07/17/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
Somewhere, Hippocrates is getting a little misty. For here, garbed in surgical scrubs on a Southern California soundstage, a veritable Olympus of medical science is jamming for a consult. All right, they're television actors—but why quibble? With each year they survive the Nielsen wars, the stars become more closely bound to their roles. Consider these responses to the query "What was the most common line you'd hear from passersby?":
Richard Chamberlain (Dr. Kildare): "Hey, Doc, I got a pain. What can you do about it?"
Vince Edwards (Ben Casey): "Doctor, hurry, I got a pain."
Chad Everett (Medical Center): "Hey, Doc. I got a pain. Can you help me?"
But that was all in good fun—wasn't it? And even if it wasn't, those characters practiced years ago, in a less sophisticated time—when patients hardly ever died and doctors never dallied the way they do on gritty, graphic ER and Chicago Hope. We're much, much more savvy now. Aren't we?
(Dr. James Kildare, Dr. Kildare, 1961-1966)
The Hollywood crowd at Chasen's restaurant was aghast when a fellow diner suddenly slumped to the floor with an apparent heart attack. But there was hope: right there on the scene was one of the most famous figures ever to don a stethoscope. And as the stricken man clung desperately to life, this paragon—so young, so handsome, so sensitive—did not rush to his side. "A number of people appeared very angry," Richard Chamberlain recalls of that night some 30 years ago. "I honestly believe they thought I was a doctor." Now 60, Chamberlain lives in a picturesque house on a secluded stretch of beach near Honolulu. An art major at Pomona College in the 1950s, he spends more time today in front of a canvas than before the cameras. But Chamberlain has also had a thriving postdoc acting career—after honing his craft in England—in TV miniseries. In 1983's The Thorn Birds, his portrayal of a tortured, amorous priest reestablished him as a romantic idol a full generation after Dr. Kildare. Chamberlain, for one, sees a common thread. "Doctors are a little bit like priests," he says. "There's something holy about them—and a little remote." Especially when they're speeding away in a Corvette, which is how Chamberlain fled the lustful females who descended on his one-room Laurel Canyon cabin in the early days of Kildare. "I loved all those chases, those wild rides through the hills," he says. "And I usually got away."
(Dr. Ben Casey in Ben Casey, 1961-1966)
Safe to say Chamberlain never dodged a bat-wielding Jehovah's Witness. But Vince Edwards did during an appearance at a Tucson shopping mall, back in his Casey heyday. "We had just done a show on blood transfusions, which was against his religion," says Edwards. "I remember saying to him, 'Jesus, I'm an actor, not a doctor.' " Like his ratings rival Chamberlain, he was besieged by groupies, who were mad for his surly grimace and seemingly limitless body hair. "They'd knock on my door at 4 in the morning," Edwards remembers of the girls so smitten they made the "Ben Casey blouse" a high school fad. Edwards's swarthy persona contrasted sharply with that of the fair-haired Chamberlain. And the differences, he maintains, ran deeper. "Ben Casey was the opposite of Kildare, who was a conformist," says Edwards. "Casey personified the baby boomers' cultural revolt." At 67, married to his fourth wife, Janet, Edwards has kept busy acting in TV films and occasionally directing. He's attempting to resuscitate Ben Casey as a new series. "I figure it's 25 years later," he says, "and Ben is disillusioned."
(Dr. Joe Gannon on Medical Center, 1969-1976)
In the mid-1970s, not only was Chad Everett a certified sex symbol but he had so much credibility that he once addressed the AMA. By 1986, though, he was entering AA. There's a wicked irony in there someplace, but Everett, 59, isn't about to look for it. "I got everything I wished for, and I'm not sorry about any of it," he says. "Not the ups or the downs." Married for 29 years to actress Shelby Grant (they have two grown daughters) and wealthy from residuals, Everett is now trying to revive McKenna, an outdoorsy series that died quickly last fall. Acclaimed for its accuracy, Medical Center also won praise for its controversial topics (one classic: Brady Bunch paterfamilias Robert Reed as a transsexual). "Joe Gannon was a white knight," Everett says of his role. "It got to the point where I was begging, 'Please let me lose a patient.' " Another pet peeve was a recurring line of dialogue—"Do a skull series, a CBC and a complete set of X-rays"—which Everett, an inveterate jokester, would occasionally spice up with the ad lib, "Give her an enema too!"
(Maj. Frank Burns on M*A*S*H, 1972-1977)
Looking back on his five years in Korea with the 4077th, Larry Linville invokes the Russian acting oracle Stanislavsky. "He said if you can mix comedy, drama and terror, then you cannot do anything better," says Linville, 55. And at their best, he notes, "the cast of M*A*S*H accomplished all three." As for creating the character of comic villain Frank Burns, Linville's elegantly simple method would have made the Muscovite proud: "I just thought of every idiot I've ever known." Linville—whose grandfather was a World War I battle surgeon—says he was drawn to acting "as a way of meeting liberal-minded women." (He has married five of them—currently, Deborah Guydon, a journalist.) Although he left the show six years before its run ended, he has no regrets. "I had enough," he says. His latest movie, a parody called The Misery Brothers, features fleeting O.J. flame Paula Barbieri. Says Linville, with a cackle: "No comment."
(Dr. Adam Bricker on The Love Boat, 1977-1986)
The role of Low Boat's skirt-chasing ship's doc made the Brooklyn-bred jeweler's son—previously best known as Siegfried, the German spy on Get Smart—an unlikely heir to hunks Chamberlain, Edwards and Everett. His Adam Bricker practiced precious little medicine—he performed only one operation, a splenectomy—but his bedside manner was impeccable. "He'd go after anything that wasn't nailed down," says Kopell, 62, now separated from his second wife, Yolanda, and seen primarily on the celebrity tennis circuit. But his TV persona did have principles. "One rule was that Bricker could seduce a married woman only if her husband was abusive," he says. "It was in keeping with the powers of healing."
(Dr. Mark Craig on St. Elsewhere, 1982-1988)
"He was a hard-assed perfectionist who was a prima donna," says William Daniels. "But he was devoted to his profession." Daniels, 68, is assessing Mark Craig, the scene-stealing martinet he played on St. Elsewhere. But the theater thoroughbred (he debuted on Broadway at 15 in Life with Father) could well be summing up his own career. Known for throwing snits offstage, Daniels has called himself "a big walker-outer." Now playing a harried teacher on the ABC series Boy Meets World, Daniels lives near Santa Barbara with Bonnie Bartlett, his wife of 44 years—and St. Elsewhere spouse. He recalls the ensemble show, for which he won two Emmys, with Craigian gruffness: "It was six years and a lot of episodes. What can I say?"
(Dr. Dick Richard on China Beach, 1988-90; The Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager, Jan. 1995-present)
You won't find this in any biographies, but in 1972, Leonard Bernstein broke Myra Picardo's heart. That was when the maestro informed the Philadelphia widow that her son Robert, a Yale sophomore who was cast in a European production of his Mass, was switching majors, from premed to drama. Says her boy, now 41: "It was a terrible blow for her." So what does Picardo end up playing? Doctors, first slogging through Vietnam in China Beach and now as a dour holograph on Voyager. Picardo, who lives with his wife, Linda, and two daughters in Los Angeles, still has some pretty big scrubs to fill. "I remember my mother and sister oohing and ahhing over Vince Edwards," he says. Unlike Edwards, Picardo is follicly challenged. "I had a beautiful head of hair on China Beach," he says, referring to his collection of toupees, "but now I have to go au naturel. I have $13,000 in hairpieces on the shelf—maybe I can sell them at a Star Trek convention."
(Dr. Michaela Quinn on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, 1993-present)
Like the frontier physician she plays every Saturday night, Jane Seymour is the daughter of a doctor, a Polish-born obstetrician who emigrated to England. By age 15, Joyce Frankenberg (her real name) was working as an auxiliary nurse and moonlighting with the British Red Cross. "I used to go to the rugby fields and patch up gorgeous-looking young men," recalls Seymour, 44. She also nursed a hopeless passion for Richard Chamberlain, whom she watched religiously on Dr. Kildare. "My father used to ruin the show for us," Seymour recalls. "In the first five minutes he'd diagnose all the ailments." The paternal influence stuck, and she insists on shooting Dr. Quinn with a doctor—as well as a historian—looking over her shoulder. All the scalpels and scissors used on the program are genuine 1860s vintage. But the strong-willed Dr. Quinn is distinctly modern. "That tells little boys that women aren't just to marry and have babies with," says Seymour—whose character, nonetheless, is now married and soon to be pregnant, and who is herself expecting twins with husband No. 4, actor-director James Keach.
On this day, sprawled on a gurney for a photographer, Seymour plays patient to her seven male colleagues and ponders her future. "How long do you think Dr. Quinn will last?" she asks Everett. A little grayer, but still every bit Joe Gannon, he offers an optimistic—but perhaps double-edged—prognosis: "As long as you want it to."