Ben Casey, a medical drama about the "new breed" of doctors, ran on ABC from October 1961 to May 1966. James Moser, who also created the Richard Boone series Medic, created Ben Casey and Matthew Rapf produced the program for Bing Crosby Productions. The show was very successful for ABC and broke into the Top Twenty shows for its first two years. A 1988 made-for TV movie, The Return of Ben Casey, enjoyed only moderate success.
Ben Casey was one of two prominent medical dramas broadcast during the early 1960s. In The Expanding Vista (1990), Mary Ann Watson characterizes this show as a "New Frontier character drama." Indeed, the title character often stood as a metaphor for the best and the brightest of his generation. Often the ills to which Casey attended were stand-ins for the ills of contemporary society. Symbolism was the stock-in-trade of Ben Casey as evidence by its stylized opening: a hand writing symbols on a chalk board as Sam Jaffe intoned, "Man, woman, birth, death, infinity."
County General Hospital was the setting for the practice of its most prominent resident in neurosurgery, Ben Casey, played by Vince Edwards. Edwards had been discovered by Bing Crosby who saw to it that his protege had a suitable vehicle for his talents. As Casey, Edwards was gruff, demanding, and decisive. Casey did not suffer fools lightly and apparently had unqualified respect only for the chief of neurosurgery, Dr. David Zorba (Sam Jaffe). The only other colleagues from whom he would seek counsel were anesthesiologist Dr. Maggie Graham (Bettye Ackerman) and Dr. Ted Hoffman (Harry Landers). Both Hoffman and Graham provided counterpoints of emotion and compassion to the stolid Casey. Virtually every episode in the entire first season of Ben Casey involved a patient with a brain tumor. But the nature of the malady was merely a device that allowed Casey to interact with a panoply of individuals with unique problems--only one of which was their illness. Like many shows of its era (Route 66, The Fugitive), the core of Ben Casey could be found in the development and growth of the characters in any given episode. It was what Casey brought to a person's life as a whole that really drove the show.
Patients were not the only ones with problems. In Ben Casey the limits of medicine, the ethics of physicians, and the role of medicine in society were examined. The hospital functioned as a microcosm of the larger society it served. The professionals presented in Ben Casey were a tight group sworn to an oath of altruistic service. The majority of physicians in the employ of County General were not terribly inflated with self-importance. Their world was not so far removed from the world inhabited by those they helped. The problems that plagued the world outside the walls of County General could often be found within as well. During their work at County General, Casey and his colleagues came into contact with representatives from every level of society. Part of that contact was learning about and making judgments on certain societal issues and problems. Racial tension, drug addiction, the plight of immigrants, child abuse, and euthanasia were a few of the issues treated in Ben Casey.
The series followed an episodic format for its first four years. But the final season saw Dr. Zorba replaced by Dr. Freeland (Franchot Tone) and a move to a serial, soap opera-like story structure. In so doing, Ben Casey moved away from the examination and possible correction of society's problems and moved toward a more conventional, character-driven drama. Vince Edwards, hoping to flex his creative muscles, directed several of the episodes of the last two seasons. Chiefly in these ways, Ben Casey departed from the characteristics of the "New Frontier character drama" and more closely resembled an ordinary medical melodrama. In March 1966, ABC cancelled the show.
The real value of Ben Casey was in its presentation of maladies of the body and mind as representative of larger problems that existed in our society. The show was one of Hollywood's reactions to FCC Chairman Newton Minnow's plea for better television. With the character of Ben Casey at the center of each episode, the show presented (often quite skillfully) the interrelationship of mental, physical, and societal health.
Dr. Ben Casey..................................... Vince Edwards
Dr. David Zorba (1961-65)............................ Sam Jaffe
Dr. Maggie Graham.......................... Bettye Ackerman
Dr. Ted Hoffman....................................Harry Landers
Nick Kanavaras.......................................Nick Dennis