Saddened to hear of the passing of Wayne Rogers a couple of days ago.
Not deeply saddened, but nostalgic. My best friend in high school and I absolutely modeled ourselves on Trapper and Hawkeye. What is significant about this is that when we were doing so, Rogers and his Trapper John character had been off of M*A*S*H for several years. We cherished the first three seasons of the show in after school reruns. Season 4 is kind of borderline. After that was a sort of slow motion descent into a self indulgent swamp (if you will) of smug Hollywood liberal moralizing and crappy on-the-nose pamphleteering which seemed to possess the formerly great sit-com from the inside, much as the devil inhabits the body of The Exorcist’s Linda Blair. What self-respecting teenage boy would ever want to emulate the simpering milquetoast B.J. Hunnicutt, with his anachronistic ’70s mustache and conscientious objection to anything fun? Trapper John wasn’t just funny but he was macho. As teenagers we were fairly inept at banging random women, and drinking martinis (that came later and often with negative consequences in both cases), nor could we perform chest surgery, but we were very good at walking around with our shirts untucked, making smart cracks, and smoking cigars. We howled at the injustice of our hero having been replaced by the puritanical B.J.
I think Rogers made the wrong choice in leaving the show. Rogers saw Alan Alda (with his counter-cultural sex appeal and Groucho-like delivery of one-liners) becoming the breakout star and he resented playing second fiddle. But he missed something that I see, with my 20/20 hindsight…and my well-known omniscience. There is something comic-heroic about the dichotomy of Hawkeye and Trapper, something that reminds me of the male buddy pairs in Shakespeare comedies. (Two Gentlemen of Uijeongbu?). One guy is inevitably more serious, and moody. By season three they were feeling this out. The more dramatic plots could have gone to Trapper — serious romances with women (who during wartime inevitably go out of your life as rapidly and unexpectedly as they come in). The most famous of these on M*A*S*H went to Hawkeye and guest star Blythe Danner, but I can see there being lots of such plots for Trapper. And plots of physical danger. Trapper’s the one who’s going to punch his way out of a situation; that’s never going to be Hawkeye.
Which brings me to another interesting feature of Rogers’ take on Trapper, which is how he owned it. It couldn’t be more different from Elliot Gould’s original interpretation (although it must be said that we loved the movie versions of the M*A*S*H characters plenty). When urban, Jewish Elliott Gould punches Frank Burns in the face, he makes great drama (and comedy) of how much his hand hurts. If Alabama born Rogers decked a guy (though I don’t recall him doing so) I can’t see that happening.
It blew my mind when I learned Rogers was from Alabama. As a Rhode Islander, I swore that Rogers (like Trapper John himself) possessed a New England accent. Even when I saw his earlier performance in Cool Hand Luke (1967), I thought he had a Yankee accent. Sounds like one! Naw — he had one of those old fashioned Southern accents, the same kind Oliver Hardy and Randolph Scott had. A bit courtly and Cavalier-like.
After M*A*S*H, Rogers stepped into a hilariously appropriate role, from the audience perspective — as another sit-com doctor who was always romancing the women on House Calls (1979-1982). (And wasn’t it weird and ironic that the distinctly unfunny Pernell Roberts starred in Trapper John, M.D.?) After this he faded from my consciousness and surprised me (and probably most of us) by re-emerging a couple of decades later as a neo-con talking head investment analyst. It’s not an unprecedented route — many of my old vaudevillians re-invented themselves that way, but it was kind of out of the blue. He was probably very much at home in the take-no-prisoners culture of Wall Street. But from the little I observed of his latest incarnation, it seemed like more of a fun game to him. In any case, I admired his skills as a light comedian.