In 1938 Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) acquired the rights to author Max Brand's creation, Dr. Kildare, and began a series of popular films about a young intern in a metropolitan hospital, and his struggle to learn his profession and earn the respect of a crusty senior doctor in his specialty, internal medicine. In 1961 the same characters, with different actors, made a nationwide success of the television adaptation of Dr. Kildare, becoming the forerunner of the many medical dramas, like ER and Chicago Hope, that lit up the small screen in the 1990s.
In the cinema version, Lew Ayres starred in the title role and Lionel Barrymore played the senior doctor, a sharp-tongued old curmudgeon with a heart of gold, which he tried to conceal. The first in the series, Young Dr. Kildare (1938), presented a cast of regular characters that included Nat Pendleton as the ambulance driver and featured Laraine Day, who stayed in the troupe for five pictures. MGM released three Kildare pictures in 1940 alone, including Dr. Kildare Goes Home, Dr. Kildare's Crisis, and Dr. Kildare's StrangeCase. Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day, Laraine Day's last in the series, was one of the most popular and was marked by one of Red Skelton's early screen appearances. Lew Ayres, who had chosen to be a conscientious objector and refuse certain military duties, left the cast in 1941. Van Johnson and Keye Luke vied to become Dr. Gillespie's assistant in two films, Dr. Gillespie's Criminal Case and Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant.
Finding the right stars to play Kildare and Gillespie on television was a challenge. The first pilot shot for the series had Lew Ayres return to his role as a more mature Kildare, but executive producer Norman Felton said "The result was a clinical sort of film, too much like a documentary." They decided on a second pilot and quickly signed Raymond Massey, a Canadian actor famous for his portrayal of Lincoln, as Dr. Gillespie. More than 35 actors read for the Kildare part, and William Shatner was the leading contender for the role until he canceled out to accept the Captain's chair in a new science fiction series called Star Trek. One of the remaining actors was a nervous newcomer named Richard Chamberlain, who had done a few minor television roles and was then collecting $38 a week at the unemployment office. Despite his lack of experience, the producer thought he had just the right physical appearance and decided to let him take the lead in the pilot film.
The show was an overnight success, and Chamberlain found himself the object of mobs of squealing women wherever he went. His boyish blond looks attracted 4,500 fan letters a week. The character of Dr. Kildare, however, a medical crusader and straight-arrow idealist, did not entirely appeal to Chamberlain. He told an interviewer in the Saturday Evening Post that Kildare is "nobler than humans prefer other humans to be. If I were to mold Kildare, I would make him more subject to faults and weaknesses—like the rest of us. I might even have him pinch a nurse or two." It was an attitude Dr. Gillespie would not have endorsed.
Despite the development of the show into a world-wide hit, with more than 80 million admirers around the globe, the series ended in 1966 after a five year run. Toward the end, the ratings declined somewhat as the show strayed from the key relationship between Kildare and Gillespie and focused more on the medical problems of its guest star patients. During the final season, some of the episodes were serialized in a 30 minute format rather than continuing in the hour-long version that had been so effective. Following the show's demise, Chamberlain, rather than being forced to return to the unemployment line as he feared, went on to become the "king of the miniseries" in the 1970s and 1980s, starring in such blockbusters as Shogun, The Thornbirds, and Centennial.
In 1972 MGM tried to revive the series in a new format called Young Dr. Kildare, starring Mark Jenkins as Kildare and Gary Merrill as Gillespie, but the series had a brief run, followed by a short afterlife in syndication. Many have commented on the coincidence that two of the most successful medical shows ever to air on television arrived in the year 1961, with Ben Casey premiering four days after Dr. Kildare.
Books, Tim, and Earle Marsh. The Complete Directory of Prime Time Network TV Shows: 1946 to Present. New York, Ballantine, 1981.
Sackett, Susan. Prime-Time Hits: Television's Most Popular Network Programs. New York, Billboard Books, 1993.