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‘China Beach’ Cast: Catch Up With the Stars of the Acclaimed ’80s Vietnam War Drama

Find out who started in the soap world and who became a sci-fi star


In the late ’80s, the TV landscape shifted from sitcoms to juicy dramas. One such show was China Beach, which debuted in 1988 and ran for four seasons on ABC. The show was set in a ’60s USO field hospital during the Vietnam War, and followed the strong-willed Midwestern Nurse Colleen McMurphy, played by Dana Delany in her breakthrough role, as she dealt with patients while pining for a married doctor. 

While many wartime period shows focused on male soldiers, the series was notable for its focus on the experiences of the women who served and volunteered during the war, and the China Beach cast included nurses, Red Cross workers, entertainers and civilian personnel. Besides McMurphy, other key characters included K.C. Koloski, a hardened and complex prostitute played by Marg Helgenberger and Cherry White, a Red Cross volunteer played by Nan Woods.

While it was initially compared to M*A*S*H, viewers quickly learned that the plots on China Beach were anything but funny. China Beach was acclaimed for its realistic and often unflinching portrayal of the war and its impact on those involved. It delved into themes such as PTSD and the moral complexities of war while incorporating personal and human stories with a deep emotional resonance. 

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Man and woman hugging
The China Beach cast in Bros. Television

“This show was about people who were in Vietnam not to fight or kill but to save lives and to help cushion the impact of war,” said co-creator and Vietnam veteran William Broyles. Critics called the show “captivating and unforgettable,” and during its short run, it earned 29 Emmy nominations. 

While the show was canceled in 1991 due to low ratings, it stands apart for its powerhouse cast and sensitive handling of wartime issues. Read on for a look at the China Beach cast, then and now. 

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Dana Delany as Nurse McMurphy: China Beach Cast 

Dana Delany
Left: 1989; Right: 2024 Bob Riha Jr/Getty; Kayla Oaddams/Getty

China Beach catapulted former soap opera actress, Dana Delany to the A-list, as she went on to star in movies like Tombstone (1993) and shows like Desperate Housewives (2007-2012). She won two Best Actress Emmy Awards for portraying Nurse McMurphy, the glue that held the military hospital together. 

Delany has said she almost didn’t get the part because they “thought [she] wasn’t pretty enough,” and almost lost the role to Helen Hunt. “You know, at that age, you take that to heart. And I don’t know why they finally chose me,” she has said. 

After the show ended, Delany recounted how she had difficulty finding roles that were just as meaty and impactful. “When I got off China Beach, everybody was offering me movies, and I was so used to doing work of such emotional depth on China Beach,” she said in an interview. “I was extremely picky. Probably overly picky that I became known as the ‘no’ girl, and then you realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m saying no too much,’ and you start saying yes, and maybe you say yes to things you shouldn’t say yes to! You know, you never know, it’s all timing,” she said in an interview. 

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Dana Delany smiling
Dana Delany in 1989Vinnie Zuffante/Getty

Delany went on to star in the 1993 miniseries Wild Palms, directed by Oliver Stone. She also appeared in movies like Housesitter (1992) and Fly Away Home (1996) and provided the voice of Lois Lane in various animated Superman movies and shows.

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She continued working well into the ’00s, and has starred in shows like Pasadena (2001-2002), Kidnapped (2006-2007), Body of Proof (2011-2013) and Hand of God (2014-2017).

Now 68, Delany never married or had any children and advocates for various causes, including women’s rights and the LBGQT+ community. She most recently appeared in five episodes of the Sons of Anarchy spinoff Mayans M.C. in 2023.

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Marg Helgenberger as K.C. Koloski

Marg Helgenberger
Left: 1990; Right: 2023 Jeff Kravitz/Getty; Steve Granitz/Getty

Like Delany, Marg Helgenberger got her start in soaps before moving to primetime dramas. She initially wanted to become a nurse in real life before playing one on TV. Instead, she worked as a local news weather forecaster while moonlighting at her father’s meatpacking plant. 

Once she was scouted for the ABC soap Ryan’s Hope, her career was off and running, and she starred on the show from 1982 to 1986. Shen then won her role in the China Beach cast after a series of guest star stints on various shows. She won an Emmy Award for her portrayal of a part-time prostitute and civilian volunteer with ulterior motives in war-ravaged Vietnam on the show. 

After that, Helgenberger appeared in several movies, including the Steven Spielberg film Always (1989). She then acted in Species (1995), Erin Brokovich (2000) and In Good Company (2004).

In 2000, she scored a starring role on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation as stripper-turned-investigator Catherine Willows. She stayed on the show for 14 seasons, winning over fans and critics. Most recently, she reprised the role on the spinoff CSI: Vegas from 2022 to 2024.

Now 65, Helgenberger has been married to her second husband, actor Charles Haugk, since 2022. 

Michael Boatman as Sam Beckett: China Beach Cast 

Michael Boatman
Left: 1989; Right: 2022 MediaPunch/Getty; Bryan Bedder/Getty

After starting off his career with a series of off-Broadway productions, Michael Boatman was chosen to play Sam Beckett on three out of the hit drama’s four seasons. Beckett is a draftee and son of a preacher who manages to alienate himself from all of the other servicemen.

After China Beach wrapped, Boatman joined Michael J. Fox for the sitcom Spin City from 1996 to 2002. He was also in the show Arli$$ from 1996 to 2002 and had guest-starring spots in shows like Law & Order: SVU (2003-2011) and Gossip Girl (2011). In 2009, he starred in the Lifetime Sherri Shepherd vehicle Sherri.

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From 2012 to 2014 Boatman could be seen in Anger Management and from 2013 to 2015 he was in Instant Mom. He was cast as attorney Julius Cain in The Good Wife in 2009, and could be seen in its spinoff series, The Good Fight from 2017 to 2022.

Outside of acting Boatman is also an accomplished writer of horror fiction. He’s also narrated many audiobooks.

Now 59, he lives in New York City with his wife, Myrna Forney, and their four children. 

Nan Woods as Cherry White

Nan Woods joined the China Beach cast for its first and second seasons as naive Red Cross volunteer Cherry White. White ends up in China Beach on the search for her MIA Marine brother. She was killed in the show’s second season. 

Prior to China Beach, Woods was in the TV movies Welcome Home, Bobby (1986) and The Betty Ford Story (1987) and the films One More Saturday Night (1986) and In the Mood (1987).

After her run on China Beach ended, Woods quit acting at age 22, deciding it wasn’t for her. Not much is known about Woods today except she’s reportedly married and living a quiet life in Chicago. 

Robert Picardo as Captain Dick Richard: China Beach Cast 

Robert Picardo
Left: 1995; Right: 2022 Frank Trapper/Getty; Jesse Grant/Getty

Robert Picardo played Captain Dick Richard, a conflicted surgeon who was forced into service through the draft but had to leave his family behind.

While switching his major from medicine to drama at Yale University, Picardo was an accomplished Broadway-bound singer. In the late ’70s, after appearing in several Broadway shows, he earned guest starring roles on Kojak (1977), Taxi (1979), Alice (1982-1984), and The Golden Girls (1986). 

After being cast on China Beach, the busy actor appeared in another hit show, The Wonder Years (1988-1991) as Coach Cutlip.

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Picardo was also a sci-fi star. He acted in the 1987 film Innerspace, and from 1995 to 2001 he played the Doctor on Star Trek: Voyager. He also appeared in Stargate: Atlantis from 2006 to 2009.

With over 250 credits to his name, Picardo is the busiest member of the China Beach cast. Now 70, he has two daughters, and he’s taken his sci-fi stardom to the next level by serving on the executive board of the space advocacy nonprofit the Planetary Society.

Reflecting on China Beach in an interview, Picardo said, “It’s still a great time capsule and doesn’t feel dated, and I’m so proud of the work in it. Dana is extraordinary, Marg Helgenberger is extraordinary, but the whole ensemble is just great. You know, it was a very special time in my career, and I know and I’ve heard Dana and Marg and pretty much all of the actors say the same.”

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