Steven Spielberg’s “Marcus Welby, MD” Episode: “The Daredevil Gesture” (1970)

It would be near-impossible to make a television show like MARCUS WELBY, MD today.  The show’s chipper, optimistic, and ultimately paternal/authoritative approach would quickly find itself outdone by the waves of cynicism currently rolling through our culture.  When it aired in the 70’s, MARCUS WELBY, MD was highly regarded as one of the most popular medical dramas on the air, whereas today we have the likes of HOUSE.  In fact, the only thing on the air today that even remotely resembles the upbeat nature of MARCUS WELBY, MD is DOC MCSTUFFINS, an animated cartoon for pre-schoolers.  As such, when a member of the modern audience like myself encounters something as endlessly good-valued as MARCUS WELBY, MD, it comes off as incredibly fake.  It reads like a hollow manifestation of the “good old days of Americana” that Republicans often refer to, but never actually happened.

I can see how MARCUS WELBY, MD would have been a very valuable show in its day.  Aside from going directly to the doctor, access to medical information was hard to come by in the days before WebMD.  Each episode allowed Welby and company to confront a particular disease while discussing treatment options and how the afflicted can best lead a normal life.  The effect is not unlike canned advertising copy where a woman recounts the various benefits of Brand X toothpaste to her girlfriend in an uncharacteristically rigid way.

In 1970, director Steven Spielberg had just completed his first paid directing assignment: The “EYES” segment in the premiere television movie of ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY (1969).  Due to the strength of his work, he was then brought on board to helm an episode of MARCUS WELBY, MD towards the end of its first season.

Spielberg’s episode, entitled “THE DAREDEVIL GESTURE”, focuses on hemophilia by telling the story of a young, frustrated teenage boy who wants to keep his disease a secret from his friends so he can experience the same kind of adventurous, exciting life that they do.  Welby, along with his younger partner, Dr. Steven Kiley (James Brolin) counsel the young man with an unorthodox approach:  they acknowledge that much joy in life comes from taking risk and he should take them– but with his condition, his risks must be calculated and thought-through.

As a disease, hemophilia doesn’t fuck around.  Thanks to advances in medical technology, it’s not as much as a life sentence as it was then, but MARCUS WELBY, MD does a good job of explaining the disease to the uninitiated, as well as offering hope in divulging the promising treatments that loom on the horizon.  No doubt many hemophiliacs were comforted by this episode, assured that they too could live normal lives without being ruled by their disease.  I imagine that MARCUS WELBY, MD did a lot of good in its day, despite being a total pop culture relic today.

The performances are all sufficient for the TV medium, with series star Robert Young providing the necessary authority and paternal warmth as the good doctor.  Brolin, however, got the most of my attention.  He’s not particularly excellent in this episode, but having admired his son Josh Brolin’s work, it was fascinating for me to see his father at work, every bit the spitting image of his progeny.  I get the same effect when I see Michael Douglas in comparison to his father Kirk—there’s subtle, familiar nuances in their mannerisms and appearance that, when juxtaposed against the medium of cinema, doesn’t suggest so much in the way of lineage than it does of immortality.

While Spielberg’s NIGHT GALLERY episode allowed room for creative expression in his camera-work and compositions, the “establishment” vibe of MARCUS WELBY, MD would require the young director to fall into a conventional, non-flashy directing style.  Bold, colorful pastels comprise the rough 35mm film image, which gives off the vibe of a documentary when combined with Spielberg’s rack zooms and focus pulls.  Working with cinematographer Walter Strenge, Spielberg renders the Santa Monica setting authentically by working primarily on location—a stark departure from the soundstage work of NIGHT GALLERY and other popular shows at the time.

Spielberg didn’t write the episode, and indeed producer David J. Connell and series creator David Victor would override the young director in authority, but there are several thematic conceits that make their first appearance here that Spielberg would continue to explore throughout his career.  The chief of these is “the troubled kid from a broken home”, an archetype that figures heavily in Spielberg’s body of work.

At 19, Spielberg’s parents divorced, and he blamed his father, Arnold, for the emotional damage it caused.  They would become estranged for almost two decades after that.  During this period, Spielberg would grapple with his issues by throwing them up on the screen and letting the conflict work itself out towards a happy ending.  In “THE DAREDEVIL GESTURE”, the young man at the center of the story lives only with his mom and older sister—no father figure is to be found.  As a result, he carries a large chip on his shoulder and has a tendency to act out.  He expresses bitterness towards the fact that his disease cost him the opportunity to go on a camping trip with his dad, an opportunity that will not be handed down again now that his parents are divorced.  This may or not have been a scripted contribution by the young director, but his emotional connection to the subject matter certainly makes for an especially resonant storyline.

As he began to rack up television directing credits, Spielberg was ironing out not only his visual style but also his thematic preoccupations as well.  It was an exciting time for the young director, and while the television world was keeping him plenty busy, he was starting to feel the tugs of desire for feature-length work.  It wouldn’t happen overnight, however.  He still had a lot to prove.

MARCUS WELBY, MD: “THE DAREDEVIL GESTURE” is available as part of the Season 1 standard-definition DVD from Shout! Factory, as well as in its entirety via the Youtube embed above.

Credits:

Producer: David J. Connell

Writer: David Victor, Jerome Ross

Director of Photography: Walter Strenge

Production Designer: George Patrick

Editor: Richard G. Wray

Original Music: Leonard Rosenman