PLEASE NOTE THIS SITE IS NEITHER AFFILIATED WITH NOR AUTHORIZED BY CHARLES SIEBERT
Pardon me for inserting a little personal perspective here.
I was twenty-one years old when the pilot for Trapper John, MD first aired. (Go ahead, do the math. I don’t care.) This was back in the days when TV meant ABC, NBC, CBS, public broadcasting, and a few UHF stations that showed reruns and old movies. A test pattern came on at about 2AM. Guess what – it was great!
I was still living with my parents (yes, yes, whatever conclusion you may draw is probably true), and we had one television, which was controlled by my father from when he came home from work until he went to bed. Since my tastes differed from Dad’s (he was partial to sports and Kojak), this meant that I got to use my time in much better ways than in watching TV, which is why I am so smart today. However, back to the subject.
One show that both Dad and I watched was M*A*S*H (1972-1983), so when this new show, Trapper John MD, debuted, naturally we both sat down and watched it. Despite my strong negative reaction to the pilot, we both came back for the series. I probably saw most, if not all, of the first two seasons, though my television viewing was interrupted by my leaving home for mission work in 1982 and from 1985-1998, during which time I had little or no access to broadcast television. Which, again, is why I am so smart today.
Trapper John MD ran from 1979 to 1986, and appeared in reruns on cable TV in 1997. I didn’t see the show again, outside its original run, until 2011. I was surprised by what I remembered and didn’t remember.
Although the show co-opted some of the character types and dynamics from M*A*S*H – and the courts have decided that these dynamics came from Richard Hooker’s original book or from the movie, not the TV show (if you’ve read the book or seen the movie, and I’ve done both, you realize that neither Trapper John MD or the M*A*S*H television show really took much, thematically, from either of those sources) – it was quite a different show. The show followed the extremely popular format so common in the 70s and 80s, an ensemble light drama with a weekly comic subplot, similar to other hit shows of the time like Universal’s Emergency! (1972-1979, and that’s no coincidence re: the end date of Emergency! and the start date of TJMD, in my opinion). The late Pernell Roberts is quoted in several contemporary sources as complaining that the show couldn’t decide if it wanted to be drama or farce, but I’m sure the format was no accident.
Viewing the pilot episode today, it actually looks better than the rest of the series. Having worked in a hospital and in health-care, the hospital scenes in the pilot are a little more realistic – busy, but maybe more disorganized than I’d like any hospital I’d be likely to use to be.
TJMD was an entertainment show and was extremely successful, gaining top spot in its 10PM Sunday time slot consistently through the first four seasons. Mr. Siebert has been quoted as saying, “I’m doing my job, which is to entertain people on Sunday night, when they’re climbing into bed and thinking about going to work Monday morning. This means nothing heavy, keep it light, be amusing.” (Globe and Mail, 7/6/85)
Much of the success of the series can be attributed to good casting. Viewers enjoyed spending time with characters they liked, played by attractive and skilled actors. (See Sandra Czaga’s discussion of the parasocial aspects of media in the June/July 2011 Scientific American/Mind, p.59. “[Viewers] know the [television] character is not real, but they consider him part of their social environment.”) The acting on the program was pretty good, and the cast offered something for everyone. It was a great show for the ladies, as one could ogle Mr. Roberts, Gregory Harrison, or Mr. Siebert, depending on one’s age and tastes. (Mr. Harrison was way out of my league, far too unattainable for me to fix my interest on, but I do remember the shock I received during the pilot when that shower door opened. Later, this moment was incorporated into the opening titles, and I experienced pretty much the same thing every time I saw it. Well, I was young then.) For the gentlemen, there was Christopher Norris and the weekly flock of attractive female guest stars, and for those other gentlemen who are constitutionally uninterested in Christopher Norris, there was Gregory Harrison and Brian Stokes Mitchell.
The first season of the show is very interesting to watch and analyze. The negative feedback the studio received about the pilot led to very perceptible changes being written in from week to week, especially around the Riverside character. I find this very interesting, but have been unable to dig out any contemporary references to the process. (The closest I’ve gotten is the 1981 TV Guide interview, which quotes producer/writer Frank Glicksman as saying that the character was always intended to be sympathetic; however, as the interview took place as the Riverside phenomenon was taking off, I suspect this is revisionist. Glicksman also credits Mr. Siebert with some of the character development.) Someone seems to have spotted, very early on, that Riverside was going to become a wildly popular element of the show. (Judging by the number of feature episodes for the character, I’d place the peak popularity at seasons 2 and 3. As is so often the case, once a character is married off, popularity tends to decline.) For my opinions on the character’s popularity, see my section below, “Riverside Crushers”. To avoid my opinions, don’t read that section.
I can only imagine the challenges to the actor in trying to find some consistent portrayal of a character who is being drastically re-written from episode to episode. You can find an excellent, though incomplete, commentary on the development of the character in the now-abandoned site, ‘Trapper John and Stanley Riverside II, MDs’, at http://reocities.com/Hollywood/Academy/7632/index.htm Look for her episode guide. The unknown author states that her interest is in the character and she specifically excludes the actor from consideration. For more on this site, see my section below, “Riverside Crushers”.
November 17, 2010 – Thanks to Kathleen M. Cummings, who responded very graciously to my stalker-like attempts to contact her, for her information about this site, which I at first thought was hers, as her name appears on it. Ms. Cummings informs me that some of the fanfiction is hers, but the site is not. Ms. Cummings is, however, the principal author of the www.charlessiebert.com site, Mr. Siebert’s official site, though the site, she tells me, is maintained by someone else. Ms. Cummings has interviewed Mr. Siebert on his Xena role for Whoosh! on-line Xena-interest magazine.
Mr. Siebert’s statements about TJMD on his website and in his various curriculum vitae, such as his IMDB profile, tend to be pragmatic and of the “this paid the bills and put my kids through college” variety. Mr. Siebert, if quoted correctly, made a more unguarded statement in an interview with the Los Angeles correspondent of the Globe and Mail, a Canadian paper. “[Siebert] says the worst thing that could happen when Trapper John, MD closes shop is that other producers will want him to play another “jerk” doctor. “I’d just die,” he says. “I’ve done this one, and I don’t want to do it again. This guy is a real jerk, always putting his foot in it. Not even his own father can stand him. He’s devoid of personality, very naive, moving through the world like a sponge, soaking up whatever personality happens to be near him.” If the Riverside character had been written by, oh, say, Eugene O’Neill, instead of by a stable of studio writers, this may have been a very accurate, and even poignant, assessment.
With his extensive classical training and a rewarding stage career preceding his television work, one may perhaps imagine how Mr. Siebert could feel about being chiefly remembered as “Dr. Riverside”. But the fact is that in Mr. Siebert’s portrayal of the Riverside character, we have the only really lengthy filmed record of his craft. Most of his other screen work consisted of very short spots. What’s more, the TJMD role gave the actor a chance to display a light comic touch, interesting stage business, and physical comedy that we don’t see in the rest of his screen oeuvre, at least not in what I’ve been able to view so far, unless we count his appearance on Good Times (1979, see Film and Screen section). Even on the stage, I see little record of light roles; perhaps Tartuffe, or Love’s Labor Lost (see section on Theater).
[Just an added note: in a March 2, 2012 radio interview on KRCB in the Sonoma Valley area, California, Mr. Siebert gives a perfunctory response to the host's question about his well-known television role. Perhaps I'm projecting, but he sounded a bit weary of the subject.]
It was in viewing 149 of TJMD’s 151 episodes that I really began to appreciate Mr. Siebert’s dedication to his craft. Despite perhaps every temptation to the contrary, he never ‘phones it in’. For an example of his detailed performance in even the smallest scenes, see my notes on “The Wonderkind” (season 7, episode 6).
I will comment, in order, only on those episodes that contain something that I think is remarkable. Mr. Siebert appeared in every episode, though sometimes only for a line or two, but quite often in a comedic subplot running five to ten minutes in length if viewed separately from the rest of the episode. There are several episodes that feature Mr. Siebert’s character, including a few that have no other subplot.
Contemporary notes on the development of the Riverside character
6/13-19/1981 TV Guide p.12, “Charles Siebert of Trapper John MD may be Hollywood’s ultimate Hollywood Square” (Edwin Kiester, Jr.)
“You wouldn’t describe Siebert as totally lovable in the role of Riverside, however. Playing third banana behind superhero Pernell Roberts and Gregory Harrison…Siebert fills a role that lies somewhere between dull and unsympathetic. Stanley, the rich, preppy son of the hospital’s chairman of the board, is a skilled doctor but, in Siebert’s words, ‘underdeveloped emotionally.’ He is inflexible, a stickler for rules who wants people to like him but doesn’t know how to bend his principles to accommodate them. Hence, his efforts repeatedly bog down in comedy… [Siebert says] ‘Riverside has all the imperfections we all have. He thinks he’s in control, but the situation keeps slipping through his fingers.’
‘We had had 40 to 45 actors read for the part of Riverside before Charlie,’ [producer] Frank Glicksman recalls. ‘It’s a very difficult role, playing a person who wants to be loved but doesn’t know how…the way [Siebert] evolved the character is marvelous. He’s not just a Johnny One Note….we plan to expand the character more next season and he will become less the resident heavy.”
5/9/82 Oregonian p. 63, “The mellowing of Dr.Riverside” (Ruth Thompson)
“…if viewers have noticed a mellowing in the rigid, edgy doctor, credit some sly input from Charles [Siebert] himself. “That character just wasn’t having any fun,” he says, “so I started warming him up a little, throwing in a smile now and then, and the writers picked up on it. Makes it so much more pleasant for me to playRiverside. He’s no longer routinely negative. A sense of humor gives added dimension.”
8/19/82 Advocate (Louisiana) p.43, “He’s unstuffing his character” (Jerry Buck, AP)
Mr. Siebert is quoted: “[The Riverside character is] more human now, but it’s hard to say how he’s changed…There has been a deliberate effort on my part to make him a more acceptable human being, without losing the comic edge.” (This AP article was published in many papers between May and August, 1982; this one seems to be the most complete version.)
12/23/84 Seattle Daily Times p.112 “Trapper John, MD is healthy, claims a versatile Dr. Riverside” (Lori Mirror, Scripps-Howard)
“Siebert admits that Riverside was ‘primarily a buffoon’ when Trapper John began. He’s pleased he has been able to develop the character further, ‘showing the fallibility’ of the doctor. ‘Because I don’t have to carry the show, I have a lot of latitude.’”
The article pinpoints the two-part episode in Season Three (which introduces Marcia Rodd as Riverside’s love interest) as a turning point for the character. Mr. Siebert also makes the comment that the show’s mix of drama and comedy allows him to perform in several different styles within the same character. [editorial comment: this is an understatement; see my episode notes]
Marcia Rodd on the Riverside character:
12/3/82 Mobile Register,p.26 “Series break leaves Marcia’s mom cold” (Ruth Thompson)
“[The E.J. andRiverside characters] are two working professionals. He was rich and uptight, but his character has developed. She’s middle class. There’s plenty to explore. They’re an interesting couple.”
Update, August 2012: Who would know better about the development of the Riverside character than his alter ego, Charles Siebert? Mr. Siebert agrees that the character was intended to be a copy of “Frank Burns” in M*A*S*H; in fact, he felt the entire program was a somewhat cynical attempt to feed off the popularity of the movie and TV show, and that the content of the show itself was merely a copy of the show Medical Center, which starred the late Chad Everett. The difference, Mr. Siebert feels, was the addition of the Riverside character to the stereotypical old doctor/young doctor dynamic. Mr. Siebert also tells us that he plainly thought the Riverside character, as written, was boring, nothing he’d want to do for the run of a series. So (as noted in the contemporary accounts above) the actor began to invest the character with traits such as humor and vulnerability, to the point that prospective writers for the series were eager to write episodes for the Riverside character. This certainly explains the sudden onslaught of Riverside-heavy plotlines beginning around the middle of the first season. Mr. Siebert deserves the credit, it appears, for creating a character who made a strong impact on many viewers and developed a large and devoted fan base.
A Note to Riverside Crushers
You know who you are.
What on earth was the attraction? I hope and plan to someday write a thesis on the strange and misleading TV trope, which Mr. Siebert himself has named the “loveable jerk”. This trope didn’t originate with TJMD. It may have originated with M*A*S*H, but it reached its culmination in Seinfeld, in which all of the characters are jerks.
Look at a character like Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver. He was a jerk. People didn’t like him, though they may have been civil to him. It was a little moral lesson: don’t be a jerk. Where did we, somewhere in the 70s and all the way into the 90s, get the idea that if we act like jerks, people will love us anyway? It’s really discouraging to people like me, who really are jerks, to find that in reality people don’t love us; they want to stay the heck away from us. But it’s not like that on television!
If you look at TJMD episodes in the last seasons, where the Riverside character is frequently written as a total jerk with no redeeming qualities (Buckaroo Bob Rides Again, season 6, episode 12, comes to mind, as well as the really execrable Billboard Barney, season 7, episode 9, in which Riverside lovingly describes running over his wife’s dog), you can pretty much wonder how anyone would ever be able to stand him.
Still, we do like him, that Stanley Riverside, don’t we? Is it because he’s a ‘fixer-upper’? Is it a function of our deeply felt need to be nurturing? Could it be the peculiar dynamic that I will mention in discussing The Ransom (season 4, episode 6)? –well, gee, I hope not that, but obviously someone out there has that going on. Oh well, chacun à son goût. The heart knows its own reasons. We can just count ourselves lucky if we didn’t get hooked up with someone like old Stan in real life.
If you are so unfortunate as to be a Riverside crusher, you are not alone, my friend. I was amused to read this 2008 comment on a German TJMD fan-site: “Vor allem Stanley Riverside fand ich klasse“(above all, I think Stanley Riverside is great) – followed by the wink emoticon, which makes the meaning of the phrase, and the gender of the writer, clear.
For you crushers out there, as far as I have discovered, the only site catering to your refined taste is the “Trapper John and Stanley Riverside II, MDs” site mentioned above (http://reocities.com/Hollywood/Academy/7632/index.htm). The unidentified author writes some good, canon fanfiction, though most of her pieces are unfinished and tend toward the squicky and hurt/comfort genre. She shows a thorough knowledge of the character, incorporating incidents from various episodes and some of the more consistent quirks from the earlier seasons. The hurt/comfort genre makes a fascinating psychological study, and is a highly feminine genre (as is slash, oddly enough). Themes of sadism/masochism deliberately aimed at enticing the television viewer have been noted since the 1962 book, The Great Time-Killer (Harold Mehling), and as you can imagine, things have not gotten better since then. Latent sadism can currently be seen in vewer reaction to today’s many ensemble medical and crime dramas, in that fans wait expectantly for their favorite character to have his or her turn being sick, shot, kidnapped, etc. But perhaps this belongs with my observations on The Ransom, so go read it there.
1979 – 1980 TJMD Season 1
Not viewed: Season 1, Episode 6 What Are Friends For? One of two episodes that are not available on YouTube. The series, despite much fan demand, is not being offered on DVD, and I assume no plans are in store to do so, or the YouTube videos would be taken down. (Update, August, 2012: I found that one of the YouTube accounts that posted about a third of the TJMD episodes has been taken down; this could be a good sign for those who are waiting for a commercial release, or it could have been a response to other videos posted by that user. A new account re-posted some of the videos on July 24, and by August 7, one sample episode on that account had been viewed 138 times.)
Trapper John, M.D.- Pilot
See extended discussion in my introduction to this section. I saw the pilot when it first aired, and remembered my reaction to it quite clearly thirty-three years later, even before I viewed it again. I joined the multitudes of viewers and reviewers who hated, hated the Riverside character, which presented as a Frank Burns clone. It’s difficult to fault the actor for his performance when he was clearly directed to virtually impersonate a pre-existing character (though his first scene is perhaps as much Major Winchester as Frank Burns, at least as far as vocal production and general bombast are concerned – “These patients are interfering with my GOLF GAME!”). The clip that accompanies Mr. Siebert’s credit in the version of the opening titles that ran for the first three seasons is from the pilot (Dr. Riverside with his little notebook) and illustrates how closely the character was styled to resemble Larry Linville’s M*A*S*H character. Variety (9/27/79) puts it rather kindly: “…a too-deliberate typecasting of roles to coincide [with M*A*S*H]…a device [that] could too soon wear very thin – especially in the roles played by Charles Siebert and Christopher Norris.”
Love is a Three-Way Street (Season 1, Episode 4)
This is only notable in that Mr. Siebert sells the idea that he could be physically intimidated by Mr. Harrison, who, in addition to being half a head shorter, was probably a welterweight to Mr. Siebert’s light heavyweight (I’m just estimating). See my notes on season 2, episode 4.
(Trivia: There is an ongoing internet debate about the relative heights of Gregory Harrison and Pernell Roberts, often using Mr. Siebert’s height as a yardstick. Various sources say that the actor is 6’ or 6’2”. Being overly tall is a drawback in television and film due to sight lines in filming two-shots and inserted closeups. Perhaps this explains the slight stoop so often to be observed.)
If you look at my comments on Mr. Siebert’s performance as the loud, brash, arrogant boss on One Day at a Time (in the Film and Screen section), you can really see the change from the loud, arrogant ignoramus in the pilot to the cowering, timid Riverside we see on and off through most of the series. There came to be something endearingly pathetic about the character, I suppose, if only for the Riverside Crushers. The actor’s ability to play a part so far from his physical and personal characteristics is admirable. I wonder if the actor was bemused to find the character so ‘loveable’. I’m sure the original intention was for him to be just a jerk, like the Jerry Davenport character on One Day at a Time. For an actor, is there more of a thrill creating a ‘hissable’ character than one who has no admirable qualities, but is, for some reason, liked by the audience?
I would like to add, I think that the odd dichotomy between Mr. Siebert’s ‘type’ (note, as recently as March, 2012, reviewer Kim Murphey chooses the words ‘commanding’ and ‘dominating’ to describe the actor’s stage presence – see Theater section of this site) and the personality, assuming he has one, of the Riverside character, is part of the appeal for the Riverside Crushers, both male and female.
One For My Baby (Season 1, Episode 7)
A charming, though not particularly remarkable, comic turn as the character meets his doppelganger, Addison Wesley Holmes III (“There’s something I don’t like about this guy…”). Mr. Siebert manages to milk a laugh out of an old sight gag in which he tells Harrison’s character to stop trying to shake some sense into the doppelganger guy, then takes his place and does the same thing himself (the same old gag that was done to the max in the movie Airplane, 1980).
(The other actor is 6’5” Mark Withers)
Whose Little Hero Are You? (Season 1, Episode 11)
This is the first episode in which I noticed a strange phenomenon whereby the actor looks remarkably different from scene to scene. This is not seen in any of his other work, but is seen somewhat consistently through the first few seasons of TJMD. This appears to have something to do with the lighting. In certain scenes, in this episode and others, they appear to be using a either a baby spot or a reflector producing the same effect. The “baby spot”, a small light placed to light the face from below, was, according to Lillian Gish (in her memoir, The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me), devised by Mary Pickford. The harsh arc lighting used for the film stock during the silent movie era aged actors to the extent that, as Miss Gish pointed out, girls as young as thirteen or fourteen were recruited to play adult roles. The “baby spot” made the actors appear more youthful by filling in shadows. Anyone who’s had a photo taken outside at high noon on a sunny day will appreciate this.
I would assume that the lighting was used to solve a problem on the set, though why fill lighting would be needed on an interior set, which should have been built to eliminate such problems, is anyone’s guess. Use of reflectors to eliminate shadows is common in outdoor shots (see Give Till It Hurts, season 3, episode 3). If the lighting were being used to solve a problem with the actor, it would be hard to understand why it wasn’t used more consistently.
Three different actors? Same episode. Note the lighting along the right side of the actor’s jaw. This is fill lighting.
You can see the effect without the fill light. The actor looks older.
We will not discuss the “comb-over v. bad rug” issue at this time.
Warning: I May Be Hazardous to Your Health (Season 1, Episode 15 )
A delightful episode for Riverside crushers and Siebert appreciators alike, though, from the point of view of developing the character, a very peculiar script. Actress Joanna Cassidy and Mr. Siebert look like they’re having a grand time in scenes that could almost have come out of a Rock Hudson-Doris Day picture. Mr. Siebert’s entry in Contemporary Theater (2004) states that he studied musical comedy under David Craig (I assume the David Craig who wrote “On Singing Onstage”, and whose students include Carol Burnet and Lily Tomlin). This episode looks like a musical comedy without music, thankfully rather than looking like an episode of “Love American Style” (for the young, this was a show that traded in slimy, and presumably titillating to someone, single-entendres). Just a cultural note: I don’t recall seeing this episode when it first aired, but I think I would have been a little shocked by the bedroom scene. I mean, it was only 1979. Look at the Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) – you didn’t see her waking up the next morning after a first date, in someone else’s bed.
Joanna Cassidy, an excellent actress, really took her part over the top. I’d love to have sat in at that table read! (Update, August 2012: I have been informed that TJMD did not do table reads.) I have a lot of admiration for actors who push their role to the edge without falling over the cliff into ridiculousness. This is hardly a natural performance, but very effective, and a lot of fun
In the hallway scene, which occurs just after Stanley’s big night out, Mr. Siebert gives a charming performance that is totally out of character, but that illustrates the type of roles that he might have played had he been born ten or twenty years earlier, when Hollywood made romantic comedies, and American theater had yet to go through the lunatic late 60s (Love’s Labor Lost played as a bunch of hippies, for example – 1967) or the grim, gritty early 70s. There’s a lightness not seen in his other television work, and it is a Riverside-free lightness, which gives us the opportunity to imagine our “what ifs”
I think Mr. Siebert could have been delightful in the types of roles that typically starred Jack Lemmon. I’m sure he isn’t worrying about this, however.
Trivia: first of 3 appearances by Joanna Cassidy in 3 different roles seasons 1, 2 and 3. It’s a tribute to her skills that her characters are virtually unrecognizable as the same actress. Incidentally, the 1979 NY Times review of TMJD’s pilot episode mentions the tendency of TV shows at this time to use and re-use the same actors as guest stars. This is quite true and easily seen in TMJD, where the same guest stars repeat, sometimes jarringly, in different episodes as different characters. One wondered, aren’t there enough actors in Hollywood?
Update, August, 2012: This video has been re-posted with much better picture quality by a different YouTube user. I looked it up because I had the opportunity to compare it to a ‘first final’ of the screenplay, that is, the screenplay as it left the hands of the writers but prior to changes and additions made in production and rehearsal. This was very enlightening. The script as written was much more the canonical Riverside ‘jerk’ than we see in the episode, and the character’s ‘fling’ was implied, not shown. It would certainly be interesting to know who came up with the idea of this kooky bedroom scene.
Quarantine (Season 1, Episode 21)
The anonymous author Trapper John website referenced in my overview points out the cute scene, near the end, with Mr. Siebert and a baby, so I went back and looked again. It iscute. I suspect this isn’t so much acting as it is that the actor himself knows a thing or two about babies, but you have to give him props for staying in character and dealing with one very squirmy baby – not only dealing with it, but making it work to his advantage.
In viewing this episode, Mr. Siebert really brings out the sort of innocent, boyish naiveté that is the most, perhaps the only, redeeming quality in the Riverside character (and totally different from the character in the pilot). The acting involved is much more appreciable if you’ve seen Mr. Siebert’s other performances. Who would think, watching the actor as, for example, the stolid Detective Clay in Blue Sunshine, that he could project this sort of radiant social retardate?
1980-1981 Season 2 TJMD
Girl Under Glass (part 2) (season 2, episode 2)
It’s been a while since I had my CPR certificate updated, but I was alarmed by how authentic the actor’s technique was. If that was actually the child actress whose chest he was compressing, they took quite a risk of hurting her.
Call Me Irresponsible (season 2, episode 4)
This episode offers a little scene that I vividly remembered thirty years later, and I really had to hunt to find where it appeared. You can see how the actor injects the poignancy into his character’s rather ridiculous situations, making the character sympathetic and investing him with that ‘loveable’ quality that Mr. Siebert notes in his own statements (that Riverside is a “loveable jerk”). Here, it’s all the actor, not the writers. And note how often, in the series, the actor is given scenes with no dialog in which he still manages to relate what the audience needs to know (see season 7, episode 6).
The actor was given a throw-away line that doesn’t particularly relate to the plot, but just reinforces the general point that the character’s father is somewhat negligent (though the writers feel perfectly free to contradict this; see episodes like Warning I Could Be Hazardous to Your Health, in which the father complains that his son stayed out all night, and a couple of other episodes where the character states that he got information from his father, suggesting that they communicate pretty freely.)
The character has called his father (hey kids, look at the pay phone! They used to be all over the place, back in the day!). The line is five words: “Dad? It’s Stanley. Stanley, Dad.” The line reading says it all, but the actor accompanies it with three distinct reactions (for a five word line!):
“I’ve been through this before. ..“
“…and it is sort of crushing my ego…”
“…but I’m used to it. Oh well, I’ll just deal with it.”
And so we develop some sympathy for the guy. Mr. Siebert could have left it at just the line reading. But he never just – pardon my pun – ‘phones it in’.
The writers presented the actor with a number of challenges throughout the series, including character inconsistency, not only from season to season and within a season, but within the same episode, and this episode is a good example. It’s hard to imagine that the character who states rather strongly that God may make mistakes, but he doesn’t, is the same as the nebbishy guy we see above. Hence my comment in the overview about “if Eugene O’Neill had written the character.” Real people, and realistic characters, are complicated. Sure, in real life, or in serious drama, someone could be very competent in some venues and totally insecure in others. (I’ve written a novel in which this is a theme, and, full disclosure, I’m no Eugene O’Neill either). TV characters are caricatures. They have to get into the viewer’s brain fast, like crack. I’m not bashing on the TJMD writers (though they sometimes deserve it), just commenting on the challenges for the actor in trying to create a consistent character, with identifiable quirks and signature mannerisms, who can capture the audience’s interest.
Does this look like a nebbish? See my notes on season 1, episode 4.
Note that Mr. Siebert is leaning forward slightly (you can see him do this in several episodes, apparently to avoid towering over other actors, notably Pernell Roberts) and Mr. Harrison is closer to the camera. Mr. Siebert really had to work against his body type (and his own personality, I suspect) to play a wimpy character. See Walter Kerr’s description of Mr. Siebert in Colette (Theater section of this site) as a “giant oak”, or his being cast in The Changing Room, a play that calls for male actors who look like they could take someone apart on the rugby field.
The Pagoda Cure (season 2, episode 8 )
The only remarkable incident in this episode is the laugh the actor wrings out of his rather silly delivery of the line, “Oh, Miss Tran!” In my opinion, Gregory Harrison breaks up on this line, but skillfully turns it into his character’s reaction.
1981-1982 Season 3 TJMC
Give ‘Till It Hurts (season 3, episode 3)
You can see the baby spot lighting on the two actors that seems to have been used on and off on TJMD (both for interiors and this exterior, which is probably a reflector rather than a spot). It makes Mr. S. look younger than he did five years earlier. Presumably this was not the intention, as it was used sporadically, and is particularly noticeable in Whose Little Hero Are You (q.v.), where Mr. S. appears to be at least three different actors, depending on his lighting.
Same two actors in Blue Sunshine, 1978. Dreadful lighting in this scene. Pretty bad rug on Mr. S., too, which, given the subject matter of Blue Sunshine…(hint, it has to do with hair).
Mother Dearest (season 3, episode 8 )
If I were to pick my favorite TJMD episode, it might be this one. First of all, the stunt casting: Hermione Gingold and Eileen Heckert! Oh, my! One of the best things about TV of this era is seeing veteran stage and movie actors guesting on various shows. Mr. Siebert brings his A game to this episode; I can’t really single out just one example. The music is also notable; there’s a two-bar “mother” theme that grows increasingly brassy and raucous as it becomes clear that the two elderly ladies are con artists. Finally, the theme develops back into the TJMD opening theme. I can’t think of another TV episode of any show in which I enjoyed the scoring so much.
Since I’m diverging from my discussion of Mr. Siebert, I’ll just mention that it should be a point of pride for Gregory Harrison that he carried Hermione Gingold (b. 1897) in this episode, no doubt leaving a few marks on the poor lady (who had appeared on stage with Ellen Terry and Mrs. Patrick Campbell, for heaven’s sakes!). It certainly looks like that’s actually her that he’s carrying. Every time I watch the episode, I worry that he’s going to bang her head against the counter.
Doctors and Other Strangers (season 3, episode 21)
Mr. Siebert approaches a somewhat cringe-worthy episode with manic glee.
Cause for Concern (season 3, episode 23)
This episode may have been a response to Mr. Siebert’s plea for a little more meat on his role; he gets to emote more dramatically than usual, crying over a patient, for example. The anonymous author of the episode guide on the “Trapper John and Stanley Riverside II, MDs” website credits the writers for pulling a surprise on the viewers, leading them to believe that Mr. Siebert’s part was the typical comic subplot. If this was the intention, it was subverted by the promo piece that always aired before the opening titles, and which pretty much telegraphed the nature of the plot. This is the only episode whose entire plot I remembered despite not having seen it for over thirty years. It’s surprising to see that it was kept pretty humorous right up until the character has his psychotic break. The drunk tank scene, for example, though an easy shot (large men in pink taffeta!), is still funny.
1982-1983, Season 4 TJMD
Truth and Consequences (1) and (2) (season 4, episode 2 and 3)
Though Marcia Rodd had previously appeared on TJMD in a guest role as a dying patient, this is her first appearance as the love interest/wife of Mr. Siebert’s character. Things move fast in TJMD world, so they meet near the beginning of episode 1 of this two-parter and are getting married at the end. It was great casting; the two actors work well together, and have a nice chemistry. The plot is pretty far-fetched, and the writing not so good, but later episodes featuring Rodd and Siebert will be better.
(Marcia Rodd trivia: Rodd originated the role of Carol, daughter of Maude, on an episode of All in the Family, 1972. The role was played by Adrienne Barbeau in the spin-off show, Maude. Charles Siebert would play the ex-husband of Maude’s daughter, Carol, played by Barbeau, in 1978. In 1978, Rodd played a nurse as a guest actor on M*A*S*H. TJMD was, of course, based on the later life story of one of the M*A*S*H characters.)
The Ransom (Season 4, Episode 7)
You’d think this episode, which features the Riverside character being kidnapped, would be one in which the actor is central, but in fact he has little to do except mug in terror while being tied up in a chair. I only mention this episode because, in my internet search for commentary on TJMD, I was brought to a bondage site, which had several frames from this episode, including close-ups of the ropes. Now, I’m a professional social worker and I teach sociology. Nothing shocks me any more, and I have some clinical understanding of preferences like bondage, but honestly, I have a hard time picturing someone getting a thrill out of this episode. The scenes are pretty tame; it’s not as if the actor is struggling against the ropes or suffering in any way. Please. For real S&M thrills, go to the old Batman show from the 60s. Even as a kid, I thought there was something a little kinky going on there. Needless to say, plenty of Batman pictures were also on the site. See my comments on sado-masochism as part of contemporary entertainment in my section on Riverside Crushers. Or go to any fan fiction site, look for hurt/comfort genre fiction of your favorite TV show, and prepare to be horrified. Note, on fan-fiction sites, if you’re not sure what the genre description means, read with caution.
Aren’t you glad you’re not a celebrity and don’t have to find out that your picture is on a bondage site? I’m glad I’m not a celebrity. You don’t want to know what other fetish siteS I found our good Dr. Riverside hanging out in. Ugh. Why?! The moral is, be careful where you go on the internet. What is seen cannot be unseen.
I had a picture to insert here, but I thought the better of it, and I’m sure you can imagine why.
The Good Life (season 4, episode 9)
The Riverside character is fired again. Mr. Siebert gives a somewhat Stan Laurel-esque performance as he tries out rural life. There’s a charming location shot out in a rowboat, involving catching a fish; Mr. Siebert’s childlike performance belies the heavy-handed dialog, in another reminder of performance possibilities left unrealized. (Considering that the dialog must have been dubbed in afterward, the actor’s very spontaneous-sounding vocalizations synch up nicely.) The episode is somewhat marred by a smarmy, embarrassing scene of a female character attempting to debauch Mr. Siebert’s character. Or perhaps you enjoy that sort of thing. (See episode 20, below).
August, 2012: Mr. Siebert mentions that Mary Wickes, in one of two appearances on TJMD (as different characters, and both times in scenes with the actor), is “…one of the best actresses I ever worked with. Completely and immediately natural in anything she did or said. When the camera started rolling you would sometimes be taken aback because is was as if you were just continuing the conversation you’d been having before that moment. She had a 60-year career, must have done hundreds of pictures. I really liked her.” Takes one to know one, Mr. Siebert.
Life, Death and Vinnie Duncan (season 4, episode 12)
Another of my favorite Siebert/Rodd performances, probably the best of the series. To those of you who were not alive in the early 80s, my apologies for the offensive costuming. I really didn’t remember clothing of the era being this ugly. The purple brushed corduroy blazer (ok, I am told it was velvet) with the elbow patches…ouch…I’m fairly certain this is the only appearance of the actor in a bow tie in this series, but I could be wrong. I’m not quite obsessive enough to view all 149 episodes again to check this out. (Mr. Siebert settled this for me by agreeing. He didn’t care for the bow tie. – to the author, August, 2012)
This episode contains one of the two TJMD scenes that I remembered for over thirty years, despite seeing it only once (the other is season 2, episode 4). In the scene, Mr. Siebert and Ms. Rodd perform their lines while brushing their teeth through the entire dialog, including unison spitting. I can’t imagine that your average actor would relish delivering dialog around a toothbrush, and I’d love to know whose idea this bit of stage business was. It made an otherwise undistinguished run of lines pretty memorable. I notice that, much as Mr. Siebert makes the greatest use of stage business of all the TJMD cast, it really ramps up in the episodes with Marcia Rodd. I don’t know if they just enjoyed working together, or had similar dramatic training, but this episode is particularly good. (August, 2012: Mr. Siebert tells us that the toothbrush scene was something that the two actors developed in rehearsal, and that he and Ms. Rodd were “…similar types of actor with similar skills and experience, and the desire to want to try to always make things interesting.” Mission accomplished!)
I also like the delicately choreographed physical movements in the “making up” scene, (see picture below) and Ms. Rodd’s moves with the roses when they resume quarreling immediately afterward. Delightful!
Forget Me Not (season 4, episode 16)
Season 4 was a good year for the actor in this role. Another opportunity to play the drama role, and a rare internal reference to a previous episode (season 3, episode 23). Usually, in the TJMD universe, everything that happens in past episodes gets wiped clean, like an eraser on a blackboard.
Pasts Imperfect (season 4, episode 18)
Another episode in which Mr. Siebert gets to show some range, as well as working again with Marcia Rodd. For a change, his character has the drama plot, and the comic subplot is provided by Pernell Roberts and two guest stars. Kim Darby, in one of two appearances on the show (as different characters), plays an obsessed stalker. Mr. Siebert’s scenes with Rodd, though brief, are nicely nuanced.
Primetime (Season 4, Episode 20)
Male wish-fulfillment fantasy in which a sexy roller derby girl comes on strong, reallystrong, to the Riverside character. Twice in one season??? Was this necessary? The Globe and Mail journalist notes the actor’s protest, “Siebert is looking for parts where he doesn’t break out in a rash when he is put in the same room with a beautiful woman… [Siebert says his character is] terrified of women – especially if they’re going to respond to him.” Well, you can see this enacted in all its glorious discomfort here. Squicky. I don’t know how actors put up with this kind of humiliation.
1983-1984, Season 5, TJMD
Not viewed: Send in the Clowns (Season 5, Episode 16) This episode must not be available anywhere, as there are multiple requests for it on the internet. Possibly there was some legal or copyright issue that came up after production. One can find a charming publicity still of Mr. Siebert with an elephant, however.
I have a feeling that there are some good stories related to thatphoto shoot.
I Only Have Ice for You (season 5, episode 1)
Well, you have to fast-forward past a lot of ice skating to find it, but another musical comedy performance from Mr. Siebert and Ms. Rodd in a stereotypical scene in which the prospective father is stunned by the news of his wife’s pregnancy. (One of several episodes also directed by Charles Siebert.)
… And for Loyal and Devoted Service (season 5, episode 2)
Notable only because Mr. Siebert demonstrates a typical acting warm-up exercise in the “total honesty” session. Something he learned at Marquette, or the London Academy of Music and the Dramatic Arts?
All About Everett (Season 5, Episode 3)
I really enjoy the comic subplot in this episode. Mr. Siebert portrays his character as he recognizes that fake swami Govinda (Bart Braverman, an interesting and busy actor, giving a very amusing performance) is an old college chum. The two actors play very well off one another. (Mr. Siebert offers some trivia: Patti Davis appears in this episode; she is the daughter of Ronald Reagan, who happened to be President of the United States at the time. She’s billed as Patricia Davis and I had not recognized her.)
May Divorce Be With You (Season 5, Episode 4)
Another episode that showcases the very nice chemistry between Mr. Siebert and Ms. Rodd, particularly in the hospital room scene, where their characters are preparing themselves for the possible loss of their baby. Here’s a case where good writing and good acting come together for a touching, not overdone, moment.
The Agony of D’Feet (season 5, episode 8 )
Despite some plot oddities – what on earth is the point of that scene in the stairwell? – it’s a satisfying triumph-of-the-everyman sort of plot as the character drags himself across the finish line of the Bay City marathon. Cue the Rocky music! Still, nicely done.
He realizes he can’t lie about completing the marathon.
Suddenly, a thought occurs to him…(you can see the thought occurring, can’t you?)
Where There’s a Will (season 5, episode 15)
The plot demands that the 46- year old actor complain about turning 40. In the course of the ensuing events (the rest of the staff are trying to trick Dr. Riverside into having his annual physical), much slapstick comedy occurs, such as chasing imaginary goats (don’t ask). Mr. Siebert executes a pratfall but can be plainly seen carefully looking over his shoulder first to check that the bench he’s going to land on is really there. And who could blame him?
And a final flinging of the legs into the air almost sells it.
1984-1986Season 6, TJMD
Very typical of the sloppy writing in the last seasons, in these three episodes we see three different Dr. Riversides who could not possibly be the same person. No fault of the actor.
Buckaroo Bob Rides Again (season 6, episode 13)
Mr. Siebert gamely channels Tony Randall as Felix Unger in an episode evidently written by someone who hadn’t seen any previous episodes of the show.
So Little, Gone (season 6, episode 15)
In this same season, and only two episodes later, we have an affecting episode in which the characters’ child is kidnapped, and each parent blames the other. There was some stuff of real drama in this episode, and both Mr. Siebert and Ms. Rodd go for it. The scene in the empty nursery is particularly well-done by both. Again, another “what could have been” moment.
A False Start (season 6, episode 19)
And, we’re back to the goofy Riverside of season 1, solving a difficulty between two birdwatchers by resorting to the “fully stocked Riverside aviary.” Mr. Siebert brings a pleasant, clueless grandiosity to the character.
1985-1986 Season 7 TJMD
The Wunderkind (season7, episode 6)
This is one of my favorite of Mr. Siebert’s performances on TJMD. The subplot, in which the Riverside character’s old high school crush comes into the hospital as a patient, is restrained and poignant. In the context of the dramatic portion of the show, which concerned Nazi war crimes, including an ambitious Holocaust scene, obviously a wild comedy theme in the subplot would have been inappropriate. So we see a nice performance without the usual Stanley stuff, a very human moment and a very human performance. This episode drew my eye to Mr. Siebert’s stage business and attention to detail. For purposes of the plot, his character has to find a copy of his old high school yearbook on his desk. Mr. Siebert goes through a pile of mail, giving an individual reaction to each imaginary item, before pulling out the yearbook. The final part of this little subplot, which if delved out of the program probably lasts less than five minutes, is particularly touching. Mr. Siebert shows a sensitive use of gesture and a sigh so subtle, that I wasn’t sure if I heard it or just imagined it until I viewed the scene a second time.
Trivia: from reading the German fan site, I take it this episode is not aired in Germany, where I believe there are laws about portrayals of Nazis. Also, if you are looking for it, you’ll find it more easily as “wonderkind”, but the correct title is “wunderkind”.
(Please note, there is no dialog during this scene. The actor is on his own. And it’s beautifully scored, too.)
Trivia: the photo shown in the mock-up prop yearbook is pretty likely Mr. Siebert’s own high school yearbook photo. (Let’s not be coy. I know it is. The 1955 Kenosha High School yearbook, like almost everything else in the known universe, is online.) Freeze the frame and look at the three pictures above. The hair and clothing styles indicate the late 70s or early 80s, and I suspect the young woman and two young men are probably Mr. Siebert’s children. Awwww! Mr. Siebert has a reputation of being very well-liked in his industry, so I suspect some soft-hearted prop person did this as a pleasant surprise for the actor. Mr. Siebert says he has no memory of this episode at all (August, 2012). He does, however, provide us a second piece of trivia: the actress playing Riverside’s crush is Marianne McAndrew, who is the wife of his college roommate.
Self-Diagnosis (season 7, episode 16)
By this point, it must have been obvious that the series was drawing to an end, so this season ties up a lot of loose ends and gives each character a special episode. (Brian Stokes Mitchell, for example, gets to showcase his musical talents, and just to make up for my snide remark in the Overview section, I do think Mitchell was engaging and underutilized in TJMD). We finally meet Riverside, senior, in the person of actor David Wayne, a familiar face on television in the 70s. He is sufficiently crusty and obnoxious, and milks his comic turn for all it’s worth. Mr. Siebert makes the most of his character’s moment of triumph over the consistent bête noire of his existence, his relationship with his father. During his big speech, there is some inadvertent humor as the 6’2” actor tells the 5’4 actor (I may be exaggerating just a little here, but not much – ok, I checked, he was 5’7”), “You’re not big at all.” I’m pretty sure this was unintended; the dialog was probably written long before the role was cast. Oh, well.