Dana Delany Looks Back at ‘China Beach’

By David Weiner

It’s hard to believe that several decades have passed since the 1988 TV debut of CHINA BEACH, in which Dana Delany made a huge impact as Army nurse Colleen McMurphy, a complicated character experiencing the physical and emotional horrors of the Vietnam War firsthand and elbow deep.

Back when I was at ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT, I had an enjoyable chat with the Emmy winner on the occasion of the silver anniversary of China Beach. We talked about the show’s impact, how the lead role (that initially daunted her) eventually changed her life — and how she almost lost the part to Helen Hunt.

“The part was originally written [as a] Midwestern girl and she had blonde hair – I think ‘the color of wheat’ was the description of it, because she was from Kansas — and I didn’t look like that,” says Dana. “I certainly looked wholesome, and I think it’s safe to come out and say it because she had a huge career — it was between me and Helen Hunt. The two of us tested for it, and I really don’t know why they chose me. I know there was a lot of consternation at the time; a lot of people didn’t think I was right for the role. One thing I heard was that I wasn’t pretty enough (laughs). You know, at that age you take that to heart. And I don’t know why they finally chose me. I know that at the end, I was [series co-creator and executive producer John Sacret Young‘s] choice and that was that.”

Despite initial comparisons to M*A*S*H – minus the laugh track – when China Beach debuted in April of 1988, the drama quickly came into its own with its smart writing, cinematic sensibilities and honest portrayal of the horrors of war and the resulting psychological scars.

The star continues, “I thought it was quite true to the experience of nurses in Vietnam. I know when we first came out the [real life] nurses were really concerned that they were going to be portrayed as sex bombs in service of the doctors, because honestly, up until that point, nurses often were portrayed that way. I think they were relieved that we took great pains to get it right and listen to their stories, going as far as having real nurses in an episode called Vets. … Eventually I was part of the whole movement to get The [Vietnam] Women’s Memorial up in D.C., because I became close to a lot of the nurses.”

“I thought it was really smart to do it from the perspective of women. It was sort of a different way in,” says Dana. “I would say that the template that John Sacret Young kept referring to was The Best Years of Our Lives. … As horrible as war is, it’s very exciting, and once you come home it’s very hard to come down from that – there’s a lot of adrenaline associated with it, and I think that the nurses also experienced that. It was the time in their life when they felt most alive and were the most needed, and at the same time it was the most horrific time in their lives. So I thought it was an interesting take that we had on it.”

Dana earned not just one but two Best Actress Emmys for her work on the show, and went on to embody a myriad of roles in both film (such as Tombstone and Exit to Eden) and television (including Desperate Housewives and Body of Proof). With time on her side, she laughs at her own expense thinking about her mindset following the end of China Beach.

“The TV show spoiled me completely, because I thought, ‘Oh, I’m only going to do work that has great impact and meaning,’ and of course that’s not so easy to find!” she chuckles. “When I got off China Beach everybody was offering me movies, and I was so used to doing work of such emotional depth on China Beach. There was a period of time when studio features — not independent films — were very afraid of emotion. There was a lot of irony and cynicism going on, and I had hard time connecting to that. So I was extremely picky. Probably overly picky that I became known as the ‘no’ girl, and then you realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m saying no too much,’ and you start saying yes, and maybe you say yes to things you shouldn’t say yes to! You know, you never know, it’s all timing.”

Among the shows on her post-China Beach resume, I personally love Dana’s over-the-top 1993 miniseries Wild Palms, executive-produced by Oliver Stone, and she enthusiastically responds, “I did too! I loved Wild Palms; it was so ahead of its time.”

As for the familial friendships forged on the China Beach set, Dana says of her former co-stars, including Marg Helgenberger, Robert Picardo and Michael Boatman, “We are all still friends today because of the shared experience of doing that show. We [recently] had a ‘reunion’ where we all got together, they filmed it and we talked about the experience, but the truth is we’ve seen each other a lot over the years. … When we see each other, nothing has changed. I think once you’ve had that experience when you’re young, you do remain friends for life.”

Read on for more of my Q&A with Dana Delany: 

David Weiner: What was your perspective on the Vietnam War before show started, and how did it change from working on the show?

Dana Delany: Oh, very different. I was aware about the war because I grew up in the war period. My uncle Kevin Delany was a war correspondent for ABC oddly enough, so I thought of it as a job being in Vietnam. So I was very much aware of it in that sense, [and] my older brother just missed getting drafted. … But it changed very much once I started doing the show, because it was 20 years later and we were getting some perspective on the war, and that was when Oliver Stone was coming up with his movies [such as] Platoon, and I thought it was really smart to do [China Beach] from the perspective of women. It was sort of a different way in.

DW: How do you feel about your character’s arc over the course of four seasons?

Delany: It still breaks my heart when I think about it, because McMurphy very much was of the Kennedy generation, very much Catholic — she went to Vietnam to do good. She really and truly was altruistic, and she only wanted to help, and I think once she saw the realities of war — one thing that nurses had to deal with that the soldiers didn’t was they didn’t feel they had the right to talk about their experiences in the war, because they were not out in battle. But they were having their own internal battle seeing death constantly, and constantly patching these young men up to send them back out in the battle, and it effects a huge toll on them. And also with women it’s true, they don’t feel they have a right to complain, so I think in many way their PTSD was more insidious. I’m very proud of the fact that we dealt with what happens when you return from the war, and it’s something that continues today, obviously. A lot of the nurses did have drug problems and alcohol problems and a great deal of difficulty connecting with people on an emotional level when they came home.

DW: Do you have any specific on-set memories of China Beach that really stand out, whether it was fun or extremely poignant?

Delany: Oh, there are so many. There are so many of those partly because I was young, and it was so new to me that it was an experience that would form my life forever. Because I was daunted by that role of McMurphy, I really didn’t know I could pull it off, and I would drive to work every day in fear whether I can pull this off. We shot like an hour outside of [Los Angeles] up in Indian Dunes and I’d drive home at night and usually we’d shoot 18 hours a day, sometimes more; there’d be times when we’d finish as the sun was coming up, and I loved every second of it. And I would drive home as the sun was coming up, thinking, “OK, I did it! I did it!” And it would be just day-to-day.

But it was such a great group of young, hopeful, inexperienced actors, and we all just wanted to do good work. There were no stars, we were all equal, and they put us through the ringer. I mean, poor Marg Helgenberger, because she was playing a prostitute, was constantly wearing the skimpiest clothes, and there was always this joke that they would constantly throw water on her – she was put in the shower, she was put into the river, she was put in a rain storm. She was always soaking wet and freezing. And I was lucky, because I was wearing a uniform most of the time. We would get out to the desert at like five in the morning and it would be 30 degrees out, and then by midday it would be 90 degrees, so I’d start my day wearing two pairs of silk long johns underneath my uniform. I peeled them off in the middle of the day, and by the end of the day you’d be putting them back on, but poor Marg didn’t have that option in a bikini (laughs). Also, we just had so much fun playing jokes on each other.

I’d say the most poignant moment for me, there was two. One was the episode when the real vets came in. That was amazing. I would sort of just sit next to the camera and listen to them. … And another scene I’d say for me was, I think it was The World – Part Two … where I go home and there is a vet and he’s in a wheelchair – you know one of the hallmarks of China Beach was there was a lot of silence with no dialogue, which today would freak people out — but there was a lot of silence, and in this scene I climb onto his lap in the wheelchair and we did this wheelchair ballet. It was very erotic and innocent and heartfelt. I think the song we used was A Whiter Shade of Pale. The music had a lot to do with the series too.

DW: You made the role of McMurphy your own from the get go. There are some shows in which you sort of get used to a person in a role because that’s what you’re handed, whereas other actors, you look at an especially long career now, and they have that one defining role. … You and China Beach are one in my opinion.

Delany: It’s interesting. They always say it takes that one role. For me it was very early in my career, so I hope that I still have another one of those roles in me. I certainly had some wonderful roles along the way, but I feel that there’s one more and I’m thinking about it right now as we speak. … I would say that of all the roles I have played, Colleen McMurphy is closest to who I am. Certainly, the Irish Catholic background, and the sense of being a do-gooder, wanting to help somehow in the world, I would say it’s closest to me, and it’s with any series after a while they start writing for you and including certain aspects of your personality.

DW: What do you think the legacy of China Beach is in terms of life and TV history?

Delany: I’m really glad that it’s finally out on DVD, because it’s a great history lesson, for one thing, about The Vietnam War, and I know a lot of kids don’t know much about it. At the time that [the show] came out I would get a lot of letters from young people, elementary grade or junior high, thanking me because they finally understood what their father went through, because their father didn’t want to talk about it. Now, a new generation really only knows about The Vietnam War through history class, and so I think it’s great as an instructive tool. I’m very curious to see what young people think of it because filmicly they’re so much more used to fast-paced, quick cutting — and that’s not China BeachChina Beach was purposely shot like a film. It took its time, there’s a lot of moments of silence, there’s some obtuse dialogue. So I’m curious to see what younger people think of it. I think the emotional core is there and that’s what people are going to relate to.

DW: You were talking about finally understanding what vets wouldn’t talk about. Was your father part of the World War II generation?

Delany: Yeah, my father was in the Navy in the Pacific and he never, ever talked about it. We had Harold Russell on the show, who was famously in The Best Years of Our Lives and and he was in World War II, and it was an interesting thing to talk to him about it. Unfortunately my father was dead when I did China Beach, and I wish that he was still alive for me to ask him questions, because of course I had so many questions that arose from doing the show, and I never got to ask him.


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