Over the weekend, a little bit lost amidst the Oscar hoopla, came the news that former M*A*S*H star David Ogden Stiers had passed away at the age of 75. Stiers had a long filmography of things that weren’t M*A*S*H – he was great as Lane Myer’s father in Better Off Dead, and as the peculiar mayor in Doc Hollywood; also, strangely, he played the Martian Manhunter in the never-aired in the U.S. 1997 Justice League of America TV movie – but, yes, he will mostly be remembered for playing Charles Emerson Winchester III.
The reason I wanted to write about Stiers is because his character, Winchester, was one of my first introductions to the whole concept of a complicated antagonist. By the time I saw my first episode of M*A*S*H*, Stiers was well into his tenure as Winchester, which started in 1977 and ended when the series finished in 1983. But it was when I started watched syndicated repeats (which are, somewhat amazingly, still pretty easy to find), I really started to realize why Winchester was such a special character.
Before Winchester, there was Larry Linville’s Frank Burns. Burns was there, mostly, to be the butt of Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Trapper’s (Wayne Rogers), and later B.J.’s (Mike Farrell), jokes. There wasn’t much likable or endearing about Frank, or even anything that made him useful: He wasn’t very smart, he was often a jerk, and he was a lousy surgeon. Linville left M*A*S*H after its fifth season because he didn’t feel he could do anything more with the character (he was right), but this left a hole on the show: Hawkeye and B.J. needed an adversary. This is where 34-year-old Illinois native (and former classmate of Roger Ebert*) David Ogden Stiers would be added so brilliantly to this cast.
[*In Ebert’s 2000 review of Time Regained, Ebert wrote, “And here is Baron de Charlus (John Malkovich), who plays the role of the slightly elevated, bemused observer — a man like the man we all have in our lives, who seems to stand outside and have a wider view. In my high school that was David Ogden Stiers. Yes, the actor who played Winchester on M*A*S*H. He has never attended a reunion, but is discussed every 10 years by the rest of us, who recall in wonder that he always talked like that. He came to Urbana from Peoria. Where did he learn to talk like Winchester? Tall, confident and twinkling, he would ask, “And what have we here?”]
Charles Emerson Winchester III was not Frank Burns. He was sophisticated, devilishly intelligent, and a brilliant surgeon. For as much grief as Hawkeye and B.J. would give Winchester, they always acknowledged that he was the best surgeon and always seemed to have respect for him, even when they sometimes hated him. (In an early Winchester episode, his skills as a surgeon is a detriment, in that he’s too slow to keep up with the demands of a mobile Army hospital.)
But Winchester was key to me learning that that the antagonist doesn’t have to be the “bad guy.” With Winchester, a case could often be made that he was correct, and the two idiots drinking homemade alcohol on the other side of the tent were the troublemakers. Stiers played this character so perfectly it made a viewer question everything we knew about these characters, which was brilliant. Winchester could dish it out as well as he could take it because he was the smartest person in the room. It’s the first time I truly started asking myself, “What is an antagonist anyway?” (Okay, no, I didn’t use the word “antagonist” then, but you get the point.) For years and year and years, on a never-ending loop of syndication, I became a Winchester fan. He’s not only my favorite M*A*S*H character, he’s one of my favorite characters in television history. Stiers brought nuance to a character who could have been as one-note as Frank Burns. And he somehow made M*A*S*H even better. He gave the show an outsider’s heart that it probably didn’t even realize it was missing.
As Ebert alludes to above, Stiers seemed like a person who marched to the beat of his own drum. He didn’t always participate in M*A*S*H retrospectives, but a lot of the best stories always seem to be about him. (Another aspect of Stiers I always found fascinating was his somewhat reclusive nature, which just seems like such a Winchester thing to be.) When The Hollywood Reporter published its M*A*S*H oral history a couple of weeks ago, the first thing I did was scan to see if Stiers had participated. He had not, but there were a couple of gems:
Farr: To repay Stiers for all his pranks on us, we had his dressing room painted orange and purple over Thanksgiving break. When we came back, we were waiting for him to rant. He said nothing. Finally, one of us asked, “What’s new?”
Farrell: David said, “Oh, I’ve just had my dressing room redecorated. Did you as well?” I responded, “No, how is yours?” He said, “Quite lovely, it’s a fabulous combination of salmon and mauve.” It was his way of letting us know he got it, but no one was going to get him.
Also included is this nice moment with Loretta Swit:
A few episodes before, Margaret had borrowed a book of poems from Winchester. He got angry with me at one point and made me return it. In real life, we had this running gag. I would tease David all the time that no one had his private phone number. He was very much his own person, very reclusive in a way. So, in the final episode Winchester gives Margaret the book back. I open it and read the inscription. David had written his phone number inside. That’s my real emotion on camera.
I do wonder how many people today are even familiar with Stiers’ work on M*A*S*H, or even M*A*S*H in general. (Even I only saw a few first-run episodes, late in the series’ run.) There’s not the cool cache of watching older classic television like there is with movies. When I was a little kid I was forced to watch reruns of television that aired before I was born because, a lot of the time, there wasn’t anything else on. Today, we have direct access to almost anything we want to watch, but how many people are there that would use that power to watch a M*A*S*H rerun? The only reason I mention this is I fear that a great performance like what Stiers did with Winchester is going to slowly be lost to time. No one is ever going to forget a great film performance from the same era, but it already feels like older television is slipping from the zeitgeist. But, before it does, maybe there’s time to remember David Ogden Stiers as Charles Emerson Winchester III just a little longer.
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