Back To The Beach:
An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
When the television series China Beach debuted on the ABC network in 1988, it was a breath of fresh air. Thanks to Oliver Stone’s Platoon, the harsh realities of the Vietnam War had become a hot subject again in
. In the wake of the film’s massive success,
other studios began to churn out Vietnam-based epics and low-budget flicks.
Over on CBS, Tour Of Duty debuted as a series in ’87 and offered more of the
same. But a year later, Hollywood
debuted and it was a game changer.
Instead of taking place on the battlefield, China Beach China Beach
focused on the lives of nurses, doctors, civilians, and wounded – and dying –
soldiers at an evacuation hospital located at My Khe beach in the city of Da Nang, . Though the setting of the series may have
been slightly similar to a more famous TV series, anyone expecting M*A*S*H-like
tomfoolery were in for a rude awakening. Created by John Sacret Young and William
Broyles,Jr., China Beach was an
emotional rollercoaster that mixed drama, light-hearted yet dark humor, and fantastic
performances from the entire cast, with all of it soundtracked by some of the
‘60s greatest hits (from Rock ‘n’ Roll to Soul and everything in between). One
of the most important aspects of the show was its focus on the women of war and
its effect on them – you didn’t need to fight the battles in order to be a
victim of its cruelties. For its time, China Beach was one of the grittiest
shows on TV – they weren’t afraid to show blood or the horrors of war. The physical and emotional toll of Vietnam
were sometimes more harrowing than the battles themselves and China Beach told the story of those
nurses and doctors who tried to make a real difference in a senseless
The wonderful cast, led by Dana Delany as Colleen McMurphy, included Marg Helgenberger (later of CSI), Robert Picardo, Michael Boatman, Concetta Tomai, Brian Wimmer and Jeff Kober, all of whom appeared in all four seasons of the show. Others who appeared in various seasons included Chloe Webb (best known for her role as Nancy Spungen in Sid & Nancy), Ricki Lake, Troy Evans, and Nan Woods, who played Cherry White, a character who was unexpectedly killed off in the middle of the second season. The death of Cherry White surprised viewers and became one of the most talked about episodes of the series. The scene in which her body is brought back to the evac hospital is particularly heartbreaking. However, it was moments like that that made China Beach one of the most riveting shows on television. While censorship has lightened up in the last 25 years and showing dismembered body parts is now the norm, China Beach was far more powerful when it left the gorier moments off camera and in the minds of the viewers.
After years of wrangling over music rights, Star Vista Entertainment/Time Life has finally been able to open up the vaults and release China Beach on DVD. Originally available in a limited box set, the first three seasons are now available to the public in separate DVD sets. Containing all the original episodes plus loads of bonus interviews and features, these releases were well worth the wait.
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was lucky enough to spend some time chatting with Dana Delany about all things China Beach…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: Now that China Beach is finally being released on DVD, how do you feel about the reaction you’ve been receiving from fans so far?
DANA DELANY: It’s been really great because it was such a life changing job for me. It meant so much to me – one because I was young. It was really the first job that I was the lead, and it carried a lot of responsibility, and I sort of associate it with my innocence. You never quite know how things hold up, you know? You just don’t know, and so it’s been really gratifying just to get the reaction from people who remember it and then also from younger people who are seeing it for the first time.
SPAZ: Are you amazed just how devoted people are to the show even though it’s been 25 years now?
DANA: I am amazed. I’m amazed it was successful to begin with actually (laughs). I mean, when my agent told me it was going to be a show about the Vietnam War, I kind of rolled my eyeballs because, you know, it felt like – haven’t we done that enough? There had been a lot of movies at the time. Oliver Stone’s movies Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July and Tour of Duty and I just thought oh God, we’re still rehashing that. But of course, John Sacret Young and Bill Broyles’ perspective was different. One – it was the women, and two - it was really about the cost of war on the people more than the war itself.
SPAZ: It was groundbreaking in a lot of ways, especially the fact that it was focusing on the women… Before China Beach, I believe the last woman of war on TV was M*A*S*H’s Hot Lips Houlihan?
DANA: Yeah, right. And then that was so sexualized.
SPAZ: Knowing what you were getting yourself into, how could you possibly prepare for the role of McMurphy?
DANA: Oh, it was daunting, I have to say. I truly felt like I had no right to play that role. One – I’ve never experienced anything so horrific in my life and you know, all of us in the cast felt this great responsibility to get it right because there were people alive who had been through that, and it really meant a lot to them, and they were watching us. They were making sure that we told the story right. Especially the nurses because, like you said, a lot of nurses in the past have been portrayed as sort of sex-crazed and looking for a doctor to marry. And that’s not what these women were over there. They really taught me the meaning of altruism, which I was a little cynical about and these women really did go there to Vietnam for the right reasons. They volunteered. They weren’t drafted, and they just wanted to help, and… I think it was part of the era. I think that they were all John F. Kennedy babies and really felt like it was their duty to do something for the country. But, you know, it took such … I get emotional just thinking about it because I know what it cost them to go there and how it changed them forever… So, I just felt a great responsibility to get it right.
SPAZ: One of the things that occurred to me while re-watching the series was the fact that for many people fighting overseas, their fellow soldiers, doctors and nurses were more of a family than the real family that they had back home.
DANA: Yeah, I think that’s true. I mean, Bill Broyles, who was in Vietnam said it was the best of times and the worst of times because as horrific as it was, there was such a bonding in experience and when you deal with life and death on a daily basis like that, and you go back to the real world, it’s never the same. You know, the day-to-day is mundane in comparison. I think a lot of Vietnam vets really had a hard time adjusting, as do a lot of vets coming back from Afghanistan now. I mean, it’s still true. The only difference is we’re more aware of PTSD now and especially for the women – because the nurses were not in combat, they didn’t feel like they had a right to say anything when they came home. They were not out in the field, but what they did was just as horrific because they would patch these 19-year-old boys up and send them back out to die, and they knew they were doing it.
SPAZ: When you became more familiar and comfortable in the role, were you allowed to have input into where McMurphy would go emotionally?
DANA: I can’t say I did. I think that the writers were clever enough that they would sort of pickup on my own personality and my own sort of bent, and they would use it in the writing after a while. And they’d see what you were capable of. So, I think that’s true, but in terms of where she went - no. I mean, I had such great respect for the writers. Once in a while as a joke, they would throw in things that were definitely things I, Dana, would say (laughs), and you know, they’d just do it to sort of make fun of me (both laughing). But, I really have to give the writers credit. They spoiled me. It was a highly emotional show really. We took our time getting there, and there would be long silent takes. It was shot like a film so there would be great perspective and feeling. It wasn’t a live quick cutting kind of thing that we have now. Times have changed. Now things happen in one episode more for shock value than for emotional value. And so, it’s very different… so that was another reason I was curious to see younger people’s reactions because they’re used to something much more fast paced. But, they still seem to like it.
SPAZ: How close was McMurphy to Dana Delany?
DANA: I have to say that probably that role is the closest to me of any role I’ve ever played, which again, was odd at such an early point in my career. You know, I am Irish Catholic. I do have a great sense of justice and duty ingrained in me for whatever reason, and I’m a bit of a savior. I tend to like to save people and help people. So, yeah, I’d say that’s pretty close to me… and I do like to drink on occasion too. (both laugh)
SPAZ: Each of the episodes seem to have their own personality - some are harrowing, some are humorous, and most of them sort of fall somewhere in between. Are there any that stand out in your mind?
DANA: Oh gosh. I’d forgotten about a lot of them until people started mentioning them. When we all got together for our reunion, things would come up that I’d completely forgotten about because all you’re doing is keeping your head down and working, you just keep moving. For me, it was the stuff that dealt with the aftermath, like going home. Those two episodes called The World: Part 1 and 2 really meant a lot to me. They did take something from my life for that… the scene where I’m dancing on my father’s feet. I had called the writers about that because I used to do that as a kid with my father, so that meant a lot to me. And then the scene with the psychiatrist, I think was called Through and Through where, you know, McMurphy is just sitting there talking to the shrink and those were very memorable for me because I feel like there was a rawness there that I really enjoyed playing.
SPAZ: A lot of the TV series’ that are more time-period pieces seem to hold up better over time. Do you feel that that works in China Beach’s favor?
DANA: Yeah, I think so. I truly believe that you need 20 years distance before you can write about something, and we don’t have that luxury today because communication is so fast. When people do a film like Zero Dark Thirty, who knows what we’re going to feel in 20 years about that with a different perspective? Probably a lot differently. I think that because we (China Beach) had the luxury of that distance and that people felt safer then to start talking about it.
SPAZ: There’s this dark beauty to
that still really holds up… China Beach
DANA: Well, I think that’s the writing. They tended to distill the scenes down to basic human emotions that anyone could understand no matter what your circumstances were. You didn’t need to be in war to understand those emotions. They were pretty universal
SPAZ: When actors leave or join a show, it creates a different dynamic on screen. Is it the same behind the scenes? Like when Nan Woods left the series halfway through the second season….
DANA: Yeah, I thought that was so brave because people weren’t doing that back then. They weren’t killing off lead characters. Especially an innocent one like that, and I think it was a great way to say this is war. This is what happens in war. People die, and let’s not forget that. And Chloe Webb was not originally cast in that part (as Laurette Barber). There was another girl in the pilot, and I guess it didn’t work out and so they, at the last second, found Chloe because Rod Holcomb who had directed the pilot was her neighbor. They just called her up and said “Listen, we’re having problems. Can you come in and take this part over…” Like most people at the time, she was building her film career and had no interest in doing television because television was not groovy back then. I felt the same way when I was up for the part. I said to my agent, “I just did three movies in a row, I don’t want to be on a TV series.” And she told me I was an idiot. In fact, she said, “You’re a fucking idiot.” (laughs) She said it’s about the writing, and the writing’s good, and she was right. I’m glad I listened to her. But, Chloe had a film career going, and she said well, I’ll do it for six episodes. That was her deal, and that was why she didn’t come back. It’s funny hearing her talk about it now because she and I are still friends. She said, “You know, they never asked me back. If they had asked, I would’ve come back.” (laughs)
SPAZ: One of the great things about the show is that it really emphasized the incredible healing power of music.
DANA: Yeah, which is why I’m so glad they waited and got the right music. That could have been awful.
SPAZ: Were you aware that music was going to play such an important part of the show? Was something like that written down in the script?
DANA: I don’t remember. I actually have all my scripts in case anybody, at some point, wants them… I don’t remember whether it was in the script. I think it was, but also at that time music was used very well to illustrate the war. I mean, I remember Oliver Stone used it in Platoon.. so, I was aware that people were doing that. I don’t think there was any question that music would be used.
SPAZ: Music was such a big part of that era.
DANA: Yeah, when you talk to the soldiers, it’s what got them through. That Eric Burdon (The Animals) song really was their theme song, “We Gotta Get Outta This Place.” I got to meet Eric Burdon - it was such a thrill. He was so cool.
SPAZ: The show lasted four seasons. In hindsight, do you feel that was the right length or do you think there were more stories to tell?
DANA: At the time it felt like the right length. I was all ready to try something else. I think it’s hard to sustain a show more than four seasons. I don’t know how people do it. I saw what Marc Cherry had to go through on Desperate Housewives. You end up recycling stories after a while. It felt right, and you leave ‘em wanting more (laughs). I think because we only lasted four seasons, it somehow took on this mythic status. People thought it was on much longer or they thought it was much more successful than it was. You know, we never really were a huge rating success.
SPAZ: The fourth season was a radical departure. It dealt with the show’s characters some 20 years after the time period of the first three seasons. But then it also had flashbacks to the time period BEFORE the first three seasons… It was fascinating, yet maybe a little confusing for someone turning in for the first time…
DANA: I know. It was really bold, and I think that John Young, at that point, just said hey – we know we’re being cancelled, so let’s do what we want. And I thought that was really bold of him. And, for an actor, my God – it was so much fun!
SPAZ: One thing that stuck in my mind from that fourth season is Brian Wimmer’s character, Boonie - how you see him ‘present day’ on crutches with only one leg… then it flashes back twenty years to China Beach when he’s running around, healthy as can be, full of life… It sort of reminded me of John Travolta’s character in Pulp Fiction when you see him killed a little more than halfway through the movie but then later on, the film flashes back to a day in the not too distant past where he was alive. However, now you know what happens to that character so it gives you a completely different emotional perspective..
DANA: I get chills just hearing you say that because I’m picturing Brian with those fabulous legs of his! (laughs) That was a really fun episode to shoot. I mean, we always joke about it, but John Sacret Young was so hard on the actors, and we all loved it because we were young. We were all 30 and under… most of us at least. We loved being tested, you know. We all felt like we were in it together and yeah, so it was really this test of fortitude being on the show. I remember that scene where we’re sawing off Boonie’s legs. We were on the lot at Warner Brothers in a disgusting lake they have there and under water, you know, doing it. It was so cool because I scuba dived, so there would be a guy next to me with the tank, handing me the respirator, and then we’d go back and do the action and it was so much fun.
SPAZ: Television still didn’t allow the same type of ‘gore’ that you’d see 15-20 years later on CSI. You and Robert Picardo would be in the middle of a surgery and you just hear the squishy sounds… which was just as effective.
DANA: (laughs) Well, it’s funny you mention that because having just done a medical show, Body of Proof, I was so aware how times have changed. You know, back then as a nurse, all I really said was “put an IV in him” and “don’t die on me.” I mean, those are the two things that I would say over and over again - put an IV in him and then I’d give him mouth to mouth resuscitation. And the other thing I’d say over and over was “You’re going to be just fine,” and then of course they died. But on Body of Proof, and I blame House for this because on House they had to sell how brilliant Dr. House was so he was spouting off all this medical babble really fast and all of a sudden you had to be an encyclopedia of medical information as a doctor. And you know, that never was true before and now it’s like how fast can I talk and how much can I impress you with my medical jargon, which for an actor is a nightmare. You really don’t know what you’re saying and you have to pretend that you do. It makes no sense whatsoever.
SPAZ: If they chose to reboot China Beach and put it on TV today, do you think they would put it on network television or do you think it would be on cable?
DANA: I’d like to think it was cable. I think that was part of the problem of why we weren’t such a big hit because… well, one – they kept moving us around a lot, but two – it was dark. There’s no question…. it was dark and there’s going to be a certain audience for that and then other people just want to come home and laugh so… yeah, I think we definitely would have been on cable, and I think we really could have dealt more then with the horror or/and maybe the politics of war too.
SPAZ: Is it strange, you did the show for four years, but to many people you’re just forever linked to this show, to these cast members, to that role….
DANA: I don’t mind that at all. I really don’t. I’m still really proud of the work and I think because we were all young and so intense about what we were doing, we truly are all friends. There is not one ego in the group. We love hanging out together.
SPAZ: And you still remain friends with everybody?
DANA: Yes. It’s funny because on the box set, they filmed us having a reunion when we all get together again, but the truth is we see each other all the time. (laughs) It was great to have us all in one room at the same time, but you know, we just pick up where we left off.
SPAZ: So Robert Picardo posts kitten videos on your Facebook page?
DANA: (Laughs) Well, I don’t do Facebook, but I just went to see Bob and he did Twelve Angry Men out in Pasadena, we had dinner, and you know, Marg and I just had dinner. Chloe and I went to see Jeff Kober in a play in the valley. And Jeff Kober has become a fantastic meditation teacher, and he’s now my teacher. He’s been teaching me meditation.
SPAZ: Now, what’s next for Dana Delany?
DANA: I’d been doing network television for six years between Desperate Housewives and Body of Proof and I really needed a break. Especially Body of Proof took it out of me because I was in almost every scene, and it was just non-stop. So, I’ve taken nine months off, which I wanted to do. I told my agents to just leave me alone. I did a play and I’m just trying to figure out what I want to do next. I have an idea for another show that I’d like to produce and star in so I’m starting to put that together. It’s a character that I’ve been wanting to play for a long time, and I think that I have figured out the right world for the character so I’m just trying to find the right writer for it now.
SPAZ: What do you currently have spinning on your CD, DVD, or record players?
DANA: I am addicted to my Sonos player. I think it’s the greatest invention ever. I have one in my apartment in New York and I have one here in LA in my house. I have no more CDs so now I just listen to my Sonos player. I listen to my music library and I love Pandora. I’m not that musically savvy. I’m just not. It’s like I’m missing that ship so I love that Pandora kind of puts it together for me. My two favorite stations are the Miles Davis station and the Julie London station. I love her style of music… and then, that leads you to other female singers so I’m just loving that now. And in terms of what I’m watching - I was definitely into the whole True Detective thing. I watched all that. I’m watching Girls… I love that. I’m watching House of Cards because the play that I did was written by Beau Willimon (playwright/screenwriter). And that’s another thing I’m loving is my Apple TV. It’s the best. I’m almost ready to cut ties with my cable.
Thanks to Dana Delany
Special thanks to Jeff Peisch, Thomas Hemesath, Julia Lake, Meghan Ryan and Dana House
CHINA BEACH/First Season
CHINA BEACH/Second Season
CHINA BEACH/Third Season