'China Beach' star Dana Delany talks DVD release, cast reunion, and her Purple Heart

By Yahoo! TV / February 7, 2013
© Christopher Polk
It's been a long wait for fans of the Emmy-winning 1988-91 ABC drama "China Beach," the series that unfolded the story of the Vietnam War from the point of view of the female military personnel and civilians who worked at an evacuation hospital in Da Nang.

The show has spent years in DVD limbo, even while less critically acclaimed and beloved series got the complete-series boxed-set treatment. The "China Beach" glitch: music rights. One of the show's trademarks was its perfect pitch on music selections, meaning hundreds of songs had to be cleared before the episodes could be released intact.

Now, thanks to a yearlong effort by Time Life to get the rights to more than 200 songs, "China Beach: The Complete Series" is available for preorder at ChinaBeachonDVD.com.
The 21-disc collectors' set, which is scheduled to ship the second week of April, includes all 62 episodes plus more than 10 hours of new bonus features: a 2012 cast reunion; audio commentaries; interviews with stars Dana Delany and Marg Helgenberger and producers John Wells and John Sacret Young; original featurettes; and "Tales from the Five & Dime," a collectible memory book with casting info, rare photos, and heartfelt letters from real Vietnam veterans. It was real-life Vietnam and other military veterans who made up a large part of the show's fanbase, including some veterans who had a special place in their hearts for Delany and the other "China Beach" cast members.

Now starring in the series "Body of Proof," Delany, who won a pair of Emmys for her performance as Nurse Colleen McMurphy, talked exclusively to Yahoo! TV about the show's long-awaited journey to DVD, what the show meant to her, and the special gift she received from a "China Beach" fan.

Were you aware of how much awaited this "China Beach" boxed set has been?
— Yes, I know it's been a while! When we did the show, DVDs didn't exist. So nobody really thought about that. Certainly nobody thought about securing the music rights. Then when DVDs became popular, people started asking, "Why isn't it on?"

So fans have been approaching you about it?
— Constantly. Yes. And I have no problem talking about "China Beach," because it meant so much to me, in my life. If people still associate me with this show, that makes me happy.

You were involved with the new bonus material in the boxed set - you recorded some commentaries and interviews?
— Yes. And we had a reunion where [the "China Beach" cast] all got together and they filmed that. So that's going to be on the DVD. There's actually 10 hours of added materials, so that's a lot. You get a lot for your money, I have to say. Not only is it 62 episodes, but you also get eight hours of us just talking. [Laughing.]

The funny thing is, we're all still close. So it's not like we hadn't seen each other for 25 years. I just worked with Bob Picardo on "Body of Proof," and Marg and I see each other all the time. I see Michael Boatman a lot. So we do see each other.

What did you do at the reunion?
— We just kind of talked. I hadn't seen Chloe Webb in a while. So that was fun. And Concetta Tomei is always a riot. You'll see on the DVD … we just chatted. It was nice to see everybody in the same room at the same time. It was quite moving, actually. The most moving part, for me, was the theme song. The "China Beach" [end-credits song] was written by the actor John Rubinstein, which is a little-known piece of trivia. There's a harmonica solo in it that was done by a musician named Tommy Morgan. He's in his 80s now, still playing. He's one of the old-time studio musicians who still play live. He got up and played the theme song on the harmonica for all of us. We were all, tears rolling down our faces. Because one, it's just so beautiful. And two, he said that it's one of his two favorite pieces that he's ever played. He actually mentioned the final scene in the series finale, where I'm at the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, and as my character is walking away from the wall it actually gives me chills thinking about it you hear the harmonica solo come over that. That's the final moment of the whole series. That's what you walk away with. You remember that.

And we'll see all of this in the DVD set?
— Yes.

Colleen was such a hero to veterans and to nurses. Is it true that there was actually a nurse-recruitment project named the McMurphy Project after your character?
— Yes! It was out of Texas. I think it was San Antonio. I filmed a little PSA for it. I feel like nurses are the heroes in our society. They get so little credit for it. I still get letters from people either thanking me for showing what a nurse really does or women and men who told me they became nurses after watching "China Beach."

Wow. That's something most actors don't ever get to experience, that a character they've played has inspired someone's career.
— That's what was unusual about "China Beach." I say this in my commentary and also my liner notes on the DVD. It was my first time, as an actor, to experience the responsibility of being an actor. That you really do affect people's lives, especially when you're telling a story that involves people that are still alive today. Because they're going to be watching closely and let you know if you're not being true to their story.

I just admired the nurses who had been in Vietnam and nurses in general. So it was really important for us to get it right. There was a great speech that I had in the pilot, where [Colleen] says to Dr. Dick, played by Robert Picardo, "You're not the last one to see them die. You're not the one holding their hand." I get emotional just thinking about it! [Laughing.] But it's true … nurses are the ones who are there at the final moment, even more than the person's family sometimes. So they're the ones that take it on. We really need to applaud them.

What do you think the reaction would be if "China Beach" were premiering now, or if one of the networks did a remake of it?
— I don't know. I'm interested to see people's reactions [to the DVD boxed set]. I haven't seen it myself in a long time. Filmmaking has changed a lot in 25 years. It's a lot faster paced. The editing is faster. Because of computers and videos and video games, people expect more. What I loved about "China Beach" was the silences and the pauses, and the way it took its time. I don't know how people are going to react to that. I find that refreshing, but not everybody might.

One of the really fun aspects of the show, especially for people who will watch it for the first time, is the final season, which jumps ahead in time and shows what becomes of the characters after the war. It's just such a rare opportunity for viewers.
— Yes, and that was just so much fun as an actor. Also, the way the show was shot and the music in the show. It was really shot like a movie, which a lot of TV shows do now, but they didn't back then. They were just saving money and time. But we would take the time to shoot [episodes] like a film. And the music was really important to the show.

Do you still listen to a lot of that music? Does it take you back to that time?
— I grew up on that music, so that's my music anyway. [Laughing.] I think it's great that [Time Life] settled [the music-clearance issues]. There were a couple of pieces that we couldn't get, which I found interesting. And particularly one that I found fascinating was, we had Jimi Hendrix doing "All Along the Watchtower," and the Jimi Hendrix estate is really tough, and they would not let us have it. But what I find even more interesting is, it was written by Bob Dylan, who for years would not let anybody use his music, and now he's OK with it. Supposedly, it's partly because he likes the show, but who knows? So now we have Bob Dylan's version of "All Along the Watchtower."

Did you keep any of your wardrobe? Or any little set pieces?
— At the time, a lot of Vietnam vets would send me patches from their units. So I have a whole collection of patches and also little buttons from the units. Oh, but my favorite, a favorite memory, is, I think it was the third season that I was nominated for an Emmy, and I didn't win. And a Vietnam vet sent me his Purple Heart. So that's better! That was better than any Emmy that I could have won. I still have the Purple Heart.