By Susan King
Los Angeles Times
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. “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,” Giles said. “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 Irish Catholic U.S. Army nurse Colleen Murphy, and Emmy winner Marg Helgenberger as 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,” Delany said. “They were afraid we were going to show them that way.” But they 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, Calif., was set to celebrate 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 was also timed to the recent release of the full series on DVD and the coming release on Oct. 1 of the first season. The DVDs 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,” Delany said. “With our final time slot, we were replaced by Cop Rock!”
But it had a small, fiercely loyal audience that remembers it fondly today. “I think that happens any time you have a television series that creates very endearing and enduring characters who are multidimensional 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,” Delany said. “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 once and refused to air it again.”
Young and Delany said none of the broadcast networks would touch China Beach today. “I can see it more like an FX series,” Delany said.
“It was a show that dealt with what was then and still often are considered unpopular subjects,” Young said. “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.”