Dr. Kildare: Perfect Television Viewing for the Summer

The summer’s not quite over yet, and so here’s Rick29 with a recommendation for a classic series that you can watch during these dog days:

Most of our summer viewing this year has consisted of movies and TV series — notably the first season of Dr. Kildare (1961-66). It has turned out to be the most pleasant surprise of the season! That shouldn’t come as a shock, I suppose, since the 1960s produced many of our favorite television shows, including The Fugitive, The Defenders, and The Twilight Zone.

However, while those three series are widely hailed as critical favorites, I don’t recall a lot of praise being heaped on Dr. Kildare. While it may not reach the same heights, the first season of Kildare still boasts exceptional writing and strong acting. It helps, of course, when you have guest stars such as: Suzanne Pleshette, Charles Bickford, Anne Francis, William Shatner, Ross Martin, Ellen Burstyn, Beatrice Straight, Richard Kiley, Dorothy Malone, Glynis Johns, Rip Torn, Joan Hackett, Joseph Schildkraut, Martin Balsam, and Julie Adams. Plus, there are a number of future TV stars in small roles such as Jean Stapleton, Ted Knight, Edward Platt, and Gavin MacLeod.

The strength of Dr. Kildare, though, is the casting of the leads. Richard Chamberlain earned his reputation as a fine actor after he left Kildare (and appeared on stage as Hamlet and became “King of the Miniseries”). But the truth is that he’s quite good as the inexperienced intern in Dr. Kildare. Naturally, it helps when you’re acting opposite Raymond Massey, who is marvelous as Jim Kildare’s mentor, Dr. Gillespie. I have no idea how Massey wasn’t nominated for at least one Emmy during his five years in the role. He and Chamberlain share some brilliant scenes during the show’s first season.

The writers do a nice job of showing the challenges of being an intern in a large hospital. Jim Kildare makes $60 a month (about $500 today), works long hours, rotates through the various medical departments, and sometimes has accurate diagnoses overruled by more senior physicians. Kildare greatly admires Gillespie, but his mentor often admonishes him for his behavior. Jim would never consider himself Gillespie’s favorite, but others have taken note (one bitter doctor refers to Kildare as “Gillespie’s fair-haired boy”).

Most of the episodes take place at Blair General Hospital, but the series still ventures outside those antiseptic walls. In “The Lonely Ones,” Jim visit his parents and we learn that his father is a small-town general practitioner. In “A Million Dollar Property,” Jim spends a weekend with an insecure actress (Anne Francis) who wants to find more meaning in her life.

The plots deal with a wide range of medical and social issues. Examples include: a smallpox scare in “Immunity”; an ageing surgeon who may no longer be competent in “Winter Harvest”; drug addiction in “The Lonely Ones”; malpractice in “Admitting Service”; and a mercy killing in “For the Living.” In “The Patient,” an episode with comedic overtones, Kildare injures his back and learns what it’s like to be a patient.

If you’ve never seen Dr. Kildare or haven’t watched it in a long time, then we recommend that you check out the first season. I can’t vouch for seasons 2-5, but the inaugural one is quality television that will keep you entertained and make you think. Who could ask for more in terms of summer TV viewing?

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!