10 best doctors in TV and film

By John Murphy, MDLinx
Published October 18, 2018

Key Takeaways

Doctors on TV and in the movies are often portrayed as highly moral, self-sacrificing heroes who live exciting and passionate lives—just like doctors in real life! Seriously, America loves its fictional doctors, so it was difficult to pick just 10 of the "best doctors" in TV and film. One of the things most of these professionals have in common is that they're often advocates for patients and society—crusaders who take the high ground and do what's right. Of course, they have their flaws, too—just like doctors in real life!

Although you'll never see the following physicians tackling mountains of paperwork or fighting tooth-and-nail with insurance companies, we still think they make pretty good doctors.

10. Stephen Strange—Doctor Strange

(Photo: Walt Disney/Marvel Studios)

What do you give the super-successful surgeon who already has everything? How about the Eye of Agamotto and the title Sorcerer Supreme? Marvel's Dr. Stephen Strange (played by Sherlock's Benedict Cumberbatch) is an arrogant and brilliant neurosurgeon who falls into despair after an accident permanently damages his precious hands. Afraid of losing his career—but most of all afraid of losing his sense of self—he searches the world for a way to heal his hands. Eventually, he meets the Ancient One, who shows him the power of sorcery. Dr. Strange quickly proceeds from apprentice to master. In a major battle against dark magical forces, Dr. Strange does something he never would have done in his previous life—he sacrifices himself for the benefit of others. By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth, he had to become a mystic to learn what it really means to be a physician! (Now if only he could use his powers to control EHRs…)

9. Cristina Yang—Grey's Anatomy

(Photo: Bob D'Amico/ABC)

Dr. Meredith Grey has the central role on Grey's Anatomy, but it's Dr. Cristina Yang who stole the show. While Yang may fall into the doctor stereotype of being intensely driven and single-minded about her surgical career, actress Sandra Oh (who received five back-to-back Emmy nominations for the role) managed to bring a sarcastic wit, and even vulnerability, to this otherwise hard-edged character. As an article in Cosmopolitan said, "In a world where women are often encouraged to smile, be nice, and keep their feelings to themselves, Cristina does, feels, and says what she wants—and she's not painted as a bad person, or even an unhappy one, for it. That makes her a downright revolutionary character."

8. Malcolm Sayer —Awakenings

(Photo: Columbia TriStar)

Awakenings is the semi-fictionalized account of real-life neurologist Oliver Sacks' case reports of patients who had encephalitis lethargica, or sleeping sickness. In 1969, Sacks had experimented with the then-new drug L-DOPA on these patients, which "awakened" them from their catatonic state. In the 1990 movie, a very toned-down Robin Williams played the Oliver Sacks character, renamed Dr. Malcolm Sayer. In Williams' portrayal, Sayer is a shy, low-key but persevering introvert, hiding behind a bushy beard. When L-DOPA awakens the patients, with the most dramatic effects on Robert DeNiro's character (in an Oscar-nominated performance), something also stirs in Sayer. While somewhat saccharine, the clear message of the film is that most people—even stoical doctors—need to wake up to the fleeting life around them.

7. Quincy—Quincy, M.E.

(Photo: NBC Universal)

From 1976-1983, The Odd Couple alum Jack Klugman starred as Dr. Quincy (his first name was never revealed), a headstrong but morally righteous medical examiner for the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office. The character was reportedly modeled after Los Angeles coroner Thomas Noguchi, MD, the "Coroner to the Stars." Although Quincy's scrubs were never stained with blood, the show did try to depict its medical aspects as accurately as possible, even hiring a scientist from the Los Angeles Medical Examiner's office as a full-time consultant. But it was Klugman's portrayal of the character's driven personality—sometimes collaring the criminals all by himself, with no help from police—that made the show so compelling. Quincy, M.E. was the granddaddy of all forensic crime dramas—without it, we surely wouldn't have shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation or NCIS.

6. Richard Kimble—The Fugitive

(Photo: Warner Bros.)

Dr. Richard Kimble is the kind of doctor that can't be beat. He's determined, clever, courageous—and he looks like Harrison Ford! The 1993 movie was a remake of the popular 1960s TV series, and both were inspired by the real-life case of Dr. Sam Sheppard. In the movie version, Dr. Richard Kimble is a successful vascular surgeon wrongly convicted of murdering his wife, who was actually killed by the mysterious One-Armed Man. Kimble goes on the lam to find the One-Armed Man, but is pursued by a Deputy US Marshal (Tommy Lee Jones, in an Oscar-winning performance). In the end, Kimble finds out that a conspiracy to hide the adverse effects of a pharmaceutical company's new drug had set the wheels in motion that ended in his wife's death. Perhaps the movie should have been titled Indiana Jones and the Malicious Drug Company.

5. Michaela "Mike" Quinn—Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman

(Photo: CBS Entertainment/Sullivan Company)

Although Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman premiered in 1993 and was canceled in 1998, re-runs of this Western-themed family-friendly series are still shown in syndication around the world, and there's even talk of a reboot. (In keeping with the times, Dr. Quinn actress Jane Seymour recently appeared in a comedy sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, "Doctor Quinn, Medical Marijuana Woman.") So, why are the show and the character still popular and relevant? Like many historical dramas, it held up a mirror to modern problems like racism, sexism, and xenophobia, showing them in stark relief. "By having Dr. Quinn's sophisticated values clash with the considerably cruder mindset of her Western neighbors, the series is able to explore situations and issues that are very much a part of life today," explains the show's official, and still active, website.

4. John Carter—ER

(Photo: Robert Trachtenberg/NBC)

Dr. John Carter wasn't the hot one (that was George Clooney's Dr. Doug Ross) or the wise one (Dr. Mark Greene, played by Anthony Edwards). But through the experiences of Carter (played with innocent earnestness by Noah Wyle), viewers had a newcomer's view of the tragedy and turmoil in a fast-paced—and fictional—inner-city emergency department. For 11 seasons (with guest appearances throughout the show's 15-season run), Carter was often the central figure in ER, starting as a wet-behind-the-ears third-year medical student and rising through the ranks to become an attending physician. "I think one of the reasons that the audience is empathetic with Carter," Wyle said in an interview, "is that everybody can relate to being overworked, underfed, and underslept, and still only coming up to mediocrity."

3. Leonard "Bones" McCoy—Star Trek

(Photo: StarTrek.com)

Even though he was the Chief Medical Officer on an enormous Starfleet vessel, Dr. McCoy considered himself "just a country doctor." (McCoy was also quick to point out, "I'm a doctor, not an engineer," and "I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer!") If Spock was the brains and Kirk was the brawn on the USS Enterprise, then Bones McCoy was the heart—he brought a more relatable and human element to the otherworldly sci-fi drama. Actor DeForest Kelley, who played McCoy for three TV seasons and in six movies, made no bones about being typecast as the crochety but determined ship's doctor. He was proud that his character had inspired many viewers in real life to become "all kinds of doctors who save lives," Kelly said in an interview. "That's something that very few people can say they've done. I'm proud to say that I have."

2. Hawkeye Pierce—M*A*S*H

(Photo: CBS Television)

Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, as portrayed by Alan Alda during 11 seasons of M*A*S*H, was a failure as a military man but an excellent field surgeon, practicing what he called "meatball surgery." The show was set during the Korean War, but it acted as a counterpoint to the ongoing war in Vietnam, which ended well before the show did. Reportedly, Alan Alda's left-leaning political views helped shape Hawkeye's anti-authoritarian character, who rejected racial slurs and the use of firearms. But unlike other TV doctors of the time, Hawkeye was far from perfect—he was also a womanizer, a heavy drinker, and a constant joker, which helped him cope with the tragedies of war. As Hawkeye once quipped, "If we don't go crazy once in a while, we'll all go crazy."

1. Marcus Welby—Marcus Welby, M.D.

(Photo: ABC Photo Archives/ABC)

In the early 1970s, Dr. Marcus Welby was the kind of caring and competent family practitioner that every patient wanted—and that every doctor wanted to be. (It didn't hurt that actor Robert Young had played the well-respected and kindly patriarch in Father Knows Best.) In fact, Dr. Welby was so good that an increase in medical malpractice claims were partly attributed to the show because patients believed their own doctors didn't live up to that of the fictional physician, who not only made house calls but always nailed the diagnosis. (The insurance industry called this "Marcus Welby syndrome.") In 1970 alone, Marcus Welby, M.D. won four Emmy awards and a Golden Globe, and it was the highest-rated show on TV in the 1970-1971 season.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter