Larry Linville: Linchpin of “M*A*S*H”

True fans of the tv series M*A*S*H will understand why I chose the birthday of Larry Linville (1939-2000), and not that of, say, Larry Gelbart or Alan Alda, on which to post a tribute to this landmark sitcom. First, Gelbart and Alda had other major things going on before and after this show, and so they already have their own posts on this blog; Linville is almost exclusively associated with his iconic, masterful five-year stint as Frank Burns. But also, for many of us, the show was nothing without him. If I’m overstating that, it’s not by much.

M*A*S*H debuted in 1972 on CBS. At that time, the “C” in CBS could very well have stood for “counterculture”. The network was leading the way in transforming television. M*A*S*H wasn’t a Norman Lear product, but it was very much related in tone to what he was doing at the same time. Like the 1970 Robert Altman film on which it was based, the series used the Korean Conflict to stand in for the Vietnam War then still raging, and was openly, sharply critical of it. The show took a stance that was highly disrespectful of authority. It also pushed the envelope on sexual content. It was tacitly approving of extramarital sex, constantly depicting unmarried couples sneaking off into quiet corners to make beautiful music together, often adulterously. It was fairly revolutionary for a television comedy to be so risky about being so frisky!

While the show was on the air for over a decade, only towards the end did I watch it during prime time when episodes premiered. When I was a younger kid, I was a little unclear on what it was. The fact that it was set in a war but also seemed to be a comedy confused me as a child. And the sex content was very foregrounded in the marketing for the show. It was for grown-ups. But I started watching the syndicated reruns in the late ’70s when I was in Junior High School and instantly became addicted. It contained some of the cleverest TV comedy writing ever generated. And the ensemble was dreamlike: Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers as Hawkeye and Trapper John, the wisecracking maverick army surgeons; their wishy-washy commanding officer Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) and his seemingly psychic yet green aid-de-camp Radar (Gary Burghoff); and their foils, the incompetent, weasel-like Frank Burns (Linville), and his by-the-book battle-axe lover, Chief of Nurses Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Loretta Switt). Later, recurring characters like the dress-wearing Klinger (Jamie Farr) and Father Mulcahey (William Christopher) became regulars and were brought to the fore as well. I loved the show so much I even wrote a spec script when I was in high school (completely cobbled together from plot elements and dialogue from existing episodes, however).

Changes were made from the film, of course. Obviously all the rough edges were filed off. The biggest alteration was the excision of Hawkeye’s and Trapper’s third buddy Duke, who’d been played by Tom Skerrit. The huge ensemble from the film was boiled down to a fraction of its previous size. Gary Burghoff was one of the few holdovers from the film, and his character transformed somewhat into an Iowa naif. And in Larry Linville’s hands, the foil Frank Burns evolved from a mere psycho (as originally played by Robert Duvall) into a hilariously clueless, comical hypocritical buffoon.

As the series went on the dynamics of the cast changed somewhat. Hawkeye and Trapper, designed to be sort of coequal heroes, became imbalanced in status. Alda was better with one liners, and became a seventies sex symbol. Rogers (whom I always loved) became relegated to a sort of second banana. Dissatisfied with scripts that gave all the glory to Alda, Rogers left the show. Stevenson dropped out of M*A*S*H at the same time, but for a slightly different reason. He was the show’s other breakout star. Audiences loved him. Head turned by success, he left M*A*S*H because he wanted bigger things, and assumed they were his for the taking. (More about McLean Stevenson and the fate of his career here).

These were major changes and yet they still were not fatal to the show. One of the replacements, Harry Morgan as the double World War veteran Colonel Potter was both strong and fortuitous. He carried the same kind of magic Stevenson had and put his own stamp on the show. The other replacement, the insipid Mike Farrell as Trapper’s replacement B.J. Hunnicutt was a vastly weaker choice but inoffensive enough not to harm anything.

For one transitional season, the magic survived. But then there were more changes. The original producers and writers left, and then Linville departed. As we wrote here, the heavy lifting for leadership fell to executive producer Alda. The edges were softened, and the show became preachy. The evolution, if you think about it, was counterintuitive. During the show’s first season, when the Vietnam War was still raging, M*A*S*H was ironically at its silliest, almost at an F Troop level of comic lightness. It was only after the Paris Agreement and America’s departure from the war that the show became bolder in its anti-war and anti-military message. Then, with Gelbart’s strong satirical voice at the center that anti-war message reached a peak of comic brilliance. But in the Alda years, the last six or seven years or so, it became a drama, and much that had made the show enjoyable went out the window. It was all sermon and no donuts. One missed the verbal wordplay, the pranks, and the craziness. And though David Ogden Stiers was excellent as Frank’s replacement the insufferable Boston blueblood Charles Winchester, the writing wasn’t there to support his funny characterization. During the late ’70s and early ’80s we’d watch the new episodes of M*A*S*H in their primetime slot each week, and the earlier reruns daily after school, always cursing the former and praising the latter. The media always raves about the long running hit; I’d gladly have ended the show around 1976. As with the Vietnam War it was meant to criticize, it went on way, way too long.

BTW, Linville, who’d ostensibly left the show “to do other things”, went on to co-star in the 1979 sitcom Grandpa Goes to Washington with Jack Albertson, appeared in films like Earth Girls Are Easy (1988) and did the usual rounds of Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Murder She Wrote, etc. He was only 60 when he died of cancer in 2000.