I was saddened to hear of the passing of Wayne Rogers on the final day of 2015. He died at the ripe old age of 82. One or two readers might know him from his many years as a contributor on the Fox Business Network, but the vast majority of you will remember him as Trapper John McIntyre, MD from the long-running TV dramedy, M*A*S*H.
Rogers is the fourth regular cast member from the TV series to have passed away. He was preceded by McLean Stevenson (Colonel Henry Blake) in 1996, Larry Linville (Frank Burns) in 2000 and Harry Morgan (Colonel Potter) in 2011.
For those of you under 35, here’s a brief synopsis of the series, which ran from 1972 through 1983 on CBS.
It takes place during the Korean conflict, though it is really a thinly-veiled commentary on the more-recent and unpopular Vietnam War. A group of doctors, most of whom are drafted, are serving in a mobile medical facility near the front lines. The show chronicles their lives as they receive one batch of wounded soldiers after another during the fighting. In order to calm their frazzled civilian nerves, the doctors go a little nuts in their off hours, particularly the lead protagonist, Benjamin Franklin ‘Hawkeye’ Pierce, played by Alan Alda in the TV version. Pierce is a gifted surgeon, but he’s also a skirt-chasing, booze-swilling cuckoo bird who loses his marbles more than once over the course of the 11 seasons.
Pierce never met a nurse he didn’t bed, a general whom he didn’t defy, a martini that he didn’t vanquish and a scalpel that he didn’t make sing. His talent was the only reason why he didn’t end up on permanent KP duty over some of his antics. I’m not kidding. Hawkeye had a libido that made Bill Clinton’s look like a kitchen match next to a flamethrower by comparison. The difference was that Bill’s excuse was Hillary, while Hawkeye’s excuse was the hard-to-argue fact that war is hell. I understand. I do battle with my coworkers every day and I get crazy by day and hornie by night.
Hawkeye was also validated by the fact that his compatriots were all either as crazy as he, incompetent or too in awe of him to care. They included his sidekick, the afore-mentioned Trapper John, as well as a bumbling company commander, a walking set of military stereotypes, a sexually frustrated female major, a naive company clerk, a chaplain who never mentioned God and a cross-dressing corporal bucking for a psycho discharge.
The head writer for the first four seasons was Larry Gelbart. In an interview, he once claimed that M*A*S*H was not anti-military, but rather, anti-war. I think this is a distinction without a difference, but more to the point, Gelbart is being disingenuous. There are numerous examples of the show poking fun at the command structure and the actions of the military. Exhibit A was Frank Burns, a character who was written as a collection of negative military clichés and who served no other purpose than to be a weekly antagonist to Hawkeye and Trapper. In fact, the only part of the military the writers treated with respect was the infantry soldiers who were wounded and arrived in the operating room at the 4077. This was characterized by the absence of the standard television sitcom laugh track during scenes in the operating room.
On the surface, you wouldn’t think that I would enjoy a show like M*A*S*H. I find the anti-war mentality of the left to be willfully ignorant of world history and human nature. As a kid, it never came up on my radar (no pun intended.) I didn’t do sitcoms. I stumbled across it in college only because it came on just before Star Trek: The Next Generation every weeknight on KPTM Fox 42. I sat down one night and watched an episode called, “Life Time,” in which the doctors only have 20 minutes to save the life of a boy who will die if he doesn’t get the aorta of another patient who is barely hanging on. It was the constant ticking of the alarm clock used to heighten dramatic tension that really got me. It was unintentional foreshadowing of the spy series, 24.
From that moment, I was hooked. Part of the reason was due to the fact that I flirted with liberalism in college. Yes, you read that right. I was nearly seduced by the dark side of the force, if you’ll pardon my metaphor mixing here. I wasn’t as sensitive to Hollywood’s liberal bias as I became in subsequent years. But even after I returned to my conservative roots post college, I still held a soft spot for Hawkeye and company. Once I pealed away the preachy, anti-war rhetoric, I could relate to the idea of an on-edge guy who was trapped in an extreme situation that he despised. If you’ve ever been to a residential school for the blind, you can relate to the 4077. Moreover, I found the humor of the Gelbart era to be genuinely clever and witty, unlike many other sitcoms of the time; Three’s Company, anyone?
In late 1998, I blundered into a massive black depression. Coincidentally, the F-X cable network acquired the rights to M*A*S*H and began running it eight times a day. I would wake up, eat hamburger helper for breakfast while watching M*A*S*H, get dressed, go work my five-hour shift at Gallup, come home, strip naked, crawl under a blanket and watch more M*A*S*H. I think I devoured the entire series in about three months. This is what I learned.
The first three seasons are faithful to the original motion picture, which is itself based on the novel written by Richard Hooker. Though there are dramatic underpinnings, the tone is that of a black comedy. This changes when Colonel Blake is killed off in the third season finale, “Abysinia, Henry.”
In the fourth season, Hawkeye’s partner in crime Trapper John goes home off screen and is replaced by the more straight-laced B. J. Hunnicut. Colonel Blake is replaced by Colonel Sherman Potter, who is *gasp* regular Army, but who enables Hawkeye’s antics because he recognizes his surgical skills. The show still leans toward comedy, though more dramatic stories are introduced. The most notable of these is, “The Interview,” in which the members of the 4077 are interviewed by a news crew about their war experiences.
At the end of the fifth season, Hotlips gets married and is henceforth known as Margaret, causing Frank Burns to go crazy and to be sent home. He is replaced by the more surgically adept and pompous Charles Emerson Winchester, who serves as a more intelligent foil for Hawkeye. The series continues to angle more toward overt drama. Hawkeye’s chronic drinking is addressed in the episode, “Fallen Idol,” in which Radar is injured during R&R and Hawkeye is too drunk to operate on him.
At the beginning of the eight season, Radar is sent home on a medical hardship discharge. Klinger gets out of his dress and replaces Radar as company clerk. B. J. gets depressed and beats up Hawkeye and Potter amps up his cowboy clichés to an annoying level. For it’s final four seasons, the show becomes a much more overt drama. The laugh track disappears, as do the musical stings that transition between scenes. The jokes become stale, paling in comparison to the days of Trapper and Blake and Hawkeye’s still is replaced by a weekly soapbox.
Honestly, the entire unit probably should’ve been sent home along with Radar. By this time, it was fashionable for television series of the ‘70’s to dispense a heavy dose of moralizing along with their storytelling. This is best illustrated by shows such as All in the Family, Lou Grant, Quincy, M.E. and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. M*A*S*H was no exception. In the wake of Larry Gelbart’s departure, Alan Alda became an executive producer. You can always look for a show to jump the shark when a lead actor tries to take over creative control. Carroll O’Connor is exhibit A for this phenomenon. It didn’t matter that the stories imposed the morality of the 1970’s into a 1950’s setting. War is hell, damnit! What else matters?
To that end, Margaret goes into full feminist mode, demonstrating time and again that, by God, she doesn’t need a man. B. J. cheats on his wife, but has the decency to feel guilty about it. Winchester softens up his snobbish, blue blooded conservative views. But most important of all, Hawkeye learns to respect women by not tapping every nurse’s ass that he comes across. Oh God, the humanity of it all!
The series wrapped up in February of 1983 with a two-and-a-half hour finale entitled, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen.” Hawkeye chokes a chicken that’s not really a chicken. B. J. does the ultimate boomerang act. Margaret is still shrill and still in the Army. Father Mulcahy goes deaf. Klinger gets married and stays in Korea. Colonel Potter rides off on his horse. Winchester rides out on a garbage truck and everyone has a good cry before flooding the New York City sewer systems with a massive toilet flush after the final credits. Goodbye, farewell and pass the Charmin.
After these many years, I still like to pull out the DVD’s of M*A*S*H and watch them on occasion. When I first got turned on to the show, I didn’t care for the early episodes. Now, I prefer the antics of Hawkeye, Trapper and Colonel Blake when the show didn’t take itself so seriously and the social commentary was far more subtle. I think that Hawkeye, the gifted surgeon, consummate womanizer and raging alcoholic was probably a more accurate depiction of a civilian trapped in a war setting than was the kinder, gentler, more preachy Hawkeye of the later seasons.
So, R.I.P, Wayne Rogers. Say hi to Pernell Roberts if you see him. If anyone gets that reference without using Google, I’ll send you a gallon of martinis, fresh from my homemade still right here in the control room. Don’t cheat or the ghost of Harry Morgan will gitchu!