Wayne Rogers is not here to tell you that “The Lady From Yesterday” is a terrific drama. But he does want you to know that amid the glut of TV and print commemorations marking the end of the Vietnam War, his made-for-TV movie does focus on a group somewhat overlooked in all the to-do over the 10th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.
“The thing that attracted me to this movie is the question of orphans of war, whether we’re talking about Vietnam or any other war, the people who are the victims,” he said. “The thing is, I don’t think anyone thinks about that. The thinking is, ‘If I’m going to be killed tomorrow, let me live life to the fullest now.’ The thing is that there are children as a result. . . . Somewhere someone is accountable for that.”
In “Yesterday” (airing tonight at 9 on Channels 2 and 8), Rogers plays a Houston executive, living a life that looks comfortable from the outside while it erodes on the inside. His marriage to Bonnie Bedelia is going stale, and working for his father-in-law, Pat Hingle, is getting tense. Into this setting of upper-middle-class tedium falls a bombshell: the executive’s former Saigon mistress, Tina Chen, calls and then introduces him to his 10-year-old son, played by Bryan Price. Adopt him, she says.
Rogers does not urge the show on viewers as a piece of high drama, but “the theme speaks for itself,” he said.
Indeed, the show may have a wider appeal than planned, Rogers suggested, going beyond the unanticipated war-child theme to raise the question of adult responsibility in general for children who are the products of affairs.
“Who’s thinking about the child?” he said. “Who’s thinking about the child as a person in the world?”
And who’s thinking about the future after “MASH”? Rogers played Trapper John on the series for three years before he resigned his commission in the 4077th and headed off to other things. But to what, after becoming identified with a runaway hit?
Well, to TV movies and miniseries, for one. He played a Southern cop in the recent “Chiefs” miniseries. And for three seasons he was a private doctor in “House Calls.”
“We used to take most of our stories out of the newspaper,” Rogers said. An episode dealing with a doctor growing marijuana in the hospital to ease a patient’s discomfort from chemotherapy came out of the news. And the one about doctors being required to tell the patient’s parents if they find a woman under 16 to be pregnant.
“We did a lot of socially relevant stories. And they got ratings and a couple of awards,” said Rogers. “But never an Emmy.”
There’s been film, too. He starred in Frank Gilroy’s “Once in Paris” and now has joined Gilroy again to do a picture called “The Gig.” It deals with a group of amateur musicians who, after years of playing together, suddenly find themselves taking a professional engagement in the Catskills.
And there’s been his involvement with the stage. He co-produced Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Biloxi Blues.”
“I have always been interested in theater, as an actor and as someone who looks upon theater--at the risk of sounding pretentious--as an icon by which we measure society. . . . My life has been in the theater to an extent. It’s only an extension to write, direct, produce, whatever,” Rogers said.
Rogers, a history major from Princeton, went to New York to make a place for himself on stage after a stint as a Navy navigator. He worked as a waiter and lifeguard to pay for his acting lessons and shared an apartment with another aspiring actor, Peter Falk. Rogers landed parts in such stage staples as “No Time for Sergeants” and went on to be a part of TV’s golden era, appearing on Armstrong’s “Circle Theatre,” “Studio One” and “Kraft Playhouse.”
Now, at 50, he lives in Los Angeles and spends about a week each month in New York. Is stage production the future? Not necessarily. Producing, he said, was simply one of a number of things that came along that was too good to say no to.
“Rather than being goal-oriented,” said Rogers, “you become a recognizer of opportunity--and seize it.”