Consider Dr. Judson Randolph, pediatric surgeon, through the eye of television: angular good looks, an informal Southern manner, wide-open blue eyes and a large smile. The lean face bears a resemblance to actor Alan Alda in M*A*S*H, and friends say they see Dick Van Dyke when Randolph grins. His work involves the life and death of children, and he is considered by colleagues to be a practitioner of "impeccable" medicine.
That is the doctor television producers saw last fall when they visited Randolph, chief of surgery at Washington Children's Hospital, in preparation for a prime-time television show called "Lifeline." And they were so taken with him that they worked to convince him their goal was more serious than showbiz: "Lifeline" would be a real-life look at doctors in action. None of this Ben Casey-Dr. Kildare drama where the doctor's girlfriend plays as crucial a role as an electrocardiagram.
"I said I wasn't really interested in commercial television," recalls Randolph, 51, who was reassured only slightly by the fact that the show's executives were experienced in producing serious medical films that kept doctors abreast of new developments. But he considered the size of the audience and realized "I could work here all the rest of my live" and never reach the number of people who see a single network show.
As one of a handful of pediatric surgeons (there are only about 300 in the U.S., four or five in the Washington area), Randolph decided he'd try "to advance the specialty by letting the public know what we have to offer . . . I hope the consumer will know that doctors are human and interested in their welfare, not just impersonal, economically motivated entrepreneurs."
The result of three weeks of filming Randolph was a pilot program that so dazzled NBC's new whiz-exec Fred Silverman that "Lifeline" is slated to be a regular series beginning next month, a bold bet that viewers will take to reality - real blood, real death and real life - as well as they took to, say, Marcus Welby, M.D.
In the episode featuring Randolph, a little girl who arrives at Children's Hospital suffering burns over 80 percent of her body dies. The camera crew caught. Randolph slumped against a hospital wall after unsuccessful efforts to save the girl. Another patient is luckier. A little boy who suuvives surgery is shown skateboarding down the hospital hall and out the automatic doors, back into his world. The hospital scenes are interspersed with unrehearsed scenes of Randolph at home with his children.
"We think the overwhelming feeling derived from the show is of a highly dedicated, highly skilled doctors," says Dr. Robert Fuisz, executive producer of the series. "Dr. Randolph was our choice out of about 35 candidates. He had the elements we considered critical: he was capable of sustained doctor-patient relationships, he liked what he was doing and he dealt with life and death."
Randolph attended medical school at Vanderbilt, received his surgical training in Boston, worked on the staff of the Children's Hospital in Boston and taught at Harvard Medical School before coming to Washington 15 years ago to develop a pediatric surgery program for Washington.
He talks of children and medicine with a simplicity that NBC hopes will appeal to an audience more accustomed to hospital shows padded with stagged romances, emotion and emergencies.
"I wanted to be a pediatrician until I got to a baby clinic and saw them wiping noses and giving shots, so I got into the operating room," Randolph says with a small smile. "To take a newborn infant who has a fatal defect such as a blocked esophagus, and then to correct that a start a little citizen out on a 75-year trek, that's rich remuneration. To help someone begin something . . . jeepers, I remember one little girl with a perforated intestine. We operated when she was 12 hours old and I thought she'd . . . well, she's now a year old, with eyes as big as saucers. She's coy and she just looks up at you and I'm . . . I'm just falt-out in love with her."
Footnote: the doctors who agree to appear in the series are not paid; a token $2500 contribution is made to the non-profit organization of the doctor's choice. In his case, Randolph chose Children's Hospital as the beneficiary.