The prior success of the Dr. Kildare character in literature, film, and radio inspired MGM to bring the franchise to television, which resulted in one of the most popular Medical Dramas of the '60s.
Dr. Kildare, which aired on NBC from 1961–66, starred Richard Chamberlain as Dr. Kildare and Raymond Massey as Dr. Gillespie. Though inspired by its previous incarnations, the TV series was more or less In Name Only. The series centered around James Kildare, a gifted young intern specializing in internal medicine at fictional Blair General Hospital under the guidance of senior doctor Leonard Gillespie. Throughout the series, Gillespie warns Kildare to not get personally involved within his profession, but the handsome young doc always managed to ignore his mentor’s advice. In the third season, Dr. Kildare becomes a resident, and from there, he continued to develop from naïve intern to confident physician.
One of the first major hits from MGM Television (it was in the Nielsen top 20 for its first 3 seasons), it catapulted the then-unknown Richard Chamberlain to instant stardom and Teen Idol status. Dr. Kildare was among the first medical series with mainstream popularity (alongside ABC's Ben Casey), and helped to spread awareness of various medical subjects and diseases, many of which were never represented on television before. A myriad of major Hollywood guest stars would also pay a visit to Blair General Hospital during its five-year run.
For its final season, in an effort to boost its sagging ratings, the show was retooled from an hour-long black-and-white drama, into a twice-weekly half-hour serial produced in color. It also introduced a new series regular, Nurse Zoe Lawton (played by Lee Kurty), as a potential love interest for Kildare. All of these changes led to some Later-Installment Weirdness, which the show never recovered from. The series was cancelled in 1966. Nevertheless, the TV adaptation of Dr. Kildare significantly influenced every medical TV series that came after it.
This series provides examples of:
- Abled in the Adaptation: Dr. Gillespie is not bound to a wheelchair like he is in the film series.
- Born in an Elevator: A woman gives birth in an elevator on Christmas Eve In "Season to Be Jolly."
- The Boxing Episode: “The Middle of Ernie Mann.” A boxer with a severe ulcer refuses to take Dr. Kildare’s advice to quit boxing.
- Career-Ending Injury: Averted in a fifth season story arc when nemesis of Kildare and Dr. Jerk, Maxwell Becker (played by James Mason), becomes paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. Dr. Becker almost commits suicide at the thought of being crippled for life, until Dr. Kildare stops him just before he shoots himself. In the end, Dr. Becker successfully performs a complicated surgery using a specialized chair, which helps him to continue his career and accept his fate.
- The Disease That Shall Not Be Named:
- Notably averted, with the show candidly featuring episodes dealing with substance abuse, alcoholism, diabetes, breast cancer, sickle cell anemia, epilepsy, obesity, diverticulitis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease and various mental disorders, among many others.
- That wasn’t always the case, though. Reportedly President Lyndon Johnson requested that the show cover an episode about venereal disease. A script was written for the episode, which was also intended to be a Crossover with MGM series Mr. Novak, but the network refused to let it be produced.
- Dramatic Half-Hour: Season five only.
- Downer Ending: Many, particularly in season 3. In contrast to Season 4 which was Lighter and Softer, possibly due to this.
- Everybody Smokes: Not surprising for its time. Though it did calm down in the later seasons, and you rarely ever saw Kildare with a cigarette in his hand.
- Evil Twin: The episode "The Dark Side of the Mirror." Polly Bergen plays a set of twins, a homely “good” twin who needs a kidney transplant and an “evil” twin, a glamorous Alpha Bitch who won’t give a kidney to her sister.
- Florence Nightingale Effect: Dr. Kildare falls deeply in love with his beautiful, free-spirited patient Pat Holmes (Yvette Mimieux), a surfer girl suffering from epilepsy, in the series' highest-rated and most famously remembered episode, "Tyger, Tyger."
- Forgotten Theme Tune Lyrics: Lyrics were written for the theme so that Richard Chamberlain could record a single, which became a #10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. "Three stars will shine tonight/One for the lonely/That star will shine its light/Each time that someone sighs..."
- Gut Feeling: Kildare relies on his a lot when dealing with patients.
- I Just Want to Be Beautiful: Carolyn Jones plays a woman who is desperate to have plastic surgery on her unusually large nose in "The Mask Makers."
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Dr. Gillespie started out as this, like his film series counterpart, before softening up and being flanderized into a borderline Aesop Enforcer.
- Local Hangout: Mac’s Bar and Grill is the usual setting for the characters when not at the hospital.
- Mercy Kill: Subject of the tear jerker, “For the Living.”
- Musical Episode: Season four’s “Music Hath Charm,” which had the hospital staff putting on a musical variety show. This also acted as a humorous Breather Episode.
- Near-Death Experience: A memorable story arc in the fifth season in revolves around an atheist who flatlines for two minutes and wakes up claiming to have talked to God during that time, turning him into a believer.
- Nice Guy: Dr. Kildare, obviously. Though he is also full of wit, and can be quite a badass when the situation calls for it.
- The Obi-Wan: Dr. Gillespie is this to Dr. Kildare.
- Patient of the Week: Often a Celebrity Star.
- Pretty Boy: Dr. Kildare’s dreamy blue eyes, blond hair, dashing smile and killer cheekbones can make any girl’s (or guy’s) heart race.
- Put on a Bus: The recurring characters Dr. Agurski, Dr. Gerson and Dr. Kapish were rarely seen after season two. Ken Berry, who played Dr. Kapish, left the show entirely after season 3 to go on to star in F Troop.
- Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: As shown in the series’ controversial unaired episode (which is now available), "Night of the Beast".
- Special Guest: Amongst those who made guest appearances were Fred Astaire, Mary Astor, Robert Redford, Lauren Bacall, Jack Nicholson, Anne Baxter, Joseph Cotten, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Ron Howard, James Earl Jones, Lee Marvin, James Mason, Walter Matthau, Ricardo Montalbán, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Walter Pidgeon, Claude Rains, Basil Rathbone, Gloria Swanson and Robert Young.
- Title-Only Opening: Each episode begins with a Cold Open, with the title of the series and each star’s credit superimposed over freeze frames of the scene as it commences. These frames are usually accompanied by a motif of the Theme Tune (written by the great Jerry Goldsmith). A longer version of the theme tune is played during the Closing Credits.