The Nurses of Ben Casey
October 16, 2013
Like most medical dramas, Ben Casey employed a technical advisor both on the set and in the wings to fact-check scripts. Many shows – including Casey’s rival, Dr. Kildare – hired doctors for this role, but Ben Casey was somewhat unusual in that it employed a young nurse as its primary technical advisor. In a November 1961 profile of Ben Casey’s creator, James E. Moser, The New York Journal American’s Jack O’Brian wrote:
Alice Rodriguez, R.N., veteran of six County Hospital years, checks all scenes involving nurses. She also steps in camera range during operating room scenes, because surgical procedures take months, even years, to learn. Wife of a doctor and mother of four, Nurse Rodriguez says actresses couldn’t possibly duplicate the “precise sterile techniques drummed into us nurses until they become automatic,” and notes her presence saves time.
“A scrub nurse is to her surgeon what a football quarterback is to his backfield,” she said. The moves and timing must be perfect.”
When I was researching Ben Casey for The A.V. Club, I tracked down Rodriguez, who is still a practicing nurse (she works with breast cancer patients at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Orange, California). Rodriguez proved to have a fantastic memory of events on the set of Ben Casey, and she also put me in touch with another (now retired) nurse, Christina Hutson, who joined her during the later seasons. Although Rodriguez largely left the television industry after Ben Casey, Hutson (credited as “Chris Hutson”) went on to several of the most prominent medical shows of the seventies and eighties. (And Hutson’s protegee, Linda Klein, followed in her footsteps, working as a producer on Chicago Hope, Grey’s Anatomy, and Nip/Tuck, as well as playing a funny recurring role in the latter.)
Although Rodriguez’s name appears in the cast lists for a half-dozen Ben Casey episodes in which she played small roles (usually as an operating room nurse), neither she nor Hutson received screen credit for their work as technical advisors. Had it not been for that brief mention in O’Brian’s article, I would never have learned of the significant role that the two women played in the making of the series. The following transcript integrates remarks from Ms. Rodriguez and Ms. Hutson, made during separate telephone interviews recorded in July and August 2013.
How did you connect with Ben Casey?
Rodriguez: I had my nursing school training at Los Angeles County Hospital, and that’s where I met my husband. When I was a student and also after I graduated, when I was working at L.A. County, I worked with a neurosurgery resident named Max Warner. Max was discovered, quote-unquote, by Jim Moser, when Jim was researching Casey. He saw Max and thought he was a great character. Max had finished his residency, but he had gotten a deferment from the Navy to complete it, so he knew that he would be taken into the Navy pretty soon and he didn’t start practice. Jim Moser hired him to work on the pilot and the first ten scripts.
When my husband went into practice, he got a letter from Max that told him a little bit about what he was doing, and asked if I would be interested in participating in a minor way. That’s how I got in. I was asked to come in to do the scrub nurse role in the first season. The first show I did was segment number four, and I remember it so well. The title of it was “I Remember a Lemon Tree,” and the [guest] actor was George C. Scott.
I did probably three or four, not many, and Max was called into the Navy about show number seven. The producer was Matt Rapf, and Matt called me in and asked if I’d be interested in being a technical advisor on the set, for the medical scenes. I said, “Well, only if I had some backup.” They had a panel of neurosurgeons, two or three, from L.A. County, who were out in practice. They were reviewing scripts, but I was on the set. I was there all five seasons.
The last season and a half, I had a nurse classmate alternate shows with me, because I commuted from Costa Mesa and later Newport Beach into Hollywood, and I had four small children. So it was pretty rigorous. But I loved it.
Hutson: I think I came in around ’62, the first part of ’63. Alice and I were classmates from L.A. County Hospital, and our husbands were interns together and very good friends. Alice was asked by a neurosurgeon to help him on the show, to do more on set, because doctors didn’t want to give up their time to sit around and wait. But he went in the Army, and they decided instead of getting another doctor [they hired Rodriguez]. Her husband said, either you need help, or quit, because the hours were so long. So she asked me to help. We rotated shows until the show ended. I think it was [for] three and a half seasons.
Were you a movie buff before your career took you into Hollywood?
Rodriguez: Not particularly, no. I grew up in a family that was fundamentalist in terms of religion. So, as a child, we didn’t do movies. I think my mother took me to two Shirley Temple shows, and that was the extent of it until I was in high school. Finally, they relented on an occasion now and then – my brother and I could see a show. But it was very [much] not focused on that kind of thing. And even now I’m not one to run out and see the next movie.
Is it accurate to say that the character of Ben Casey was based on Max Warner?
Rodriguez: Yes. Oh, yeah, he was. Max was, in some ways, a non-conformist. He had his own opinions. He was brilliant. He was a bright, bright person. He was born, I think, in China. His parents were missionaries. So he came up with a background and an education in the Bible, and he used to quote the Bible at the drop of a hat. He was a character. That’s what made him attractive to Jim Moser. Because Jim spent a year living in the intern residents’ dorms at L.A. County, soaking it up.
It’s amazing that he invested that much time in something that might not have gone anywhere.
Rodriguez: Mm-hmm. Well, you know, he did Medic a few years before, and it wasn’t a [character-driven] drama. He wanted to do a drama. So that’s why he developed, I think, the Ben Casey character.
What else do you remember about Moser?
Rodriguez: Jim was Jesuit-trained. He started out in the Jesuit seminary, and then decided not to become a priest, is my understanding. He was always very studious. He liked jazz. You know, he was mainly a writer, and a lot of writers are not very outgoing.
I particularly liked Jim Moser’s scripts. I remember the actors saying, “His dialogue is so easy to learn, because it’s so natural to the character.” He just wrote that way. At his house, he had a guest house out back, and they used to put him out there and lock him in, because he was always behind schedule. They had a trap door – they put his food in to him, but he had to finish that script. But he just had such beautiful stories, and the characters were so real.
How active was Moser in the show after the pilot?
Rodriguez: Jim Moser was pretty active, particularly the first season and a half to two seasons, while Matt was there. Matt left after the second season. Jim was around – he wasn’t always on the property.
Tell me more about what, exactly, your job as a technical advisor entailed.
Rodriguez: I learned how film is made. Part of my duties was going to all the production meetings, and I worked with the film cutters on the operating room scenes, so that the sequencing was correct. I also took new directors and new writers over to L.A. County and took them on a tour, just to kind of initiate them into the atmosphere.
The writers knew that they could call me with any research questions or that kind of thing. I always got the next week’s script ahead of time, and I would review the scripts and make any comments at the production meetings that might affect wardrobe or makeup or any of those things. The head of each of those crafts would be at the production meeting, so it was ironed out [there]. And Matt Rapf was the final word.
Did you also spend a lot of time on the set?
Rodriguez: I didn’t have to be there if they were doing something in a living room or something like that. I was only required to be there for the medical part that was being filmed.
Hutson: Ben Casey was a neurosurgeon, so when he finally did the surgical thing, we’d set up the whole surgery. Any time there were props that they needed, we’d make sure they had the proper ones and they were used properly. We would work with the actors as far as dialogue – go over medical terms that they might not know how to pronounce [and] he way their hands work. We’d have to stage it so it was believable, so that in surgery they wouldn’t wipe their brow with their hand. Just things that actors wouldn’t think about or even know about. And we would consult on wardrobe. Back then interns had a code – they were all in white. Residents had beige slacks and a white top. Hair and not much jewelry on the nurses.
Were the actors receptive to your advice?
Hutson: Oh, yes. Most actors are extremely intelligent and care a lot. They wanted to look the part and they wanted to act the part. The only one that I had a little problem with was Patrick McGoohan [on Rafferty]. He was a little bit insulting. I don’t know whether he was trying to do me a favor or not, but he came up one time and he said, “You know, you’re prostituting yourself.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “By doing this kind of work when you could be working in a hospital.” I thought, well, that’s one take on it.
Rodriguez: You know that show Bing Crosby had on for a season [The Bing Crosby Show, 1964-1965]? He shot that next door at Desilu Gower. It was a closed set, so I asked if I could go over and visit. They said yes and I got in and watched a scene. Crosby came over, and he knew who I was and where I came from. He said to me, “Boy, this sure beats the hell out of passing bedpans, doesn’t it?” Referring to my job.
Hutson: There was a situation where I’d done a pilot for Jerry Thorpe called The Lazarus Syndrome, with Lou Gossett, and a pilot for Frank Glicksman called Trapper John. In Hollywood, if you happen to do a pilot and it’s bought, you don’t say, “Oh, I’m going to wait around and see what else is coming.” So they bought Jerry Thorpe’s, and I took it. I had already done seven seasons of Medical Center with Frank Glicksman, and he said, “Well, we want you on Trapper John.” I said, “Well, I can’t do both.” He said, “Yes you can.” So we worked it out. I hired an intern who had already done his internship. They said, “We’ll pay you; you pay him.” And I came on the set one day and it was a scrub room scene, and Pernell was scrubbing without his mask on. They had done one take. The intern’s name was Stuart and I said, “Stuart, how come…?” He said, “Well, he doesn’t want to wear his mask.” I said, “Well, Stuart, he’s got to wear his mask.” He said, “Well, he doesn’t want to.” So I went over to Pernell and I said, “Hey, Pernell, you really are supposed to be wearing a mask.” He said, “Well, I asked Stuart and he said it was okay.” I said, “Well, he’s trying to please you. Put your mask on!”
Was accuracy a major preoccupation on Ben Casey?
Rodriguez: They were really adamant about being [medically] correct. They went to great lengths to try to be correct, so that no one could point the finger.
Hutson: When you’d get a script from the writers, sometimes they’d know what they’re talking about and sometimes they’d just leave it up to someone else to correct the medical part of it. So you’d get the script, and then you read it and you highlight what’s your business and what you have to take care of – that the dialogue’s correct, and that the props are attainable. Like, some guy could read something in some Scientific American and write a story around it, and it’s something [that won’t really exist until] twenty-five years later. So I would ask Wilton Schiller’s secretary when I could talk to him – and Alice did this too – about the script. Then I’d give him my corrections.
Rodriguez: I remember one incident where one of the writers had seen something in a medical journal or something that was kind of on the research side, and it had involved the use of a stereotactic device to pinpoint treatment for Parkinson’s or that kind of thing. So he came with that idea and it came up in a production meeting: how are we going to get one of these things? So I did a little research with the team of neurosurgeons we used, and they said, UCLA has it. They’re testing it over there. So we made an attempt to get it. Well, you’ve never heard such a brouhaha as was created at UCLA. The lead person on the research called me one day on the set and [said], “How dare you? How did you get this information? And your show is just making fun of me and…” It went on and on and on. I said, “You know, doctor, we don’t even know who you are.” And he was kind of silent for a minute, and then he began to tell me how nice the show was, and how perfect it was.
Although her face was usually hidden behind a mask in operating room scenes, Alice Rodriguez (above) played a physical therapist in one episode of Ben Casey (“Then, Suddenly, Panic!” 1965). (Incidentally, “Then, Suddenly, Panic!” is usually listed as the final episode of the series. But it features Sam Jaffe and was clearly shot during season four and left on the shelf for a year, for reasons I’ve been unable to learn.)
What would happen when dramatic license became a factor, and they needed to take liberties with the medicine in order to make a story work?
Rodriguez: There was quite an incident with Peter Falk, when he came to do a segment. They happened to cast him in a story [in which] the character with the disease was highly infectious, and it meant that people going in and out of the room had to wear not only a gown but gloves and a mask and a cap. Well, Peter Falk had a glass eye, and the cinematographer said, “This is going to be really difficult, with his glass eye, to always get him on the proper side and with the proper lighting, et cetera, so that that doesn’t show up.” So they discussed it and said, “Well, we just won’t have him wear a mask.” And I said, “Well, that’s part of being correct. That’s part of what you’re telling the audience with this particular disease, you need to go to these measures.” They decided they were going to do it anyway, and not do the mask. So I called the infectious disease nurse over at L.A. County – I had known her – and she said, “Well, just have them wash their hands a lot.” [Laughs.] So that’s what we did. We put a basin outside the door of the room and had them [use] the basin of water. So that’s how we handled it. And I don’t remember that we got many comments about it. But usually there was a way to work it out. I got a little bummed about some of it, because I was looking at it from the standpoint of education to the public. But most of the time it worked.
Hutson: Sometimes you set up the room and the director will say, “Okay, we’re going to do another angle,” and they’ll move the monitors that you had on one side of the room over to the side they’re shooting. And they say, “They’ll never notice it.” So some things you let them get away with, because you know that the audience, if they’re worried about the machinery, then they’re not following the story. You want to [fight] the battles you want to win. Sometimes the director will say, “I don’t want to see them in their masks.” That happened to me when a friend was doing a show at Fox, and the director even called the producers down, and they said, “Nope, the masks stay off.” My girlfriend was on that show and she said, “Please come up and help me out.” Because they had everybody without a mask. So I backed her up. Long story short, the thing is shown and they get all kinds of calls about – it’s ridiculous, it’s mostly people that want your job – but they had so many and they said, “Why didn’t you tell us how important it was?” And you just roll your eyes and walk away.
What did you think of Vince Edwards?
Rodriguez: I liked him. He was an interesting character. He loved the horses. And I got along well with him. He was the kind of person [to whom] you couldn’t say, “This is how you’re going to do it.” My approach to him was to just always be beside the camera, when we were blocking out a scene, because when he’d get to a piece of business with the medical equipment, he didn’t know what to do with it. And right away he would yell for me. So I’d go in and I’d say, “What’s up, Vince?” He’d say, “Well, what do I do with this? Show me.” He had great manual dexterity. I’d just show him a couple of times and he could handle anything. And that involved the surgical, too. He was very adept. And he was a quick study. He had a photographic memory.
Did you observe his rather legendary bad behavior on the set?
Rodriguez: He had a couple of challenges with actors who came on as guests. I can’t remember the name of the [actor] who really gave him a piece of his mind, because sometimes Vince, if the horses were running in the afternoon, he’d take off and not do the off-camera for the guests. And this actor really told him [off]. He refused to do his on-camera until Vince was there, and they had to do it the next day.
Did you feel that Edwards’s behavior on the set was out of line?
Rodriguez: Well … I think that he acted in some ways that were not very mature. But you have to consider, when he came on the show, when they cast him, they used to tell the story that he was so poor he didn’t even have a pair of socks. I guess he made it big, and he just was not mature enough to be able to handle it well.
Hutson: He would leave for lunch, and we would have a pool about what time in the afternoon he’d come back. He never took a one-hour lunch that I can remember. And he would do other crazy things. For example, he knew I skied and he said, “I want to go skiing at Mammoth. Help me out. Make me a list of the things I need.” So I made a list, and he gave it to the prop master and the prop master went out and bought everything for him.
He was a very personable man. He was like a teddy bear. But he didn’t have a lot of – what would I say? – he took liberties with his position. Most people, if they make a pretty good salary, they’d just be thankful that they could afford it themselves and not send the prop man out to buy everything.
Edwards also had an entourage that spent a lot of time on the set, didn’t he?
Rodriguez: He did. There were a couple of guys that were with him, and one of them was a sleazebag. I remember walking out with [guest star] Percy Rodriguez –
A wonderful actor.
Rodriguez: Oh, wonderful. A wonderful person, too.
And he shared your name!
Rodriguez: I know. We went to lunch one day at the commissary and somebody asked if we were married. And we said, “No. To other people, but not to each other.” But, anyway, we were walking out this evening, with Bettye Ackerman’s auntie – I was driving her auntie down to a relative’s house in Costa Mesa. So we were all walking out to the car, and here came this sleazebag that was in the entourage for Vince, asking Percy if he needed someone to spend the evening with. That he had contacts for him. And he just said, “No, thank you. My evening is taken.”
So he was a pimp! Do you think he did that with everybody, or are you suggesting that he treated Rodriguez a certain way because he was black?
Rodriguez: I have no idea. I think that he just saw himself – well, he was one of these guys that wore lots of jewelry, and …
I assume this is Bennie Goldberg you’re talking about.
Rodriguez: Yeah, it was Bennie. There was another person that was with Bennie all the time, and he was a little slow – you know, not as intelligent.
Was that Ray Joyer?
Rodriguez: Yeah. He was a sweet person, but he just was a little slow.
What about the rest of the cast? Do you remember Jeanne Bates, who played the head nurse?
Rodriguez: On two of our summer hiatuses, I took Jeanne to L.A. County. We spent two weeks over there. She wore a uniform and she shadowed the nurses. She was a very thorough actress. She wanted to see what really happened. And she really struggled, because she felt like she should have a more prominent role. And it just never happened.
And Nick Dennis?
Rodriguez: Give him a scene, and he added dialogue, and they’d have to stop and say, “Now, Nick, that’s not in the script.” Yeah, he was a character.
Did you know why Sam Jaffe left the series before the final season?
Rodriguez: No, but I knew that he was not happy. He didn’t like the character, I guess, or maybe it was that he didn’t like Vince that much. I think he felt that it wasn’t the level of acting that he preferred. And everybody kind of knew that.
Hutson: Jaffe and Bettye Ackerman, they considered themselves actors, and Vince just kind of fell into the role. He wasn’t an actor of the caliber that Sam Jaffe was.
What do you recall about Wilton Schiller, who replaced Matthew Rapf as the “showrunner”?
Hutson: He was easy to work with, approachable, had a good sense of humor.
Rodriguez: “Uncle Wilty,” I think we called him. He always was jovial, and he liked to kiss everybody, so that’s what we kind of called him.
Which of the show’s directors do you remember?
Hutson: There were some you liked better than others. Alan Crosland was a pilot, and I’m a pilot; I have an instrument/commercial rating. He came to dinner at my house one time, and he flew his plane into Long Beach. He wanted to take me flying and I said, “Well, ask my husband.” And he said sure. My husband was an anesthesiologist at Long Beach Memorial. Anyway, we went up and the door wasn’t shut right, so it was pretty noisy.
Rodriguez: Some of the people who went through there . . . Leo Penn, Sean Penn’s father, from New York. And Sydney Pollack. I think Sydney was twenty-seven or twenty-eight when he started with us. After I got to know Sydney well, there was one scene where it opened with the boom high and coming down, and he had me ride on that boom with him and help him direct. So that was a great thrill. Mark Rydell – I took him to L.A. County, and I had no idea that he had been so popular on the show in New York [The Edge of Night] that he had been on. We were down in the orthopedic clinic, and all of a sudden these nurses’ assistants came running over, shouting the name he had had on the show!
Hutson: John Meredyth Lucas was always walking around with a little bag of corn nuts. That was his favorite snack.
What do you recall about the production crew on Ben Casey?
Rodriguez: The crew was just fabulous. Most of the crew members stayed the whole five seasons. The person I worked beside a lot was the script supervisor, Betty Fancher. Betty was an old-timer. She had worked with a man named Eddie Small, and I guess Eddie Small was of the time when silents were going to sound. She had been in the business for years and years and years, and she knew everybody. She was an extraordinary script supervisor. She had become quite heavy in her later years, and because of that it was hard for her to get around the set sometimes. On an operating room scene, they’d have several takes, and I used to tell her the one that was the most correct. And she would make notations. She plotted things out on the scripts, and of course those scripts went to the film cutter. I learned a lot from Betty.
What about the director of photography, Ted Voigtlander?
Rodriguez: He was a delightful man. He would always show me the film strips when they’d come in so that he could look at them. He and Eddie Blondell, who was the head lighting person. They would look at these strips – each time they would come in, they would have several to look at, and they would pick the ones that were, they thought, the most natural.
Teddy went to bat for me. They had one director that was early on, and I had been answering a question somewhere, but anyway they blocked out a scene and they had somebody taking a patient in the elevator feet-first, so that the head was toward the door. And I said, “I’m sorry, that isn’t the way we do it. We turn the patient around and put them in head-first so the feet are at the door in case the door closes.” Well, the director just ranted and raved and cussed at me. Teddy went in and he took him by the shirt collar and he said, “Don’t you dare talk to her that way.” That director never came back. I can’t remember his name.
That taught me a lesson too, and that is that when they’re blocking out a shot, that’s when you catch the possible errors. So you want to be there so you can put in a word before they go through the lighting and all of that.
I think the look of the show is very interesting. Was there anything specific about the imagery that the producers were trying to achieve?
Rodriguez: Well, I think they wanted it to look like L.A. County. The set decorators and the set designers actually went over and measured the operating room and the patient rooms and all that. Then they reconstructed the sets, reducing them by a third, is what they told me. The ceiling was open most of the time, unless they were doing low shots in a room, and then they’d put the little fake ceiling up. L.A. County, in those years, had an autoclave right in the operating room, so they actually went and got the lid off the autoclave, and they had that in the room. They also used a rack where the nurses would take the used sponges and hang them, so that they could count them. It was ten across. They did everything they could to use the furniture and the look of L.A. County. And I think the lighting and the paints, painting the sets, all of that was [based on] L.A. County.
You implied earlier that the producers drifted away from the commitment to accuracy as the show went on.
Rodriguez: I think they were more inclined to be a little more on the dramatic side and less on the crisp medical type environment that they presented at the beginning. I remember hearing the term: “Oh, well, that’s poetic license.” Or: “That’s a story point – we can’t change that.”
There was a big [incident] with one of the writers, where he wrote a script where he had Casey going against the attending physicians. Which was not unusual – he did that often in a script. But in this particular one, they had him using somebody else’s name to take him to the operating room, because the staff had said no, not to go to the operating room. When I read that script, I just blew a gasket. And I couldn’t get to Jim [Moser] personally, so I called one of the neurosurgeons, who was on the staff at Good Samaritan. I told him the crux of the story, and I said, “It is wrong. We can’t do that, for the sake of the public. It’ll just destroy trust.” He said, “Send me the script in a plain envelope.” So I did. He was able to get to Jim, and they changed it. But those were things that were more apt to come up in the later years.
Did the other nurses and doctors you knew like the show, or not?
Rodriguez: Some of them did. Almost all of them commented on how authentic it was. They didn’t like Casey’s character very much.
Rodriguez: He was too against the grain, they thought. I just thought, that’s the real world. Not everybody goes along like sheep.
And it’s not as if that was inauthentic, since Casey was based on a real person.
Rodriguez: Sure, but not a lot of people knew that. I think some of the people, of course, in our circle of friends at L.A. County, they knew, because they knew Max. But down in Newport Beach, where my husband was in practice, they really didn’t.
Why did Max Warner switch his specialty from neurosurgery to psychiatry? That’s kind of an unusual career move, isn’t it?
Rodriguez: Well, it is, but apparently the neurosurgeons did not like the show, and Max’s feelings were that he could never be approved. He couldn’t get his certification as a neurosurgeon because of that.
Really? That was Warner’s own view, that Ben Casey hurt his career?
How did you hear the news when Ben Casey was cancelled? What was your reaction?
Rodriguez: I wasn’t surprised. It was a sad time, because everybody kind of knew. In their spare time, when they could get a minute or two, they were always calling their agents and trying to look for other things. The crew was doing the same thing. We had been almost like a family for five seasons – four and a half years – and it was very sad.
What did you do next?
Rodriguez: After the show was over, I found a private company that was producing records and little tapes and slides for nursing education, and it was the first of its kind. It was a company called Trainex and I was the second nurse they hired. I worked for them for about four years. And I worked for several private industries that were producing instructional material. [Later] I was offered Medical Center, with Chad Everett. I worked the first and the third shows. But I was committed to a federal program in stroke treatment and education, so I decided I wouldn’t take the show.
Hutson: My husband died in 1969. Actually, he became ill in ’65. It was Hodgkin’s Disease. He’d work and be ill, and then work and be ill. Anyway, in 1969, after he died in May, I got Medical Center. Alice was on it, and then she called me. She didn’t even want to rotate. I did seven years of Medical Center and eight years of Trapper John, and I did a whole bunch of movies in between seasons of those shows. I never wanted for work. When I did Lazarus Syndrome with Lou Gossett, that didn’t fly. They locked the stage up for three months. That was some of the first medical equipment I bought. After Trapper John went down, I started a medical rental business back to the motion picture industry.
Rodriguez: Those were interesting years, and it was really a unique and valuable experience for me, because it added to my professional career. In many ways – not just being able to work in private industry, but also having learned how to work with a variety of people with a variety of skills.