Wayne Rogers, and why we needed 'M*A*S*H'

'M*A*S*H' actor dies
'M*A*S*H' actor dies

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'M*A*S*H' actor dies 00:51

Story highlights

  • David Bianculli: Wayne Rogers' death hit a nerve because of importance of "M*A*S*H" in TV's evolution, especially its comment on war
  • He says Rogers' character Trapper John left show early on, but was foundational in setting groundbreaking show's funny/serious tone

David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com and teaches TV and film at Rowan University in New Jersey. He also is TV critic and guest host for NPR's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Platinum Age of Television: An Evolutionary History of Quality TV" (Doubleday), from which this commentary is adapted. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author.

(CNN)The outpouring of sadness at the death of Wayne Rogers on Thursday at age 82 is inseparable from TV viewers' feelings for the character he played and the show on which he played it: the beloved CBS sitcom "M*A*S*H."

David Bianculli
Rogers was an original cast member of the series, which ran from 1972 to 1983, when it said goodbye with what still ranks as the top-rated scripted TV show of all time. Rogers, though, had said goodbye to "M*A*S*H" after just three years, leaving to pursue other interests -- but never again finding as identifiable or popular a role.
His character, Trapper John, was originally written as an unmarried playboy using the war as an excuse to misbehave, but as the early years went on he was seen more and more as a co-conspirator and even sidekick to Alan Alda's character, Hawkeye Pierce. (That secondary position reportedly led to his decision to leave the show.)
    But as a there-at-the-creation cast member, his easygoing, affable, and not-easily-thrown character is indelibly associated with a show that resonated deeply with viewers in the 1970s and 1980s.
    "M*A*S*H" was developed for television by Larry Gelbart from Robert Altman's groundbreaking 1970 black comedy about a mobile army surgical hospital working near the front lines during the Korean War. In reshaping "MASH" for TV, Gelbart and his partners did a lot more than just add asterisks.
    On television, "M*A*S*H" lasted for 11 years — nearly four times as long as the Korean War itself, which stretched from 1950 to 1953. "M*A*S*H" was a Top 10 show for most of its run, and won 11 Emmys, including one for outstanding comedy series in 1974, and several for star Alan Alda and other cast members.
    Alda played Hawkeye, the role played by Donald Sutherland in the Altman film: a gifted surgeon, assigned to the 4077th MASH unit, who shared Groucho Marx's screen tendencies of a quick wit, a fondness for womanizing and a contempt for authority.
    Rogers' Trapper John, his fellow surgeon, anti-authority malcontent and martini-swilling tentmate, inheriting the role from Elliott Gould in the movie version. On CBS, Hawkeye and Trapper John reserved even more contempt for the war itself, and complained about its futility even as they stitched up its boyish victims, helicoptered in straight from the front.
    That was what made "M*A*S*H" so different, and so important. When it premiered in 1972, the United States still was embroiled in the highly divisive, increasingly controversial Vietnam War. But because it was set two decades in the past, in Korea, "M*A*S*H" was able not only to dramatize war, but to speak out against it — making it an anti-war comedy, and a very popular one, even as the country was fighting yet another war.
    The show's many acknowledgments of the seriousness of its wartime subject included the subtle yet significant fact that, whenever Hawkeye or any of the other doctors or nurses were tending to a patient in the operating tent, there was no laugh track, no canned laughter. Death was serious business -- and in the medical tent scenes especially, so was comedy.
    A '70s television revolution
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    No one ever died on "McHale's Navy" or "Hogan's Heroes." War was fun, even in a P.O.W. camp. But on "M*A*S*H," patients died from time to time. So did doctors. One stunningly unexpected moment came at the end of McLean Stevenson's final appearance as Lt. Col. Henry Blake in 1975.
    The other members of the 4077th had waved goodbye as Henry's helicopter whisked him off to his plane return home — only to have Gary Burghoff's Radar O'Reilly, the colonel's loyal assistant, enter the operating tent in the episode's closing scene to announce that Blake's plane, en route to the U.S., had gone down in the Sea of Japan, with no survivors.
    The doctors and nurses absorbed the news wordlessly, devastated, then returned sadly and silently to their tasks at hand. The news stunned viewers at home just as much. The scene, because it was in the operating room tent, had no laugh track — and no reason for laughter.
    One of the most dramatic and daring "M*A*S*H" installments was "The Interview," a 1976 episode written and directed by Larry Gelbart. It was fashioned after fabled CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow's 1952 visit to the Korean war for "Christmas in Korea," a special installment of his "See It Now" newsmagazine. In Gelbart's version, actor Clete Roberts played a Murrow-like reporter visiting the 4077th and asking the doctors, nurses, and other personnel about their wartime experiences.
    The entire episode, except for the credits, was filmed in black and white, in documentary style. Actors were given leeway to improvise answers to some of the questions posed to them by the reporter, while other answers were carefully and powerfully scripted.
    The best of them, taken from an actual Army doctor's recollections, was uttered by William Christopher's Father Mulcahy, the Army chaplain. "When the doctors cut into a patient — and it's very cold here, you know — steam rises from the body," Mulcahy quietly and somberly tells his interviewer. "And the doctor will warm himself over the open wound. Could anyone look on that and not feel changed?"
    With characters, episodes, and writing like that, it's no wonder "M*A*S*H," by the time it decided to pull up its tent stakes and present an expanded finale episode in 1983, had generated an amazing amount of national anticipation.
    By this time, of course, Rogers' Trapper John was long since gone, his departure written out of the show with little drama (his character had to live because Trapper John was already sold as a spinoff to CBS, starring Pernell Roberts)
    His able replacement, Mike Farrell, would end up with a role -- B.J. Hunnicutt -- in which his character grew and developed into far more than a sidekick.
    But for many, Rogers' Trapper John was key to the funny foundation of this innovative show -- someone for Alan Alda's Hawkeye to bounce against who would not be an adversary or a foil, but an equal.