Sunday, March 4, 2018

In Memoriam: David Ogden Stiers 1942-2018


One of the blogs I read regularly is written by Ken Levine, not the video game designer but a highly successful TV writer, among whose credits includes the long-running Korean War sitcom (or, if you will, comedy-drama) MASH. A couple of years ago, he was asked in his comment section what did he think the characters on that show would be doing today were they real people rather than fictional (in which case they ceased to exist after the series finale.) Levine replied that given that the Korean War ended more than 60 years ago, they would probably all be dead. Of course, the TV version of that war ended more recently, in 1983, some 35 years ago. Still, it's long enough of a time frame to take its toll on a several of that series actors. McLean Stevenson (Henry Blake), Larry Linville (Frank Burns), Harry Morgan (Colonel Potter), Wayne Rogers (Trapper John), and William Christopher (Father Mulcahy) have all left us. And as I'm sure you figured out the moment you clicked this on this post, David Ogden Stiers, who played the pompous, upper-crust surgeon Charles Winchester III, is gone now, too. Back in 1977, Stiers had a tough pair of army boots to fill as he had to take over for the talented Linville, whose Burns character was one of the funniest TV assholes of all time. However, Stiers was no slouch in the talent department himself. Winchester, particularly in the earlier episodes, could be every bit an asshole as Burns, but was also capable of something the latter character lacked (and was a major reason Linville chose to leave the series): depth. In addition to acting foolish, Charles occasionally acted noble (such as when he offered hope to a concert pianist whose right hand was damaged in the fighting), could come across as sympathetic (such as when he tried to romance a Korean goodtime girl who just wants him for his hamburgers), and, while often the butt of Hawkeye and BJ's jokes, had his own ways of humbling the two of them right back (such as when he produced a photo of himself and Audrey Hepburn). And unlike Frank Burns, Charles was a highly gifted surgeon, even if it did take a bit long for him to wash his hands.

A Charles Winchester III sampling:


What's that one one guy doing in Korea? He'd be better off at a sports bar in Boston.


Charles love of classical music set him apart from the motley 4077th crew.


Not that he could play it all that well himself.


Charles noble side.

 Remember those North Korean prisoners playing classical music at the end of that second clip? I'm afraid they never got to make an encore:


 Heavy scene. Much of the time, though, MASH was a comedy...



 ...not that all the yuks made things any easier for Charles.

Goodbye, farewell, and amen, David Ogden Stiers.

19 comments:

  1. Hi, Kirk!

    Nice tribute to a fine actor and a principal character in a great television series. Truth be told I remember Stiers in M*A*S*H, but only vaguely. I loved the film, loved the first three seasons of the TV series, but quickly lost interest after season 3 when McLean Stevenson left. I probably stopped watching entirely in season 6 shortly after Stiers joined the cast. Based on the clips you posted Stiers did indeed bring depth to his character Charles Winchester III.

    Thanks, good buddy Kirk, and have a great week!

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    1. Shady, my dream MASH series would be one where Colonel Blake and Colonel Potter jointly ran the 4077, and Hawkeye, Trapper John, and BJ played practical jokes on Frank Burns and Charles Winchester (though the Swamp would need an extra addition built on.)

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  2. Alas, the only thing I saw him in was Mash. Seems all the small screen people are passing all of a sudden.

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    1. Maddie, Stiers might not have approved of this post as it's said he didn't want to be known solely for MASH. But to go through his whole career would mean I wouldn't have been done with this until next week. But he did a lot of other things, including voice-overs in Disney animation. Speaking of his voice, in the 1990s and beyond he basically became the unofficial voice of PBS, as he narrated many of that network's documentaries.

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  3. A great character. I was shocked when I learned Ogden Stiers himself wasn't actually a Boston Brahmin.

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    1. Mitchell, there's a couple of episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show where Stiers plays a stuttering station manager. He sounds very different from Charles.

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  4. I never really watched Mash, so I didn't know him well

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    1. It's a good show, Adam, if you don't mind your comedy sprinkled with bit of life-or-death drama.

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  5. I liked his Winchester character too. He was a worthy foil for Hawkeye and BJ because he was equally talented and, as you say, had depth unlike the cartoonish buffoon Major Frank Burns.

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  6. Debra, Larry Linville played Frank Burns as a cartoonish buffoon because that's how the character was written. In interviews he gave after he left the series, Linville complained Burns had become a comic contrivance, and that it limited him as an actor (an often hilarious limitation, in my opinion.)

    I've known quite a few people who prefer the Frank Burns/Henry Blake/Trapper John era of MASH to the later Charles Winchester/Colonel Potter/BJ Hunnicut era. I like both eras myself, but have a slight preference for Charles/Potter/BJ. Still, I can't deny that earlier era had some great episodes. Thank God I can view them all.

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  7. Both eras had good and bad points but felt sorry for Frank. In the beginning he was so on point as the by the rules jerk but I think they dragged the joke on to long. He was written so broad (as was Margaret in the beginning) he really never had a chance to change and grow. One show had him talking on the phone crying to his Mum. In reality Hawkeye and BJ were bullies. Never liked BJ. an arrogant snowflake. In fact I stopped watching or really didn't care if I missed a show when he started. Charles was interesting, kind of a grown up possible more well rounded Frank and he could bounce back.
    I saw "Charles" in quite a few TV show later his voice was always so different but yet the same.
    Nice post as always. You always amaze me.

    cheers, parsnip

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. I had to look up snowflake, parsnip. I'm not hip to the new slang.

      BJ arrogant? I don't want to bring politics into this, parsnip, but could Mike Farrell's outside activities perhaps have influenced your view of the fictional character he played? Just wondering.

      I personally think Farrell is a fine actor, but I have to admit had Wayne Rogers stuck around, the MASH we saw from 1975 to 1983 would have basically been the same. However, the addition of Harry Morgan and David Ogden Stiers did indeed change the series trajectory.

      Thanks for commenting, parsnip.

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    3. Really do not know what he did outside the show. I have more to say about BJ but this post was about Stiers who i really liked.
      I think I might some commenting for now.

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    4. Parsnip, outside of his acting, Mike Farrell is a very busy political activist with a decidedly liberal bent. I thought that might be what bothered you about him. I apologize for getting it wrong.

      Mr. Farrell, if you're reading this, feel free to jump in.

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  8. V sad..I loved his acting and his voice over characters

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  9. Stiers had a marvelous voice, John. Had I more time I would have included some of those Disney voiceovers, maybe even him narrating a PBS documentary (assuming one even exists on YouTube)

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  10. I never watched MASH either but I know it was very popular. I think my brother was quite into it though.

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    1. Thanks for dropping by, LL Cool, and say hi to your brother for me.

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