The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Robert Picardo (“China Beach”)

Some know Robert Picardo for the time he spent playing the Emergency Medical Hologram on “Star Trek: Voyager,” while others remember him more fondly for his work as Coach Cutlip on “The Wonder Years,” but at the moment, the TV show on his resume that more people are talking about than any other is “China Beach,” which is – after way, way too long a wait – finally on DVD. Picardo took a few minutes to chat with Bullz-Eye about the release of “China Beach: The Complete Series,” his reminiscences of working on the series, and if viewers are wrong to see a touch of his Dr. Dick Richard turning up in the aforementioned EMH.


Bullz-Eye: From what I understand, it sounds like we’re both on the same page as far as being unable to refresh our memories on “China Beach”: they tell me my copy of the complete-series set is due to arrive tomorrow.

Robert Picardo: Oh, good for you! But I did already get mine. [Laughs.] They got it to me yesterday, and I devoted some time to it. I watched a couple of the bonus features. There are 10 hours of bonus features, and I guess I watched about two hours of them, or thereabouts. And then, even though I had to get up very early this morning to do these interviews, I thought, “Well, I’ll pop in the pilot and just watch the first five minutes to see the quality of the transfer.” And, of course, I watched the entire pilot. I couldn’t turn it off! So that was a good thing. The fact that I was so captivated was a good sign.

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I’m really happy to see that the show, which was a period piece to begin with…I mean, we made it in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but it was set from ’68 to ’71, principally, and then the last season we kind of skipped into the future as late as 1987. But basically it was a period piece to begin with, so in that respect it hasn’t aged. It’s still a great time capsule and doesn’t feel dated, and I’m so proud of the work in it. Dana is extraordinary, Marg Helgenberger is extraordinary, but the whole ensemble is just great. You know, it was a very special time in my career, and I know and I’ve heard Dana and Marg and pretty much all of the actors say the same, so to have it reach a new audience is really very gratifying and exciting.

BE: What do you remember about your first read of the pilot script?

RP: I remember reading it and thinking it was great. And important. It felt like an honor to be part of something like that, which was really about something, I mean, obviously, you’d…I guess you’d say the success of the movie “Platoon” led to the possibility of major television networks doing Vietnam dramas. And, of course, “Tour of Duty,” our sister show… [Laughs.] Well, that was really more about “Platoon” and about the soldiers fighting. What was unique and special about “China Beach” was that the point-of-view character was a woman, an Army nurse who served there. So it gave the show a special perspective. It wasn’t about combat, it was about saving lives. It was about supporting and helping soldiers. The war was like an offstage character.

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We were the support group there—the nurses, the doctors, the USO people—to sort of support and patch the guys up and either send them back or, if they were too injured, send them home. And more often than not, if they were dead, you’d offer the last gesture of respect to them. That’s what Michael Boatman’s character did, the guy who ran the grave registration. What a terrific role, and an extraordinary performance for a 24-year-old guy. I mean, to have so much…what’s the word? He created such a character who had seen everything, and he was totally believable as a guy who…that was his life, just all of that death and loss. And what that had turned him into was sort of a 24-year-old old man. Anyway, it’s just great writing. William Broyles, who served in Vietnam and who co-created the series, said that he feels it’s the best war drama that’s ever been on television. And, well, yeah, you could say that he’s a little partial, since he co-created it. [Laughs.] But you know what? I agree with him.

BE: Regarding other war-themed series, to read the one-liner about your character on Wikipedia (“head surgeon and womanizer dealing with being drafted into Army and away from his family”), he sounds like the perfect amalgam of Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Hunnicutt from “M*A*S*H.”

RP: Yeah, he… Well, first of all, “M*A*S*H” was set in the Korean War, of course, and those characters were obviously creations of…the sensibilities of those men were created in the ‘50s. The same goes with my character on “China Beach,” Dr. Richard. I think of him now, with “Mad Men” being such a popular show on TV, as having very much that same attitude as guys from the early seasons of that show. He thinks very highly of himself. [Laughs.] He’s a little full of himself. In the pilot, I think I pinch at least five women on the butt. So, uh, it was a good job. It’s not very politically correct nowadays, but it was fun to be able to recreate those old, politically incorrect moments.


BE: It took ages for the series to finally make it to DVD, due to the expense of licensing the music being seen as cost-prohibitive.

RP: Yeah, y’know, because I did a “Star Trek” series, I make a lot of personal appearances and go to a lot of conventions and stuff like that, and I would often get asked, “Why hasn’t ‘China Beach’ come out?” And I always have to explain that answer: back then, they never anticipated selling a television show like that, so they never secured the music rights for sale or even for broadcast for a certain number of years. So it’s been completely out of the marketplace. At least “The Wonder Years,” which has had a similar fate and can’t be released because they haven’t secured the rights, but that at least still seemed to be in rerun everywhere. But “China Beach” hasn’t even been seen for over a dozen years. And that’s why it’s such a pleasure that Time-Life did it right. They invested the million dollars or whatever, they hired the lawyers, they secured…oh, gosh, 262 songs, I think they told me. Songs by people like the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Van Morrison, Ben E. King, Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin…I mean, that’s one of the things that made the show great: that music. So to have it out finally with that music intact makes it worth waiting for.


BE: Do you have a particular favorite episode of “China Beach,” perhaps a spotlight episode for Dr. Richard?

RP: Well, for my character, there’s an episode called “Crossing the Great Water,” which was in the second season. It’s one where my character finally deconstructs himself and the identity that he left the States with. I’m a married, suburban golf-playing doctor with two young kids and a beautiful wife, and the world is my oyster. That’s the life he leaves when he’s drafted. And, basically, that all falls apart for him while he’s gone. His wife starts having an affair, she divorces him, and…actually, one suggestion that I made was that he discovered the affair inadvertently through a drawing that his child has made. His young child keeps drawing pictures of “Mom and Uncle Doug.” [Laughs.] And I’m, like, “I don’t know who Uncle Doug is!” That was the suggestion that I made to the writers, which they ended up doing.

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Anyway, in the episode “Crossing the Great Water,” his wife serves him with divorce papers, and he basically just loses it. What was fun about that was that it was nice to take a character who had this patina of arrogance and self-confidence who walks around going, “Get out of my way! I am the hands of God, and I will save that person if you just get out of my way!” That kind of shell, that professional shell he had, is completely cracked and destroyed, and then he had to completely rebuild himself after that, and he ultimately became a better man for it. But that made it a fun show to shoot for me, because there were so many different emotional levels to it.

BE: Would you say are there any elements of your “China Beach” character that people can spot in the EMH on “Star Trek: Voyager” if they’re looking for them?

RP: It’s a good question. I tried to hide that. [Laughs.] I would say that, if I had a stock and trade as an actor, it was to play characters that you initially didn’t like, or that you thought that you were not going to like and then grew to like in spite of that negative first impression. So the Doctor on “Star Trek,” they shared a certain arrogance, I think, the two of them. Obviously, because my character on “Star Trek” was an artificial creation, he was sort of a first-generation program for a holographic emergency medical physician, there was a certain artifice to the way he acted for the first season or two. But eventually, as the show went on, he became more and more successfully human-like. So they didn’t have that in common. But as far as the initial impression of being full of themselves and a little arrogant…I mean, you would never see the holographic doctor pinch a woman on the butt. [Laughs.] But he still had that “I’m the smartest guy in the room” feeling that I think Dr. Richard also tried to project.


BE: Lastly, do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

RP: Oh, let’s see… [Long pause.] Um…yeah. Although I don’t know if “love” is the right word. I did a small movie called “Sensored,” which is available on DVD and download or whatever. It’s a little horror movie, or a psychological thriller, and I play a really creepy guy, but I worked really hard on this and I really liked it. And it’s totally different from anything else I’ve ever done. Talk about a character that has nothing in common with…I mean, if you can find one moment in that performance that reminds you of me in “Star Trek,” then I will shoot myself in the head. [Laughs.] Because it really is totally unlike anything I’ve ever done.

But then this little company that bought it for DVD release and all that, they screwed up the DVD release! They just blew it. They literally had orders from Wal-Mart and all that, but – get this – they didn’t have the movie rated in time, and Wal-Mart will not sell an unrated movie. So this whole little roll-out we had, where it was going to be seen and it was going to be sold and people were going to be able to get it, was cancelled because the company forgot to get their own movie rated. It was idiotic. It’s, like, you can’t believe it. It’s like saying, “Ah, yes, we went to the hospital, and my wife and I, we had a child, but somehow we forgot to bring it home!” [Laughs.] I don’t get it.

So, yes, the movie “Sensored” would be my answer, but the reason I say that “love” is maybe not the right word is because I play a very creepy guy. I’m a weird-ass, creepy guy. And you don’t know how much of the terrible things I’m doing are real and how much I’m imagining them. But I worked very hard on the role, and I wish it’d gotten seen by a larger audience. So that’s why I think it qualifies.