In the house I grew up in in West Los Angeles, we had a TV star next door. Her name was Betty Lynn and she is best known for playing Thelma Lou on The Andy Griffith Show. A lovely woman…and practically family. When my mother died in November and I had to begin phoning her friends to let them know, Betty was the first person I called. She moved out of that house a few years ago and now lives in North Carolina where, because of the Griffith show, she is a local superstar.
We had two other "industry" people on our block. One, who I wrote about here years ago, was a film editor named Martin Bolger. The other, who I recently realized I'd never written about, was Dr. William H. Swanson. He and his family lived right across the street from us for several years.
Dr. Swanson was high, high up in the hierarchy of the U.C.L.A. Medical Center and Hospital. We used to always say he ran the whole place and that may not have been an exaggeration. In any event, he was a very prominent man in his field…and the Technical Advisor on the TV series, Dr. Kildare.
Dr. Kildare was a popular dramatic program that ran on NBC from 1961 to 1966. It starred Richard Chamberlain as a young, idealistic internist and Raymond Massey as his crusty, world-weary mentor. The show was not to be confused with Ben Casey over on ABC from 1961 to 1966, which starred Vince Edwards as a young, idealistic internist and Sam Jaffe as his crusty, world-weary mentor. Out of loyalty to our neighbor, the Evaniers only watched Dr. Kildare.
I'm a bit fuzzy on the particulars but I seem to recall that Dr. Swanson got the job because he had a long-standing friendship with Richard Chamberlain. He was not only the show's Technical Advisor but when it came time to allude to Dr. Kildare's past — where he'd studied, where he'd interned, etc. — they used Dr. Swanson's own past. Or at least, that's what an article in TV Guide said.
I got interested in TV writing as a possible career in early 1965 when as described here, my parents and I attended the filming of an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show. Prior to that, I'd known I wanted to be a writer but I wasn't certain what I wanted to be a writer of. I pretty much longed to write everything: Comic books, cartoons, novels, songs, stand-up comedy jokes, movies, magazine articles, fortunes for fortune cookies, tags you're not allowed to rip off your mattress….and, oh yes, TV shows. After that night — after being in the presence of Rob Petrie and, more important, Laura — TV writing vaulted to the top of the list.
A few weeks later, my mother was talking to Dr. Swanson's wife and happened to mention that. Mrs. Swanson said, "Would Mark like some old scripts? Because we have a garage full of them."
They sent Dr. Swanson every draft of every script for his corrections and suggestions, and he'd kept them all. There must have been 500 scripts in that garage and I was told I could help myself. I eventually helped myself to around fifty, including all I could find from the current season. When those episodes ran, I'd watch and follow along in my copy of the script. You couldn't learn everything about TV writing doing that but you could learn something.
I actually learned something one day when Richard Chamberlain was visiting them and I was invited to come over and meet him. He was very nice and very soft-spoken and very encouraging. But when he was told I'd been considering different kinds of writing and had settled on television, he said, "You don't have to pick one. I don't consider myself a television actor. I'm an actor who is currently on television. I don't neglect the other things I can do and you shouldn't, either. It'll make you a better writer of anything you do if you broaden your horizons. It also means there will be more places where you can work."
That's advice I've been giving to others for about the last thirty years but I only recently realized where I got it in the first place. I got it from Richard Chamberlain.
The Swansons moved away not long after Dr. Kildare ceased practicing on NBC. We missed them because they were nice folks and also because there was something comforting about having a great doctor living across the street. We never had to call on Dr. Swanson for an emergency but it was comforting to know he was there.
When they were moving out, I was again informed I could help myself to scripts. Whatever I didn't take would be going into the dumpster. I didn't need any more than I already had so a friend of mine and I loaded them all into boxes and took them to a nearby second-hand bookstore where the proprietor gave us store credit for them. The store had a good selection of recent old comic books and I filled in a lot of my Marvel collection with that credit. I learned a lot from reading those comics, too…so having Dr. Swanson across the street was very helpful to that end of my career, as well.
Years later, after I'd begun working in TV, my Aunt Dot told me how proud she was of me. We discussed my path to that profession and somehow, we got onto the subject of all those Dr. Kildare scripts. She had been over a few times when the whole family was watching the show and I was sprawled on the living room floor in front of the TV, following along in a copy of the script.
"You know," she said in her Aunt Dot way, "I'm glad you got into doing something you enjoy like that…but at one point, I was kind of hoping those scripts would inspire you to get into the field of Medicine."