Marg Helgenberger, Dana Delany, Nan Woods, Chloe Webb
It's been more than 20 years since China Beach went off the air, and star Dana Delany says she hasn't revisited the series aside from catching a snippet of an episode while flipping channels a couple of years ago.
"I just remember thinking, 'God, that girl was so young, so innocent,'" she tells TVGuide.com of herself, laughing. "I really felt for her."
Legions of fans now have the opportunity to catch up with Delany's Colleen McMurphy and the rest of the China Beach crew, thanks to StarVista Entertainment's recently released 25th Anniversary DVD collection of the entire series. The 21-disc box set (available for $199.95 on TimeLife.com) includes all 62 episodes, plus 10 hours of bonus features and deleted scenes, and a collector's edition book featuring quotes and letters from the cast and crew.
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Set in an evacuation center in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, China Beach aired on ABC from 1988 to 1991. Though the show was centered on a group of women working in various capacities to support the war effort (including Delany's Colleen, a nurse), its audience spanned various demographics. Delany credits its wide appeal to the subject matter.
"It was really the first time that America was ready to talk about the Vietnam War," she says. "I truly believe that you need 20 years to get that distance, to be able to see it with some perspective. And it was such a painful time in our country's history. There were movies coming out [around the time China Beach aired]. There was Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July, so a lot of people were starting to finally deal with it. And I think it was really smart to do it from the female perspective, because that was something that hadn't been done before and certainly never thought about. I mean, a lot of people didn't even know that there were American women in Vietnam. That was news to me, for sure. ... But I think in terms of the broader sense of it, there was a lot of healing that needed to be done in the country. And I think that it was a huge thing for the soldiers and the nurses and anybody, men and women, who had been in Vietnam to be able to talk about it for the first time."
Delany recalls 24-hour shoots in which the cast would film for an entire day and right through to the next morning. "We were all on board, because it was exciting to us," she says enthusiastically. "I just remember driving home from work with the sun coming up, and I loved every second of it. I just felt so alive and so well-used, in a good sense, that I was using every bit of my capacity on that show."
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Like many television writing teams, the China Beach scribes eventually started incorporating aspects of the actors' lives into the characters they were portraying. "If you said something, you had to be careful, because they were going to use it," Delany recalls. In her case, it was primarily Colleen's stormy relationship with her father that mirrored her own.
After the show's first season, Delany won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama, and describes the experience as surreal.
"I was up against Angela Lansbury, who was in Murder, She Wrote," Delany recalls. "And I remember thinking, 'How could I possibly be in the same category as Angela Lansbury?' I mean, she is a legend. And then I won and I was kind of embarrassed by it because I didn't feel like I should ever get an award over Angela Lansbury, because she's sort of an idol of mine and still is."
She adds: "I think times were changing in television then. TV was very different . ... I don't know what young people will think of it today."
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Viewers watching the show for the first time will notice a stronger resemblance to modern cable shows as opposed to standard network fare, both in its subject matter and aesthetic. "It was much more filmic. It was long, long pauses, and long shots," Delany says. "A lot of China Beach was no words. It was all just visuals and facial expressions and using music. And I think that really kind of captured the show, that it was just this sort of ballet of music and emotions."
Ironically, it was the music that was so quintessential to the show that was the sticking point to releasing the series on DVD. "When we did the show, nobody even heard of DVDs," Delany explains. "There was no such thing. ... So nobody considered buying the rights to the music in perpetuity. That has held us up for years."
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Fans will be happy to know that the producers' efforts paid off, however. The DVD set includes more than 300 original songs as they were heard in the original broadcasts.
"They got almost all the rights except for just a few songs," Delany says. "One in particular was, like, an old standard Christmas song. They couldn't use that. And then, one that really makes me laugh is, we had Jimi Hendrix doing 'All Along the Watchtower,' and the Hendrix estate is very tough about its music and they wouldn't let us have it. But a lot of people don't remember that Bob Dylan wrote that song. And [he] said, 'Sure, you can have my version.' And that just makes me smile because Bob Dylan for years wouldn't let anybody use his music. ... So I just love the fact that he's now come around and we're using his version of 'All Along the Watchtower.'"
Delany waxes nostalgic about the show's final episodes, set in the late 1980s, in which Colleen realizes that she's suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from her time in Vietnam. She finally finds peace after visiting the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., with some of her fellow survivors.
"It's funny to see me onscreen," Delany says. "I think I was playing a 44-year-old, and they really grayed my hair up and gave me wrinkles. And I'm now 57 and I don't look anything like that. Maybe that's what Colleen would have looked like."
Of the series' final scene, she recalls: "To be able to shoot at the Vietnam Memorial was a thrill. We kind of did that illicitly, because you're really not allowed to shoot there. We kind of hid our cameras. We were shooting there as the sun came up over the Washington Monument, and that's sort of the iconic last moment when my character walks away from the wall. ... It gets me teary just even thinking about that moment, with the voiceover and you hear the harmonica playing."
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Though Delany has worked steadily since China Beach went off the air, most notably on Desperate Housewives and the recently canceled Body of Proof, she says the part of Colleen dictated her chosen career path from that point forward.
"It changed everything for me," she says. "It changed the way I looked at my career because it was the first time as an actress that I saw my responsibility as an actor. Certainly changed the roles that I picked. Before then, I was always the girlfriend, and after playing such a complex, three-dimensional character, I just couldn't go back after that. So I became maybe overly choosy in my career choices."
While she was on the show, Delany says she often got chided for focusing too much on work and neglecting her personal life — something that's also a defining trait of her Body of Proof medical examiner Megan Hunt, and admittedly, Delany herself.
"I tend to play these characters and there's a reason for that," she says with a laugh. "Nothing's changed really in the past 25 years."