When it premiered in 1988, China Beach did more than tell the stories of people dealing with the horrors of the Viet Nam War; it also launched the careers of television mainstays like Dana Delany (Desperate Housewives), Marg Helgenberger (CSI) and Robert Picardo (Star Trek:Voyager).
As a young television-watching geek, I had a massive crush on Dana Delany. And I believe that you’d be hard pressed to find a heterosexual male from my generation who didn’t fall in love with Ms. Delany. I’m also sure you’d find a lot of guys who were jealous of Robert Picardo, who played Dr. Dick Richard opposite Delany’s Nurse Colleen McMurphy.
With the show celebrating it’s 25th Anniversary and a long-overdue release on DVD, I spoke with Picardo about his experiences on China Beach; what he remembers most about it; and why America is ready for the show’s return:
Geek To Me: Looking back, what goes through your head when someone says the words “China Beach 25th Anniversary”?
Robert Picardo: Well, yeah, it makes you feel a little old. And then you have a look at Dana Delany and you don’t feel like 25 years have gone by. We had a reunion party last December. It was terrific to see the entire cast together again. It was a very special moment in all of our careers.
Geek To Me: How so?
Picardo: It was the first great experience in our careers, and in many ways, it was just the highpoint. Because we were working on a show that was really about something. We felt a sense of responsibility. Because we were making a drama about a very difficult chapter in our country’s history. A very unpopular war. Those who served were not treated fairly and with the respect and thanks that they were owed. I think it’s the only time our country has made that tragic mistake, of blaming the soldier for an unpopular policy.
And hopefully that’s a mistake that will never be repeated. In being part of China Beach, I think we felt a responsibility to in some small way be a part of healing those wounds.
Geek To Me: What do you think made the show so memorable? And why did it take so long to finally get released on DVD?
Picardo: The writing was great, the cast was great, the music was great. The reason that China Beach has taken so long - 25 years from it’s premiere - to come out in a DVD set is that it took someone like Time/Life to say “okay, we’ll spend the money. We’ll take the time. We’ll hire the lawyers. “ [laughs] “We’ll get the rights to that original music.”
(The songs were part of) The show’s success - you can’t just swap out those great songs by The Temptations, The Supremes, you know, Janice Joplin, James Brown, Aretha Franklin. You wanna hear that music that you remember seeing it. So, it took a long time, but they’re doing it right. So if you missed China Beach, this is your moment.
Geek To Me: Watching the DVD, did it evoke any memories?
Picardo: You remember shooting scenes. Watching the pilot scene I have a great scene sitting at the bar with Dana where she’s really exhausted and burnt out, and counting the seconds until her tour is over and she can go home. And she’s sort of having a crisis where she just can’t quite handle herself the last few days. And I have a scene where I buck her up. And that was - of course - my audition scene for the series. So I knew that one inside and out.
You watch that scene and you don’t just remember working on China Beach, you remember reading the script, and getting excited about a role and fighting to win that part. And all the different stages you go through as an actor to prove it first to the producers, and then the heads of Warner Bros. Television, and then the heads of ABC. And then you have this string of ever-enlarging circles of people that you have to win over.
So yeah, I remember all of those things. And being at that early stage of your career and just wanting to be part of a project that’s just that good. I had already been a successful theater actor, had a couple leads on Broadway, but having come to California made me sort of start all over again. The plays I did are not on video so they can’t watch me. You have to prove to them that you know what you’re doing. It took me two or three years to sort of hit my stride again, coming out in my mid-twenties.
It evokes all sorts of memories, both professional and personal. My wife and I got married two or three years before I started doing China Beach. My character Dr. Richard is supposed to have a wife back at home, who’s divorcing him. So there’s one China Beach episode where I burn my wife’s [laughs] photo, so with my wife’s permission, I burned one of her wedding pictures. [laughs] It was the strangest cameo my wife could possibly make. [laughs]