‘CHINA BEACH’ STAR PLEASED BY GROWTH OF ROLE
By Sell Groves
March 14, 1989
One story given for the origin of the term, hooker, as it’s applied to a prostitute, is that during the Civil War, a Northern general named Joseph Hooker recruited women to provide sexual services for his men. They were referred to as Hooker’s Girls – and, eventually, just hookers.
One hundred years after the American Civil War, American service personnel were involved in what some military authorities call the Vietnamese Civil War. Their experiences have been shown in films like ‘Platoon’ and ‘Full Metal Jacket.’
On television, there’s the series, ‘Tour of Duty.’ But it wasn’t until ABC’s ‘China Beach’ made its debut last year that the focus of the war widened to recognize the fact that 10,000 women were stationed in Vietnam during that decade-long period.
Most were military nurses who went to Vietnam to help save and, sometimes, help comfort the dying.
Many were civilians, among them Red Cross ‘doughnut dollys,’ journalists, U.S.O. entertainers – and providers of what ‘China Beach’ star Marg Helgenberger describes as ‘back-up happiness.’ Though never officially recognized for their services, like the general’s ladies a century earlier, they were there, and notwithstanding what any moralists might say, they played an important part in the history of this war.
Helgenberger’s character, K.C., is one of these unheralded women, a hooker who sees herself as someone caught up in the excitement of a drama in which she has a very important role to play.
“K.C. does a variety of things,” Helgenberger said, “but I guess it’s all under the category of, well,” she said, laughing, “prostitute. Or, I should say – ‘prostitute extraordinaire!’”
“Our producers set up a series of ‘vet’s days,’” Helgenberger said, “which gave us a chance to meet some of the women who had been over in Vietnam at different times during the war. What was so interesting about this is how the stories could change depending on when they were there.”
“Those who were in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967, for example, would have different things to say from those who had been there from 1970 to -71. They all told us their experiences.”
“By the way, if you’re wondering if I met any real life K.C.’s, the answer is no. Nothing any of these women did would fit into K.C.’s category.”
“Some were nurses, some from the Red Cross, and some from the U.S.O. One of the things they said is that when they were in Vietnam, the women in the different groups didn’t really relate to the other groups; the nurses stayed pretty much to themselves; so did the Red Cross women, and the entertainers.”
“They felt pretty bad about it now and admitted that it was a shame they hadn’t gotten together earlier. Back then, in Vietnam, they never really knew what each group did.”
“For example, one of the Red Cross women said they felt out of place because they weren’t military. Of course, everyone respected the nurses because they had a very important job to do. The Red Cross women also had an important job, but they didn’t think of it that way.”
Helgenberger is pleased at how the role of K.C. has changed. “The role certainly has grown from what its original concept had been,” she said. “K.C. has a lot more to do. She had begun to build a friendship with Cherry, one of the Red Cross doughnut dollys. And then Cherry is killed and she’s the one who has the responsibility of accompanying her body back to the States. She also has to deal with a heroin addiction.”
There are some critics who say the show sensationalizes the war. How would Helgenberger answer this observation?
“I think the series is an attempt to tell a variety of stories. I also think it’s important to remember that there were so many people over there at various times during the war and everyone has his or her own story.”
“Sometimes, people feel if it’s not their story that’s being told, then the story we tell isn’t accurate. But the fact is that what may not be true for one person or several persons may be true for someone else.”
One of last season’s stories concerned Nancy Sinatra who entertained in Vietnam several times during the war – and always sang her signature song – ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking.’
Nancy was asked to play herself on an episode and while she was being fitted for her costume, she told about soldiers whose legs were amputated, and who would wheel themselves up to the stage and have her autograph their boots – the ones they would never wear for walking again. The story was incorporated into the role, and Nancy found herself recreating a memory that was both poignant and precious.
The Vietnam era marked one of the most divisive periods in our history. There are still strong feelings about it among Americans. Even ‘Platoon,’ which won almost universal praise, was damned by some for being critical of the American military’s role in Vietnam. Did Helgenberger feel any political pull on the show, one way or another?
“Not at all. Of course, I think the series has it point of view. But I don’t believe it beats anyone over the head with its politics. Basically, it’s a show about people who were there. Many had different motives for going, and that’s also something we try to show.”
Helgenberger was born and raised in Fremont, Neb. She became interested in acting while she was still in high school – the first member of her family to consider a career in drama. (Her brother, Curt, trains quarterhorses and her sister, Ann, is a jazz musician in Milwaukee.)
She went to Northwestern University’s drama school and after graduation it was on to New York where she joined the cast of ‘Ryan’s Hope’ as Siobhan Ryan. And, contrary to the perception many ‘RH’ fans have, she was not the original Siobhan.
“Actually, I was the third person to pay the role,” she said. “But I guess I’m identified with the character so strongly because I played her longer than anyone else.”
‘Ryan’s Hope’ ended in January after almost 14 years on the air. Although she’d been away from the soap for a long time, she experienced a sense of loss when she heard the news.
“Most of all, though,” she said, “I felt sad for everyone involved with the show, especially those who had been with it from the beginning. But, I think it had come full cycle. It was time for it to go, and it went gracefully.”
After Helgenberger left ‘Ryan’s,’ she starred in a short-lived series called ‘Shell Game.’ She also appeared on a lot of shows including ‘Buck James,’ ‘thirtysomething,’ ‘Matlock,’ and on the Warner Bros. TV series, ‘Spenser: For Hire.’
Because she has one of the major roles in the show, which means she’s on every week, Helgenberger has very little time to do anything but ‘China Beach.’ However, she said, “We’re going to go on hiatus at the end of April and there’ll be three months before production starts again. I may do something else during that period.”
One of the nice things about being on a weekly series is the opportunity to do what it is that acting is all about: namely, act. However, one of the drawbacks can be the danger of being typed. Did Helgenberger worry about that?
“Certainly, there’s a chance that can happen. But I think it’s up to me, and to my agents, to make sure that it doesn’t happen and that any role I choose from now on is different from the one I’m playing on ‘China Beach.’ That should keep me from being stamped as the ‘hooker with a heart of gold.’”
Then she added: “But in the meantime, I’m having a wonderful time playing K.C., and I’m looking forward to playing her for a long time to come.”