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Although a role can’t define an actor, an actor can define a role. That’s what David Ogden Stiers did with M*A*S*H favorite Major Charles Emerson Winchester III. Stiers and the CBS drama’s writers created a brilliant surgeon with a rather aloof disposition whose talent and education made him a worthy adversary to Alan Alda’s “Hawkeye” Pierce and Mike Farrell’s B.J. Hunnicutt, a stark contrast to the buffoonery and prickly nature of Larry Linville’s Frank Burns. Stiers died Saturday after a battle with bladder cancer.
The members of the M*A*S*H family each brought aspects of their own persona to their roles. Loretta Swit (who played Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan) refers to that practice as an interchangeability, which in some ways made the actors and their characters indisputably the same person. In Stiers‘ case, it was his reclusive and private nature balanced by his intelligence and classically trained talent. Yes, he could come off as standoffish when you first met him, those close to him said, but that was more shyness than anything else. Once the walls came down, his former colleagues recalled, you saw a sweet, tender man. Just ask Kellye Nakahara (Nurse Kellye), who recalls jumping into Stiers‘ arms every morning so he could twirl her around like a princess at a ball.
“He was very much his own person, but he loved and adored us as we did him,” Swit told The Hollywood Reporter during a recent M*A*S*H oral history. Adds writer David Pollock: “David was such a great straight man, paradoxically a talent that easily goes unnoticed the more convincing one is.” In his blog post, M*A*S*H writer Ken Levine described Stiers as “a wonderful gentle soul. And quirky. He didn’t drive — not easy in Southern California. He rode a scooter (way ahead of his time). He engineered sly practical jokes. He was truly loved by the cast and crew.”
Stiers, loved classical music. It flowed through his veins. Deeply involved and well educated in the subject matter, he became a conductor of classical orchestras. “He’d bring in these manuscripts and would stand with his baton while reading music,” Nakahara says. “He directed the entire cast to sing part of ‘Dona Nobis Pacem‘ for a Christmas show. He arranged the song and gave us parts.”
Farrell, one of Stiers‘ closest friends on set, remembers Stiers being offended that he didn’t have much of an appreciation for classical music. “He used to bring tapes in for me and say, ‘Listen to this,'” Farrell recalls. “Then afterward, he’d ask what I thought and I’d say, ‘That’s nice.’ And he’d say, ‘Nice?!’ He kept trying until one time he had me listen to a piece and walked away. When he came back, he saw there were tears in my eyes and he said, ‘A-ha! You’re not so dead. You just have to be reawakened!'”
Stiers kept himself composed and in control at most times, except in the presence of Harry Morgan (Col. Potter). Farrell says all it took from Morgan was a flaring of the nostrils. Stiers‘ knees would buckle. Morgan could have him literally on the floor laughing if he so chose.
Such laughter was a constant on the set, as were practical jokes. Jamie Farr (Klinger) remembers Stiers and Farrell being the biggest pranksters. “They were the culprits.” If you polled castmembers about the greatest joke played during the series run, they would all say without hesitation: “Attenborough.”
During the 1977-78 season, Richard Attenborough took residence on the 20th Century Fox lot to direct Magic, a twisted horror film starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann-Margret. Many of the people working on the lot, including Attenborough, often frequented the commissary for lunch. One day, Morgan, Farr, William Christopher (Father Mulcahy), Farrell and a crewmember went to the commissary and situated themselves in a booth for lunch. As it would turn out, Attenborough was across the room with some people, also enjoying a meal.
“As we were finishing our meal, this line of waiters came up to us with a flourish. They had soft-serve yogurt — at the time a fancy new dessert in the commissary — brought to us and served in goblets. The waiters made a big deal out of it, setting it down in front of each of us. They said, ‘Compliments of Sir Richard Attenborough,'” Farrell recalls. “We were blown away that Richard would know who we were, let alone treat us to this fabulous dessert. So, we turned and waved graciously and said, ‘Thank you, Sir Richard, so kind of you.’ We had to call it out a little bit because he was across the room. Attenborough didn’t even turn to acknowledge us. So, we said it louder. Again, he ignored us. Then Harry stands up and yells, ‘Thank you, Dickie.’ Nothing. I was trying to figure out what was going on. My eyes sweep the room and I see, over in another corner of the commissary, David laughing to all hell. And I thought, ‘Oh, that son of a bitch.’
“I said to the guys, who were still standing, ‘Stop. Hold it, I think we’ve been had here,'” Farrell continues. “Stiers is over there having a spasm. He’s having so much fun at our expense. When the waiter comes over with the check, it includes the desserts on it. I figure we can’t let David do this without some consequence. So, I tell him to take the entire check to Stiers. I watched as the waiter hands David the check. He looks at it, signs it with a flourish and walks out. I ran out after him and caught him in the street and I said, ‘David, I didn’t really mean for you to have to pay for our meals. I just wanted to get back at you in some small way for humiliating us, you son of a bitch!’ And David says, ‘Oh, it’s alright Mike, I signed Gary Burghoff’s [who played ‘Radar’ O’Reilly] name to it.”
For his part, Alda also recalled how Stiers was a practical joker in paying his respects to his late friend on Twitter. “I remember how you skateboarded to work every day down busy L.A. streets. How, once you glided into Stage 9, you were Winchester to your core. How gentle you were, how kind, except when devising the most vicious practical jokes. We love you, David. Goodbye,” he wrote.
To those who shared the screen with him — and those behind the cameras — Stiers was part of the family and big part of why the show worked. Fans sensed it, whereas the actors felt it, forming a tender loving family with all its warts, but most of all acceptance of one another and a celebration of their kinship.
“I always have felt that one of the reasons for the show’s success was that audience’s sensed that the characters loved another and they loved the characters,” M*A*S*H executive producer Burt Metcalfe says. “And that love goes down to the actors.”
Perhaps Swit says it best. In talking about the passing of Morgan, she commented on keeping the memories alive of people, talking about them, remembering them. “I don’t believe there’s closure. Why should there be when they were part of my heart, my mind, my life?” she says.
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