David Ogden Stiers Did More Than ‘M*A*S*H.’ Truth Is, He Didn’t Have To.
David Ogden Stiers was seen or heard in hundreds of movies and television shows over 50 years and many viewers quite likely remember him from just one.
That would be M*A*S*H, in which he played Major Charles Emerson Winchester III from 1977 until the show ended in 1983.
Now this might sound depressing for Stiers, who was 75 when he died from bladder cancer Saturday at his home in Newport, Ore.
It isn’t. It just proves the one show and the one character were that good.
For the record, Stiers was also memorable as District Attorney Michael Reston in eight of the made-for-TV Perry Mason movies that began airing in 1985. He never did beat Mason, but then, Mason pretty much ran the table against all district attorneys back to Hamilton A. Burger.
Stiers did voiceovers for eight Disney movies, notably Beauty and the Beast and Pocahontas, as well as dozens of TV shows that included The Wild Thornberrys and Lilo and Stich. He played guest roles on TV shows from Matlock and Murder She Wrote to Ally McBeal, Leverage and Frasier. He was a regular for years on Dead Zone, playing Rev. Gene Purdy.
Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, however, was his piece de resistance.
Major Winchester, known simply as Winchester to his roommates Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), was a Boston blueblood who could never quite believe he’d ended up in a tent in Korea.
Very few characters in M*A*S*H envisioned this gig as their life mission. Winchester’s complaining had a different tone, edged with disdain. He saw his assignment both as a miscarriage of protocol and an insult to his class.
He frequently referenced the intelligence, persistence, resourcefulness, cleverness and general nobility of the Winchesters. He often did not bother to disguise his distaste for those of lesser breeding, though it was rarely delivered as a sneer. It was more an exasperated expression of impatient disbelief.
One of Winchester’s most memorable scenes had him toying with a soldier who had gotten a pool ball stuck in his mouth. After feigning detached surprise at the situation, Winchester said with a straight face that the best way to remove the ball would be to pull all the man’s teeth.
He was messing with him. It was not personal. Winchester simply could neither hide his astonishment at nor soften his reaction to this level of stupidity.
More often, Winchester’s humorously annoying behavior made him the target rather than the deliverer of gags. Military rank and the irreverent presence of B.J. and Hawkeye deflated most of his efforts to leverage his social DNA.
At one point, he tried to reverse an order from his commanding officer, Col. Sherman Potter (Harry Morgan), by saying, “My father knows Harry Truman. He doesn’t like him, but he knows him.”
Potter replied fine, have Truman call me. Until then, my order stands.
In the broader picture, however, Stiers didn’t turn Charles Emerson Winchester III into an enduring character by playing him as a balloon constantly sailing into pins.
For all his complaining, Winchester was good at his job. He was a first-rate surgeon who worked hard and cared about his patients — though he kept the depth of that concern hidden from Hawkeye and B.J., along with everything else about his sensitive side. In that area, bluebloods don’t share.
While he never stopped trashing M*A*S*H 4077, he came to respect Potter and found things he liked about Hawkeye and B.J., even joining forces with them on occasion.
He never became a good old boy, and he made it clear that after the war he would return as quickly as possible to Boston Mercy Hospital, where he would become head of thoracic surgery.
Still, no one got out of M*A*S*H unscarred. War has that effect. Winchester allowed that music, which had once been his refuge, would now always remind him of Korea.
In uniform, though, he walked the walk even when he wasn’t talking the talk. Like so many of his colleagues in TV’s most famous military unit, he earned a salute.