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.)