Looking Back on ‘China Beach,’ 30 Years Later
Thursday, July 22, marks 30 years since ABC aired the series finale of China Beach, a drama about the Vietnam War that looked back on the conflict not from the perspective of the soldiers on the front line but of the women working as nurses and entertainers. The result was a fresh take on what is still a painful chapter of American history.
Airing from 1988 to 1991, China Beach followed nurse Colleen McMurphy (Dana Delany) as she lived and worked at an evacuation hospital and USO entertainment center at the titular beach on the South China Sea during the war…and as she romanced pilot Natch Austen (Tim Ryan) and pined for Dr. Dick Richard (Robert Picardo). Among the rest of the cast of characters were aspiring singer Laurette (Chloe Webb), draftee Beckett (Michael Boatman), reporter Wayloo Marie (Meghan Gallagher), Red Cross workers Cherry (Nan Woods) and Holly (Ricki Lake), commanding officer Lila (Concetta Tomei) and civilian volunteer K.C. (Marg Helgenberger).
“This show was about people who were in Vietnam not to fight or kill but to save lives and to help cushion the impact of war,” co-creator and Vietnam veteran William Broyles said in a DVD featurette.
John Sacret Young—the show’s other creator, whose cousin died in combat in Vietnam—added that Broyles’ original pitch was a half-hour comedy set in a hotel in Saigon. But Young had a different idea, as he said in the featurette: “Let’s put it not in Saigon but in a place in Vietnam where all these things come together, and where you can actually feel the war over the hill, and the helicopters can come in with the wounded, and yet you have the R&R center, and you have the beach. So we found this place that was real based on reality called China Beach.”
(China Beach is the nickname U.S. and Australian military personnel gave to a beach in Đà Nẵng, Vietnam, during the war, though local tourism officials have objected to the moniker.)
“We discussed, is there a way to tell a story that hasn’t been told?” Young recalled, talking to the Los Angeles Times in 2013. “That is when we came to think about the role of women. Many of them volunteered. It seemed crucial, interesting and relevant.”
And because the series took place in the 1960s, China Beach featured music of the era: Diana Ross & the Supremes’ “Reflections” was the show’s theme song, for example, and Nancy Sinatra guest-starred in the Season 1 finale to perform for the onscreen troops, just as she had done in real life two decades prior.
In fact, it was the music rights for China Beach’s pop-hit soundtrack that delayed its DVD release: Time Life finally released a complete-series DVD set in 2013, with more than 10 hours of bonus material, after securing the rights to 268 songs.
Over the course of its four-season run, China Beach landed praise from critics like the Los Angeles Times’ Howard Rosenberg who called the show “grim and brooding, yet captivating, unforgettable and not to be missed” in a review of the first season, adding that it “burns its own agonizing images into the small screen, setting them off with streaks of humor that relieve the tension.”
The show earned 29 Emmy nominations, including three consecutive nods for Outstanding Drama Series. Delany won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series twice, while Helgenberger took home an Outstanding Supporting Actress Emmy.
In an appraisal of the drama upon its series finale, The New York Times’ John J. O’Connor said China Beach “sensitively tapped into national terrain that remains difficult.”
The show also shed light on the struggles of those who served in Vietnam, according to CBS News Sunday Morning correspondent Nancy Giles, who played private Frankie on the series. “There were still so many Vietnam veterans who were feeling maligned, under-appreciated and misunderstood,” Giles told the Los Angeles Times. “I went to quite a few events with veterans, and I knew it helped heal a lot of people. It got a dialogue started. It helped them talk about what happened.”
Added Delany, “The nurses were in as horrific situations as the soldiers were. Never before had the nurses been allowed to talk about their PTSD. They had this guilt of ‘I wasn’t actually on the battlefield, what right do I have to talk about it?’ With China Beach, they started talking openly about post-traumatic stress.”
After China Beach, Delany went on to star in Desperate Housewives, Body of Proof and Hand of God. Boatman starred in Spin City and currently appears in The Good Fight. Picardo explored the final frontier in Star Trek: Voyager. Lake had a successful, self-named talk show that lasted 11 years. And Helgenberger, of course, co-headlined CSI: Crime Scene Investigation for more than a decade.
China Beach even featured future A-listers farther down on the call sheet: Guest stars included Helen Hunt, Don Cheadle, Thomas Haden Church, Megan Mullally and a 10-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt, while Diane Keaton directed a Season 4 episode.
As for the talent behind the camera, Broyles went on to pen the screenplay for Cast Away and Jarhead and co-wrote the films Apollo 13 and Flags of Our Fathers. He also created the recent History military drama Six alongside son David. And Young, who died of brain cancer last month, worked as a supervising producer on The West Wing and Firefly Lane later in his career.
“There were so many stories to tell,” Young said in a China Beach DVD featurette. “And we feel honored and lucky to at least have had the chance to tell some.”