabashed in their literary and philosophical aspirations. Gilbert Ralston’s “Behold! They Walk An Ancient Road” has a Jew and a priest debating the nature of the soul, even before the opening credits roll. Meyer Dolinsky’s “The Bark Of A Three-Headed Hound,” one of the most dark and twisted outings, features Bradford Dillman as a morbid, mysterious patient, his personality perhaps disfigured by a brain tumor, who covets the wife of the simple construction worker in the bed next to him. Dillman’s character tries to psych the workman into a premature death, and he seduces the man’s smarter, intellectually starved spouse (Sally Kellerman) by quoting haiku. John Meredyth Lucas’s “A Bird In The Solitude Singing” is even more insistently allusive, chronicling the doomed romance between a hyper-intelligent hooker with a facial deformity (Anne Francis) and her dying lover largely through quotations from Homer, Byron, and Browning. And there isn’t room here to contemplate the contributions of the brilliant Norman Katkov, who created many of Ben Casey’s richest female characters and some of its most poetic dialogue.

As Ben Casey became a bona fide phenomenon, its production became increasingly dysfunctional, thanks to Edwards. “He used to come to the set with 20 or 30 thousand dollars in packets and he would say, ‘You gotta get me out by 11, I’m going to the track,’” recalled director Mark Rydell. “So I might have 10 scenes with him in various places with other people, and suddenly I would have to go and do all of his coverage in those scenes so that he could leave.” Edwards stopped doing “off camera,” meaning that the other actors had to perform opposite the script supervisor after Edwards left the set. Among actors no other behavior is considered so unprofessional, and occasionally guest stars—including Sammy Davis Jr., during the making of “Allie”—would lose it and give Edwards a dressing-down. Edwards’ gambling addiction was so debilitating that, even though he made millions off the show (a contract renegotiation at the end of the first season gave the star a percentage of the net profits), he and his thuggish entourage cooked up schemes to shake the cast and crew down for petty cash. Sam Jaffe, an Old World gentleman if ever there was one, took such a strong dislike to Edwards’ antics that he asked to appear in fewer episodes, and finally left the show. And yet, in spite of the disruptions he caused, many of the other actors and crew liked Edwards, whose addiction was so abject as to inspire pity more than resentment. “He was not a phony,” said Oringer. Rydell called Edwards “a sweetheart.”

At its height, Ben Casey spawned a merchandising bonanza, as well as prime-time imitators and one spin-off, a well-made but fatally talky drama about psychiatrists called Breaking Point. After the second season, Moser and Rapf left to produce a West Wing-type show about a state legislator called Slattery’s People. And if the same magic wasn’t quite there under the new showrunner, Wilton Schiller, the quality generally remained high—at least until the final season, when a ratings sag (ABC had unwisely moved Ben Casey opposite CBS juggernaut The Beverly Hillbillies) led the network to tinker with the format. Aping another huge hit, the prime-time serial Peyton Place, Ben Casey became semi-serialized, presenting ongoing story arcs alongside the usual, but now necessarily truncated, one-off stories. The resulting episodes were unfocused and confusing, and the ratings took such a rapid nose dive that ABC opted not to pick up a “back six” in the final year. The last new episode aired in March 1966.

For the veterans of Ben Casey, the endings weren’t particularly happy. Star and creator both went back to the medical well (Edwards as a psychiatrist in Matt Lincoln, Moser to the hospital in Doctors’ Hospital) but neither had another hit. Edwards’ gambling left his life in a shambles until his death in 1996; Moser died in obscurity in 1993. For decades Vince Edwards talked of reviving his iconic character, finally re-launching the property in 1988 with a syndicated TV movie called The Return Of Ben Casey. Shot on a low budget in Canada, it was meant as a pilot and positioned Casey as a Zorba figure (albeit a much grouchier one) to a group of young doctors. The revival went nowhere, although a few years later the Ben Casey/Dr. Kildare rivalry would be recreated with the near-simultaneous debut of two similar, long-running hospital dramas, ER and Chicago Hope. Sadly, although Dr. Kildare (and even Medic!) have been released in part on DVD, Ben Casey remains one of the longest-running American TV series with no home-video presence at all. It would be fascinating to see how a modern audience would take to Ben Casey, the cerebral and un-ironic intensity of which has no close equivalent today.

Next time: Cagney & Lacey