It had been only 13 years since the fall of Saigon when ABC premiered the award-winning Vietnam War drama series “China Beach” on April 26, 1988.
The physical and psychological wounds of the war were still painfully fresh.
FOR THE RECORD:
“China Beach": The Classic Hollywood column about the TV series “China Beach” in the Sept. 9 Calendar section said Dana Delany played a nurse named Colleen Murphy. The character’s last name was McMurphy. —
“There were still so many Vietnam veterans who were feeling maligned, underappreciated and misunderstood,” said “CBS News Sunday Morning” correspondent Nancy Giles, who played the endearing motor pool driver Pvt. Frankie Bunsen for three seasons on the series.
“I went to quite a few events with veterans, and I knew it helped heal a lot of people,” said Giles. “It got a dialogue started. It helped them talk about what happened.”
Created by Vietnam vet William Broyles and John Sacret Young, who lost his young cousin Doug in the war, “China Beach” told the story of the conflict through the eyes of the women who served near the front lines at an evacuation hospital and USO entertainment center near the U.S. base near Da Nang.
The series made stars out of Dana Delany, who won two Emmys for her role as the Irish Catholic U.S. Army nurse Colleen Murphy, and Emmy winner Marg Helgenberger as the cynical, savvy prostitute K.C.
Vietnam, said Young, “was a story of our generation. When I met Bill, we discussed is there a way to tell a story that hasn’t been told? That is when we came to think about the role of women. Many of them volunteered. It seemed crucial, interesting and relevant.”
Ironically, the nurses who served in Vietnam weren’t happy when they learned about the series. “Up until that time, most TV shows portrayed nurses as sex-crazed [women] wanting to marry a doctor,” said Delany. “They were afraid we were going to show them that way.”
But the nurses changed their minds once they saw that “they were being respected,” said Delany. “The nurses were in as horrific situations as the soldiers were. Never before had the nurses been allowed to talk about their PTSD. They had this guilt of ‘I wasn’t actually on the battlefield, what right do I have to talk about it?’ With ‘China Beach,’ they started talking openly about post-traumatic stress.”
On Friday, the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills is celebrating the 25th anniversary of the series with a reunion including Delany, Young, Giles, Helgenberger, Robert Picardo (Dr. Dick Richard), Ricki Lake (Holly), Chloe Webb (Laurette) and Jeff Kober (Dodger).
The event is also timed to the recent release of the complete series on DVD and the coming release on Oct. 1 of the first season. The DVD collections mark the first time fans have been able to see the series — “China Beach” has also been AWOL from TV — in years because of music rights issues. The series boasted a terrific ‘60s soundtrack of Motown and more and featured Diana Ross and the Supremes’ “Reflections” as its theme song. Most of the music is featured on the DVDs.
Despite strong reviews and countless awards, “China Beach” was never a ratings success and was bounced around the network’s schedule during its four seasons.
“I think some people at ABC didn’t know quite what to do with us,” said Delany. “With our final time slot, we were replaced by ‘Cop Rock’!”
But it had a small, fiercely loyal audience that still remembers it fondly today. “I think that happens any time you have a television series that creates very endearing and enduring characters who are multi-dimensional and whose experiences you bond with emotionally,” said Paley Center curator David Bushman. “It’s very difficult for you to let go of them.”
“China Beach” endured more than its share of controversy.
“We got into a lot of trouble,” said Delany. “We got into trouble for drugs, definitely, but there were drugs in Vietnam. We did an abortion episode — Ricki Lake’s character ended up getting an abortion. It was so controversial, ABC only aired it one time and refused to air it again.”
Both Young and Delany said none of the broadcast networks would touch “China Beach” today. “I can see it more like an FX series,” said Delany.
“It was a show that dealt with what was then and still often are considered unpopular subjects,” said Young. " “There were no simple resolutions to the war and to what those who went through saw, felt and had to deal with. I think that makes it difficult for a network now to take a bite.”
‘Fall Flashback: Reflection — China Beach 25 Years Later’
Where: Paley Center for Media, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills
When: Friday at 7 p.m.