MAN, WOMAN, BIRTH, DEATH, infinity.” From 1961 to 1966, those words, intoned by saintly Dr. Zorba (Sam Jaffe), heralded ABC’s Ben Casey. A forerunner of ER in terms of hospital realism, Casey was ABC’s response to NBC’s Dr. Kildare, which presented Richard Chamberlain as a straight-arrow healer. Casey, as played by Vince Edwards, was something else: a brooding neurosurgeon with an appealingly world-weary bedside manner.
And plenty of sex appeal. Edwards, who died at the UCLA Medical Center on March 11 of pancreatic cancer at age 67, caused a national sensation just by unbuttoning the collar of his medical tunic and exposing what he called “wall-to-wall” chest hair. The adjustment “was only for my comfort,” he said. But Ben Casey shirts were soon a hot item.
Born Vincent Edward Zoine III, the youngest of eight children in a household headed by a Brooklyn bricklayer and a doting mother, he went from local lifeguard to state swimming champ. He won a swimming scholarship to Ohio State, but an appendectomy ruined his dreams of competing in the Olympics. Instead, Edwards, who had appeared in student shows, turned to acting and signed with Paramount in 1951. Later he made movies, a 1970-71 series, Matt Lincoln, and a 1988 TV movie, The Return of Ben Casey—but never duplicated his early success.
His personal life was just as rocky, a result of his compulsive gambling. In recent years he scaled down his losses, from thousands a day at the track to a relative pittance at a weekly poker game with Sid Caesar, Milton Berle and others. Still, his gambling “depressed him,” says Janet, his third wife, whom he married in 1994. (Edwards had three daughters from previous marriages.) Facing his cancer bravely from the time it was diagnosed in October—”He was determined to be a role model,” his wife says—he ultimately seemed at peace with his fate. “Toward the end,” says Janet, who was at Edwards’s side when he died, “he kept saying ‘I love you’ and blowing kisses.”