Friday the 13th is known as an unlucky day, but that was not the case on Friday, September 13 when most of the cast of the groundbreaking Vietnam War drama China Beach took to the stage at the Paley Center for Media to celebrate the shows 25th reunion.
Among the panelists were Chloe Webb – who played USO singer Laurette Barber; Jeff Kober – who played Sgt. Evan “Dodger” Winslow; Ricki Lake – who played Red Cross volunteer Holly Pelegrino; Nancy Giles – who played Pvt. Frankie Bunsen; Troy Evans – who played Sgt. Pepper; Michael Boatman – who played Pvt. Samuel Beckett; Robert Picardo – who played Dr. Dick Richards; Brian Wimmer – who played Cpl. Boonwell “Boonie” Lainer; Concetta Tomei – who played Major Lila Garreau; John Sacret Young – co-creator and executive producer; Marg Helgenberger – who played K.C. Kolowski and Dana Delany – who played Nurse Colleen McMurphy.
Before the moderated panel got underway with William Keck from TV Guide Magazine as the moderator (who came in full fatigues after watching a lengthy marathon of China Beach episodes), a special screening of the episode entitled “Vets”, which originally aired on March 15, 1989 as part of the show’s second season was presented. That episode featured actual Vietnam War veterans giving their experiences of being in country intercut with scenes from previous episodes of the show. This episode was written by John Wells and John Sacret Young and directed by the latter.
The first piece of business to discuss was how long it took to get China Beach on DVD and John Sacret Young explained that the delay was primarily due to the music rights; but for which he shared have been resolved with 95.7% of the music originally featured in the show included on the DVD’s.
In speaking about the casting process, Dana shared that she loved the script, but did not consider herself a very good actor at the time so she had to “stay in character in her head” and when she showed up for the audition she quickly learned that she arrived a day early.
Michael then shared that he was living in New York at the time of the audition and was only 23 years old. “I was fresh out of college” and he had no real idea what he was doing. He then joked that there was another actor at the audition at the same time as him, who was more established and this actor (who Michael said he could not remember his name) told him he should just “go home” since this actor believed he had scored the part. But that night, Michael got the call he won the role of Sam Beckett, calling his mother in Chicago to share in the news that he landed the role.
Troy then briefly mentioned that he served in the Vietnam War and how he ended up on the show, “I was a young character actor and my wife knew John Well’s (one of the show’s writers) wife from the theatre. I was hired for one day (working in the background, barking orders) and then I kept being brought back again and again”.
The conversation then turned over to the relationship between Sgt. Pepper (Troy’s character) and Lila Garreau (Concetta’s character); a relationship that softened the former hard-hearted Sgt. Pepper and led to the only wedding that was every included in the four-seasons-long series. Concetta then shared one small unknown tidbit: the antique wedding dress she wore for Lila’s and Sgt. Pepper’s wedding was the same dress she wore for her own wedding.
Marg was then asked about one of the most emotional scenes for her character K.C.: that of the helicopter scene during the Fall of Saigon when K.C. worked to get her baby daughter out of the city. Marg shared that she had just had a baby of her own around that time so her emotions were heightened.
In talking about children, Dana mentioned that a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrayed Dodger’s (Jeff’s character) son in the latter part of the show while Robert’s then 2-year-old daughter appeared as Colleen’s daughter in the last episode of the show. They also then talked about some of the guest stars who were featured on the show, including Kathy Bates, John Slattery, Tom Sizemore, Don Cheadle, Helen Hunt and Kyle Chandler (to name just a few).
The cast then talked about some of the more memorable moments from the show such as:
• Singing “These Boots Were Made for Walking” with Nancy Sinatra;
• Dana accidentally hitting Marg in the jaw during the climatic episode where their characters Colleen and K.C. were trapped inside an embassy during the Tet offensive;
• Some of the musical numbers that were featured in the show, including My Fair Lady; and,
• Brian working with actual amputees during the latter part of the show after his character Boonie lost his leg.
John then shared that China Beach will continue on thanks to not only the release of the DVD’s but it will also move forward in book form as he is currently working on a novel about China Beach. Since he is still in the process of this new project, he could not share specific details, but he did share that the book starts “with McMurphy in present day” where she begins having the dreams that “plagued her 20 years earlier”.
The evening was then turned over to the audience for a Q&A featuring two Vietnam Vets, who spoke about their time in the war and even presented gifts to Dana. John then shared that if the show had returned for a fifth season they would have made a trip to Vietnam and then the evening concluded with a moving performance by Tommy Morgan, the well-known harmonica player who performed the original theme music to the series.
The 62-episode 21-disc box set of China Beach is now available on DVD.
(Photo Credit: Kevin Parry/Paley Center for Media)