Question: I was always a devoted fan of two medical shows created by James Moser, Medic and Ben Casey. But I thought I remembered hearing about another show he was going to do, Medicine Man. Whatever happened to it? Was it ever produced or broadcast? Andrea H., Tallmadge, Ohio
Televisionary: Yes, it was, Andrea, but it was called Ben Casey and it ran from October 1961 to March 1966. Medicine Man was the title Moser intended for the series, but Oliver Treyz, the head of ABC when the pilot was created, gave that the thumbs-down. "It was an allegorical title," Moser told TV Guide of his initial choice in 1962. "I guess Treyz doesn't dig allegory. He wanted it to be called Ben Casey. That's his kind of allegory."
Apparently, it was the viewing audience's allegory, too, since it was the titular young neurosurgeon, played by Vince Edwards, who attracted the series' big audience, which included a sizable female following. By the spring after its debut, it was a top-10 show, boasting a weekly audience of 32 million. The student-nurses' curfew at New York City's St. Vincent's hospital was extended by a half-hour when BC was on, so they could stay up and watch it. Little kids wore Casey tunics and uniforms and any doctor who worked very hard, got cranky or threw a fit was said to be "pulling a Ben Casey" by underlings.
The late Edwards, who was born Vincento Eduardo Zoino and died in 1996, had that special star-power something, and the show took him from nobody to big somebody in mere weeks, bringing in bushels of fan mail from admiring ladies. "To me, Vince is a combination of Charlton Heston and Burt Lancaster," said Bobby Darrin, who knew him. "He's a man's man and this town has sort of put a man's man by the wayside while it went for men with pretty kissers. Vince projects strength and virility and a very gentle niceness all especially attractive to women."
Whatever the particulars of Edwards's charisma, he certainly needed it since nobody chalked his show's success up to his acting ability. Not that he was bad; he was just a little limited. "Edwards's acting consisted chiefly of an inability to appear any way but grim," observed a TV Guide writer early in the show's run. The New York Times got its shots in, too, saying he "has exhausted all conceivable methods of folding his arms to convey superiority, idealism and brutal loathing."Maybe that was why Edwards quickly developed a reputation for testiness on the set a recurring volatility that showed up regularly. "He just spurts up like Vesuvius," girlfriend Sherry Nelson said early in the show's run. "But then he just spurts down again. It's always over small things. He never gets angry about the big things."
Nick Dennis, a fellow actor and former friend, put it more bluntly. "He has all the qualifications to be a nice guy," Dennis said of the star.Other rumors had Edwards being chronically late to the set and showing up without knowing his lines. On those subjects, even Moser, who depended on his star's good will, gave a non-defense defense when pressed for his view on Edwards's behavior. "Oh, I get a little beefed at him, because he's sometimes... uh... what shall I say?" Moser said, pausing a moment. "Well, they gotta be that way or they wouldn't be actors."
All of which might have given Edwards a reason to be offended, had he been able to offer a better excuse for the talk. "I was never really that angry about things," he said in 1964. "I just appeared that way." (See, he was just acting temperamental and nobody could tell.)Then again, part of me admits Edwards had his reasons for being cranky. According to other reports of the time, Ben Casey was a favorite of hypochondriacs, who enjoyed finding out about strange new symptoms and ailments. And to Edwards's annoyance, people frequently called him on his unlisted number or stopped him on the street to tell him about their pains and maladies.
After a few doses of that, I'd be screaming at everyone around me, too.