Written by Marc Freeman
In exclusive interviews, surviving M*A*S*H cast members Alan Alda, Mike Farrell, Loretta Swit, Gary Burghoff, Jamie Farr, and Jeff Maxwell along with series writers and producers share their thoughts and memories of the series casting director, writer, director, producer, and showrunner.
“It’s always painful when another branch falls from the family tree,” says Loretta Swit (Margaret Houlihan). “It’s a body blow for the M*A*S*H family.” Jamie Farr sees it as the end of an era. “He was the consciousness of the show, the last of our triple crown.” Alan Alda summarized it this way in a recent tweet: “If you enjoyed M*A*S*H it was in large part because of Burt.”
As M*A*S*H approaches the fiftieth anniversary of its September 1972 premiere, it has lost the last of its founding fathers, Burt Metcalfe. M*A*S*H brought together creator Gene Reynolds’ memorable vision, co-creator Larry Gelbart’s peerless writing, and Metcalfe’s impeccable casting and later showrunning and turned it into a master class on pioneering television.
Only Metcalfe lasted the entire series run, wearing multiple hats, often at once. “I never really knew what Burt specifically did on M*A*S*H,” jokes series writer/producer Allan Katz. “And now that I read his obituary today, apparently he did everything but boast.” Jeff Maxwell (Igor Straminsky) admires Metcalfe’s upward journey during the show. “I always held great respect for his wide-ranging talent, and for his rise to captain of the ship.”
That Metcalfe contributed all of that while helping create a M*A*S*H community of cast and crew that remains to this day, only adds to his prowess. “There have been lots of shows with big casts, where everyone liked each other,” says series writer Elias Davis. “But there’s never been a show where that family feel lasts and lasts like ours. Burt is a big reason for that.”
With M*A*S*H, actors didn’t go back to their trailers. They stayed on set. At the end of a long work week, they’d hold pizza party celebrations. “I often thought that Burt was one of the few producers in Hollywood who would spend Friday night on the set with the entire crew,” says his wife, Jan Jorden. “He made everyone coming in feel welcome,” discloses Gary Burghoff (Radar). “He was easy-going, kind, and real. I liked him instantly.”
As a casting director, he had an amazing eye for talent. Jorden points out that he would often only bring in one person for a role, a far cry from the typical audition process of a sea full of hopeful actors in search of their big break. Larry Linville (Frank Burns) came from Metcalfe seeing his mawkish, authoritarian, and priggish performance in the titular role of the play, In the matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. He had a similar experience with Swit, having previously cast her on television and believing that she could embody the qualities that he loved in Sally Kellerman from the feature film.
That eye for talent remained front and center when casting new roles like BJ Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) and Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan). “He was responsible for all those “spot on” choices for the many replacements of main characters we encountered,” says Burghoff. “It was Burt who came up with the character of Charles Winchester and cast David Ogden Stiers,” says M*A*S*H writer Ken Levine. “He had seen David guest on an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show and knew he would be perfect. There was no second choice.” Metcalfe previously had told me that it all came down to the way Stiers made himself so “loveably unlovable” in that episode.
As a new director, he became very accomplished, complete with a very unique style. “Burt would mouth the words of a scene as if he was in the scene,” recalls M*A*S*H writer David Isaacs. “I always got a kick out of seeing that. You’d be watching him instead of the actors.”
Farr jokes about Metcalfe being stingy with compliments. “If he liked a take, he’d say “Cut. Print.” He never said “Terrific.” I’d be wondering, geez, I hope that was good enough.” Flash forward to a visit to Mike’s house with Burt. At one point he says to me, “Jamie, you were always wonderful and always made all of us laugh.” I looked at him and said, “Fifty years later, now you tell me?”
As a producer, Metcalfe worked with Gelbart and Reynolds on the decision to kill off Henry Blake. “When we talked it over, we all lamented that death on the show was so impersonal as it was on the network news,” Metcalfe shared with me. “We wanted to say that every death represents somebody’s son, or father, or brother, or cousin or uncle. Everyone should know and feel a personal loss.”
As showrunner, Metcalfe helped transform the tone of the show, becoming a close collaborator with Alda. “Of all the happy moments I had with Burt,” Alda shares, “The one that keeps coming back to me is the night we were writing a M*A*S*H episode together in an Italian restaurant, swapping lines until they asked us to leave so the waiters could go home.”
The writers loved him too, because of his belief in them. Series writer Dan Wilcox once told me, “I heard Burt say that he felt writers were capable of much more than TV was asking them to do.” To that end, Metcalfe brought writers over from failed sitcoms like Waverly Wonders to write for television’s leading series. He hired Davis and his writing partner David Pollock simply because they had once written an unproduced episode for Gelbart years before. “Burt told us anybody who had gotten in the door with Larry was worth a second try,” says Pollock.
He was always open to ideas. Farrell had a problem with a script once, protesting to BJ participating in the removal of a gung-ho general’s appendix, to keep him on the sidelines, incapable of ordering soldiers to the frontlines. “BJ wouldn’t do that.” Farrell remembers saying. “Alan responded, “Hawkeye would!” Everyone laughed. The writers then added, “It’s in the research, it actually happened.” A long, lively discussion ensued, and I maintained, “Look, the BJ Hunnicutt we’re creating here would not, no matter how tempting the idea, run the risk of doing an unnecessary surgery on a healthy body.” There was a silence and I’ll never forget Burt saying, “You know what? We have a better story here than we have in the script.” Metcalfe told me how much he valued letting Farrell say everything he wanted in the episode and the man himself for voicing his concerns.
Metcalfe came up with his fair share of ideas too, like Klinger, the one soldier who least wanted to be in Korea, staying there after the war. Maxwell says that series writer/producer John Rappaport told him that when a script called for Private Igor to have a last name, Metcalfe quickly came up with a play on composer Igor Stravinski’s name: Straminsky. Metcalfe also suggested using stones to write “Goodbye” in the finale, based on a childhood memory of camp with kids using stones to spell words. “Burt would hear something and a bell would go off,” Swit once told me. “I said that I wished that Margaret had a sense of humor. He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “They have jokes on her but she doesn’t make jokes. Once he understood what I meant, he disappeared and created that episode (Temporary Duty).
When asked to summarize his years on the show, Metcalfe told me “I’d like the show to be remembered for its statement about war. The seriousness of war. The futility and sadness of war. The theatricality of war. The ability to make people laugh and cry in the same episode. Because that’s life. That’s what life is all about. It’s not all perfect and hopefully never all that sad. It can very frequently be a combination of both. That we were able to do that is very gratifying and a memory I hope other people shared.”
During M*A*S*H’s last three seasons, Burt, my writing partner, Elias Davis and I, would sometimes attend Dodger games together. On these occasions Burt liked to go all-out, even hiring a limousine and picking up carry-out food and drinks en route to avoid standing in lines. We were then all health food conscious. However, Burt and Elias felt I was increasingly becoming a little insufferable with my nonstop health food proselytizing — annoyingly so.
As we neared the ballpark, Burt had the driver pullover at a take-out place. As he and Elias were getting out and noticed me still seated, Burt asked, “Don’t you want anything?”
“No, I’m fine,” I replied.
Moments later they returned to the limbo clutching wrapped, delicious-smelling food. As Burt opened the limo door, he announced, “Here, we brought you something,” as he tossed me a bag of chopped broccoli.
During my first season on MASH, one of the writers quit. It was someone Thad and I were very fond of, and we hated to see him go. As he was halfway out the door – literally – I asked if there wasn’t some way things could be worked out.
The writer snorted and gestured toward Burt’s office. “For years,” he said “I tried to make that man be my good father. I give up.”
Later that day, I told Burt what the man had said. This time, Burt was the one who snorted. “Me, his good father?? He’s got to be 20 years older than me!”
Until that moment, I hadn’t noticed the age anomaly. And I realized I didn’t find the word “father” inappropriate. By this time I had come to regard Burt is one of my mentors, though he was only about five years my senior.
I realized I was starting to understand one of Burt’s best qualities of leadership: he always came across as the most mature person in the room. Because he was.
Also by Marc Freeman
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