The 1969 pilot movie for Marcus Welby, M.D. features a guest appearance by Lew Ayres, the man who played Dr. Kildare in a popular movie series in the ’30s and ’40s, opposite Lionel Barrymore as a crotchety older doctor. Ayers popped up on TV a lot in the second half of his career—frequently playing doctors—but his Marcus Welby cameo was a more direct passing of the torch, from one series about an idealistic young physician and his cranky mentor to another. The difference is that in Marcus Welby, M.D., the cranky mentor was the hero. From ’69 to ’76, Robert Young played a Santa Monica general practitioner passing along life lessons to James Brolin, an ambitious young associate who bristled against the boss’ often off-the-wall “common sense” methods. Each week on Marcus Welby, Young and Brolin would handle an unusual case, usually involving some important contemporary social or medical issue, and each week, they’d argue over whether they should follow modern protocols or take some wild chances, Welby-style.
The seven-disc Marcus Welby, M.D.: Season One set contains the series’ two-hour pilot and 26 hourlong episodes—one of which was directed by a young Steven Spielberg, in one of his earliest jobs—and it’s a fairly thorough exploration of the late-’60s/early-’70s generation gap, shot in that hazy style that makes the TV dramas of that era so seductive. Unlike most medical shows, Marcus Welby largely stayed away from hospitals; Young’s Welby operated a private practice out of a house in a residential neighborhood, and he took the time to get to know his patients, sometimes from birth to death. Because of his personal investment, Welby felt authorized to meddle directly in his patients’ lives, in paternalistic prescriptions that often boiled down to a mix of psychological mumbo-jumbo and “get lots of rest.”
Much of what makes Marcus Welby, M.D. compelling even now has to do with those circa-1970 courses of treatment, delivered by a man who seemed to have a surprising amount of free time on his schedule, given his ever-growing roster of patients. Welby would encourage the mother of an autistic child to spank the boy frequently, he’d freely offer tranquilizers to a newly pregnant woman, and he’d order Brolin to lie to their patients for their own good… in short, he was an arrogant hothead, playing a risky game of “Doctor Knows Best.” But given the turbulence of the times, there was something wonderfully escapist about the show. The divorce rate was rising and kids were getting more disrespectful, but no matter whether people voted for Nixon or dropped acid in the Haight, they all got sick just the same. And while Marcus Welby couldn’t heal society, he could heal the people in it, one knee-jerk diagnosis at a time.
Key features: Nil by disc.