If M*A*S*H’s Alan Alda needs some counsel on how to make an incision, he does not, needless to say, call on the show’s commanding officer, Colonel Potter. He turns to Dr. Walter Dishell, 38, a respected San Fernando Valley ear, nose and throat specialist, who for nine years has moonlighted as medical adviser to such prime-time series as Maude and the late Westside Medical, Gunsmoke, Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman and Rafferty.
Dishell not only protects the shows from lapses in clinical realism but also defends the image of his often hypersensitive profession. “People want to see the girl wheeled out at the end and the doctor saying, ‘She’s going to be okay,’ ” says Dishell. “The doctor is still a revered person—a knight in shining armor.” That doesn’t mean an occasional act of malpractice cannot creep into a script—”Every doctor realizes there are some incompetents in the profession,” he concedes.
Dishell was a resident doing 16-hour daily stints in the UCLA medical center in 1969 when a friend of his wife’s introduced him to TV producer Frank Glicksman. After they had consulted on the then-upcoming series, Glicksman was so impressed that he modeled his lead character after Walter. Chad Everett, who played the part—Dr. Joe Gannon on Medical Center—became Dishell’s friend. “He even followed me into surgery,” recalls Walter, “so he could learn to act like a doctor.” (Says Everett: “Dishell instills tremendous confidence in patients. He’s quick, dexterous and loves to defy medical odds.”)
Medical Center became a hit and so did Dishell, a University of Michigan Medical School grad who now earns a fifth of his income from the roughly 10 hours a week he devotes to TV. That can involve finding an appropriate disease to fit a story line as well as checking medical details. “Dishell,” says Glicksman, “is the only medical adviser I’ve worked with who has dramatic sense to go with his technical skill.” The best case in point occurred in a 1974 Medical Center episode in which a recovered breast cancer patient loses her job. Based on a real-life situation, the show inspired the California state assembly to pass a bill prohibiting employment discrimination because of a cancer history.
Walter was at one point offered a regular on-camera role in the series but turned it down. “I’ve worked 13 years to become a doctor,” he explains. “I’m not going to throw that away.” He and his wife, Marilyn, have a two-story San Fernando Valley home, a house at Lake Arrowhead and a share of a Palm Springs condominium. They play tennis, entertain often, go out three nights a week and still spend a lot of time with their three children. “I just juggle things around,” Dishell says. “My patients understand; they’ve got children too.”
All that still leaves him with a 60-hour-a-week practice that involves frequent surgery and the worries all conscientious MDs face. “The public expects perfection from a physician and he expects perfection from himself,” Dishell says. “But there is no real perfection. You’re always asking yourself, ‘What else could I have done?’ ”