Obituary: John Sacret Young, ‘China Beach’ co-creator and ‘West Wing’ writer (75)

217 June 2021 | Steve Marble | Los Angeles Times

John Sacret Young, a writer and director who gave TV viewers a hellish portrait of warfare and its life-altering consequences in “China Beach” and earned Emmy nominations for his work on “The West Wing,” has died at his home in Brentwood.

A skilled and prolific writer of books, television screenplays, movie scripts, opinion pieces and book reviews, Young died June 3 after a 10-month battle with brain cancer, his wife, Claudia Sloan, said.

Young wiggled into Hollywood as a researcher embedded with the Los Angeles Police Department to gather real-life grit for the 1970s crime drama “Police Story.” His persistence led to an opportunity to write screenplays for the show — a break that gave him an open lane to write, direct or produce a run of primetime television shows, from “The West Wing” to the shadowy “Orleans” to the Netflix series “Firefly Lane.”

“He was an exceptionally gifted writer who was generous with his time, thoughtful, wickedly funny, patient and tough,” said John Wells, the producer of “The West Wing” and “Shameless,” among others. “He cared deeply about writing, about words and craft.”Advertisement

But it was “China Beach,” a numbingly dark look at life near the front lines in a field hospital during the waning days of the Vietnam War, that was likely his signature work.

The drama premiered in 1988, 13 years after the fall of Saigon as America was still coming to terms with the lasting traumas of the war — PTSD, Agent Orange, drug abuse. The show tackled the subject matter head on, sometimes stirring controversy along the way. An episode that focused on abortion aired once, but ABC refused to show it again.

The show, created by Young and Vietnam vet William Broyles, was received warmly for its portrayal of conflict through the eyes of women serving at an evacuation hospital near Da Nang in what then was South Vietnam. But the ratings never took off, and the network bounced it from time slot to time slot before finally pulling the plug after four seasons, ingloriously replacing it with “Cop Rock!”

“At its best, it was by turns bold, bracing, cynical, heartfelt, melancholy and eloquently written,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Steven Linan in 1991.

Dana Delany, the show’s star, said the scripts helped strip away some of the unspoken horrors of postwar life.

“The nurses were in as horrific situations as the soldiers were. Never before had the nurses been allowed to talk about their PTSD,” Delany told The Times in 2013. “They had this guilt of ‘I wasn’t actually on the battlefield, what right do I have to talk about it?’ With ‘China Beach,’ they started talking openly about post-traumatic stress.”

In male-dominated Hollywood, Young went against the grain and hired women to work on the other side of the camera, writing and creating episodes for the show. “Murder, She Wrote,” then a hit show about a woman, did not have a single female staff writer during several of its seasons, for instance. By contrast, four of the six writers on “China Beach” were women.

“The show is about women,” Young told The Times in 1998. “I needed a woman’s voice.”Advertisement

During the length of his career, Young received seven Emmy nominations and twice won a Writers Guild Award, one for his 1980 miniseries “A Rumor of War” and a second for an episode of “China Beach.” He wrote and produced several feature films, including “Testament,” which was nominated for an Oscar.

Born May 24, 1946, Young grew up in Montclair, N.J., and Manomet, Mass., and graduated from Princeton, where he played football, lacrosse and hockey and wrote his senior thesis on two women working in the 1968 presidential election, when Richard Nixon was first elected.

He moved to L.A. and, without a car, would ride a bicycle to a nearby library, where he would write and do research, his wife said. It was a humble start to what would become a bountiful writing career.

His memoir “Remains: Non Viewable,” which centered around his cousin’s death in Vietnam, was on the Los Angeles Times bestsellers list, and The New Yorker described Young as “a writer of effortless dexterity and a true, unaffected originality.”Advertisement

He wrote frequently for the Los Angeles Times and was a panelist and moderator at The Times Festival of Books. His final novel, “Pieces of Tinsel,” will be published in 2022.

Young is survived by his wife; a brother, Mason; children Jacy, Jake, Julia and Riley; and three grandchildren.


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