Surely you know about the medical comedy/drama period piece known as M*A*S*H. In fact stateside it’s probably playing on at least five different channels as you read this. Set during (and lasting years longer than) the Korean War, M*A*S*H was based on a theatrical movie, which itself was based on a series of novels. A number of changes were made between formats, such as characters being dropped or having different personalities. (Biggest example? Novel Hawkeye was a married conservative. Way different from Alan Alda‘s version, especially when started sneaking his own political viewpoints in there.)
As the series went on, it evolved from a gag comedy to a more heartfelt comedy-drama. The characters also evolved. However, some of the cast changed, usually because the actors wanted to move on for their own reasons. I’ve been thinking about the changes now and then because my dad is a huge fan of the show, and watched it more time than I watch Transformers. That takes some effort. And what I’ve been thinking is that the cast changes may actually have been a good thing for the show. Allow me to explain.
Trapper John versus B.J. Hunnicut
There used to be four members of the Swamp. “Spearchucker” Jones was taken out of the series around episode 11 for historical accuracy reasons, as there were no records of black doctors serving during the war. (I don’t go for the hyphenated-American nonsense, FYI.) So the only doctors we had were Hawkeye, who would come to be the character the show was wrapped around, Frank Burns, who I’m saving for last, and Trapper John McIntyre, played by Wayne Rogers.
As Hawkeye started become more the focus, Trapper ended being reduced to being his sidekick rather than an equal character. At least, that’s how Rogers saw it and quit the show. However, even if that wasn’t the case, Trapper and Hawkeye were at least interchangeable in the early years. Both were nurse chasing, high-boozing, thumbing their noses as the military draftees. Both loved pulling pranks on Frank and Houlihan. Both were the competent doctors except for the CO and the historically removed Jones. Outside of Hawkeye’s more snarky attitude there weren’t a lot of differences between the two.
When Rogers left for the aforementioned reason both the camp and show needed a new doctor, so he was replaced by actor Mike Farrell as the new doctor, Captain B.J. Hunnicutt. B.J. was given character traits that, unlike Trapper, allowed him some independence from Hawkeye. He still drank a bit, but wasn’t the crazy drunk that his predecessor and new roommate were. His pranking was more of a story plot than part of his character, even when it came to Frank. The biggest difference is what Hawkeye left behind: a wife and daughter. (In fact, B.J.’s daughter, Erin, was named for Farrell’s real daughter.)
This was a good thing because, as Rogers maintained, Trapper wasn’t going anywhere since he was reduced to someone for Hawkeye to play off that he liked and wasn’t trying to scam each episode. He wasn’t given the opportunity to grow as a character while most of the others were, and otherwise he was Hawkeye without the emotional baggage. Today Rogers works in the financial industry and is a regular on Fox Business News‘ Cashin’ In, so I think it all worked out in the end.
vs. Sherman Potter
Who doesn’t love Colonel Henry Blake? The fun-loving, easy-going commanding officer of the 4077th, Henry pretty much let Hawkeye and Trapper get away with everything short of murder (although considering how often the pair pulled one over on them, they could have easily followed a requisition order for murder and Henry wouldn’t have realized he signed it–in triplicate). To copy/paste from Wikipedia: Hawkeye described Henry as “a good doctor and a pretty good Joe,” but likened Henry’s command style to “being on a sinking ocean liner, running to the bridge, and finding out that the captain is Daffy Duck!” This is what made Henry such a fun character to watch, but it’s also what made him a terrible commanding officer.
As the show gained a more serious edge, I don’t think Blake would have fit. He was likable, but it didn’t fit the tone. Blake’s portrayer, Mclean Stevenson, left the show for the same reason Rogers would later, being reduced to supporting cast on “The Hawkeye Pierce and Friends Show”. (I wonder if these two leaving had anything to do with the other characters finally getting some stories based on them?) Blake’s leaving ironically lead to one of the more dramatic moments in the show’s 11 season run.
The cast weren’t even told about this until the last minute, to make the reaction believable. But Blake was out, and in came Colonel Sherman Potter. Henry Morgan had played a guest role in an earlier episode, but was brought in to play the new CO. Potter was as far from Blake and you could get without being Burns. An old warhorse and former Calvary man, Potter was stricter than his predecessor, but wasn’t the hardass that most high-ranking military men were portrayed as in the show. In fact, he was probably the only soldier to have Hawkeye’s respect and that wasn’t easy.
From the start, however, I think Potter had more depth to him than Blake did. He had the baggage of the war, was more faithful to his wife (although one episode brought up a time he slipped), and had happy memories not of the wars he was in but the friends and comrades he met along the way. There was more heart to Potter that I think played well to the tone of the later seasons and again I don’t think Blake would have done as well.
Majors Frank Burns versus Charles Winchester
I have to say that while Trapper and Henry weren’t given the opportunity to evolve as characters, Major Frank Burns, played by the late Larry Linville, was a character that by his nature couldn’t evolve. Originally a captain in the novel, the TV version was very much a man-child. He was also a bigot, spouted Americanisms and Biblical theology without knowing what they meant, and was probably supposed to represent a conservative opinion given the politics of the show. As Major Hoolihan’s character even outgrew him, he was really left behind.
Even Linville decided the character had come as far as he was ever going to, and decided to take his leave, while the character had the last laugh for the years of the abuse (most of it deserved, really) he had taken at the hand of all three of the bunkmates he had over the years. However, the show still needed a “villain”, but one that fit the show’s new heart. David Ogden Stiers gave us that in the form Major Charles Emmerson Winchester the Third. From the start, you kind of felt for Charles despite his overblown ego. His first day at the 4077th came because his CO at the time found the transfer a way to not pay a debt he owned the major. He also had his first taste of “meatball surgery”, the method the MASH unit used to speed up surgeries so the soldiers may live long enough to get to better medical facilities, and he was a tad humbled by it.
Unlike Burns, Winchester was portrayed as a very capable doctor, although he had to learn the more speedier method the others had perfected over the course of the war. He was sympathetic in other ways. Although a lot of the time he was more interested in personal comfort and increasing his wealth, he also came from a rather close family for a rich family in a Hollywood production. He showed compassion that Burns never did, including a soldier who had the same stuttering problem as his beloved sister. He wasn’t above giving credit to his fellow doctors when they deserved it, and may have even considered them all his friends. Underneath all that bravado he was a decent human being, and while I never liked Burns as a character because he went nowhere, watching Charles evolve and occasionally show a side he very much knew about but hid for fear of his status made him one of my favorite characters from the show.
Radar O’Reilly versus Max Klinger.
Actually, this final change wasn’t necessary for the show. Walter “Radar” O’Reilly (named for his uncanny ability to know when the choppers were coming before anyone else) was played by Gary Burghoff, the only actor of the regular cast to transition from the film to continue playing the role. Radar had the most growth of anyone, starting out as a simple farmboy from Iowa and grew to a simple farmman from Iowa. While who he was and the way he viewed the world never changed, I say he had the most growth because he gained a lot of confidence, including an episode when he stopped worshiping Hawkeye and instead began to see him as an equal, or rather that Radar was Hawkeye’s equal as a human being. Not only was he most likely to have easily made the transition, but was there for much of the show’s tone change.
However, Burghoff decided he was ready to leave, although he would return to the character in the ill-fated sequel series, AfterM*A*S*H and a TV movie pilot that wasn’t picked up, nor had I ever heard of it. He hasn’t played the character since, but did use it as a joke in an advertisement for a local weather radar system used by a Connecticut television station. It was sad news for Radar fans (you have to love the moment when the characters realized Radar had left his beloved teddy bear behind, a sense that he had indeed become a man), but it was probably the best thing for another character, Max Klinger.
As portrayed by Jamie Farr, Klinger began the series (he was the only main character who didn’t come from the previous media) as a man looking to get out of the army to be reunited with his wife. His MO involved wearing women’s clothing and other stunts to get a “Section 8“, a discharge where he would be declared unfit for duty. Nobody believed it, although both Colonels were often embarrassed when he would try to pull his stunt on every high-level official who came through the camp. Otherwise, Klinger was part of the supporting character along with the cook and the supply depot guy.
When Burghoff left, the producers decided that instead of bringing in another new character, they would use Klinger, as they had already decided to develop the character further. His wife had already left him and a recruiter had convinced him to remain the military. He was given a Lebanese background, similar to Farr, and a hometown of Toledo, Ohio. When he took over for Radar, after a little stumbling, he became quite the wheeler-dealer, and probably a better con artist than Hawkeye himself. He could get anything for the camp, and occasionally more believably than the simple farmboy Radar was portrayed as (a change made later in the series, actually). Some of this already happened prior to the shift, but it was Max taking over for Radar that really gave the character his best times to shine without wearing a dress.
So while fans of the characters may have missed them, it may have turned out to have been the best thing for the show and the characters that were there. This was never the reason for the changes, the cast simply decided their characters were stuck in neutral or just felt it was time to move on for their careers. But sometimes, change can be a good thing, and for M*A*S*H I’d say it was.
All pictures in this article came from Wikipedia.