Thursday, October 18, 2007

Charles Emerson Winchester

I talked recently about new shows making adjustments as they try to find their way. Existing shows often make mid-course corrections as well in an attempt to stay fresh. Sometimes those don’t work out. A lot Jar Jar Binx have been added to hit shows much to their misfortune and defection of viewers. LOST seems to bury alive two new cast members a season.

But when a big change works it can revitalize a series, change the chemistry, and add years to the life of its run.

One of the most successful cast changes was Charles Emerson Winchester joining MASH. Larry Linville, who had played Frank Burns decided to leave the series after year five. It was a huge loss. Larry was a brilliant comic actor, incredibly easy to work with, and provided a lot of the comedy heavy lifting. There were those who claimed the character was the most unrealistic – how could the army sanction a doctor who was such a buffoon? But this is same army that just this week inadvertently took out a recruiting ad in an openly gay website. GLEE.com didn’t seem the least bit suspicious to them?

Criticism aside, the decision was made to have the new character be the complete opposite of Frank Burns. Anything else would be a faint carbon of the original. We all decided to make him a brilliant surgeon, even better than Hawkeye, and unlike Frank, a worthy adversary. Humor would come from his ego. Along those lines, we made him aristocratic. The show had never dealt with wealthy people being forced to serve – seeing a rich, spoiled, pompous ass having to live in a tent and use an outdoor latrine seemed delightful to us.

There was no casting call for the part. David Ogden Stiers was just offered the role. Executive Producer, Burt Metcalfe had seen him guest on a MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW episode was quite impressed and we had worked with him on a TONY RANDALL SHOW episode we wrote and were also huge fans.

We met with him the day before production began and discussed the character. He asked if he should do a Boston accent. He tried it, reading a portion of the next day’s script. We said it was good but we were concerned it would be a little hard to decipher. He said, “Well, let me back it off a little.” He read the same passage again and was perfect. We said, “That’s it!” And he did that, for every episode, the accent never slipping or changing. We knew we had a jewel.

Interestingly, the first episode he was written into was not the first episode that aired. David Isaacs and I wrote “the Merchant of Korea” (where he gets involved in a camp poker game and takes everyone’s money until they discover a tell). Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum used that to help guide them in writing the season premiere that introduced him.

I remember the opening night party, saying to David Stiers that as of tomorrow his whole life was about to change. I was right, of course. Thankfully, it changed for the better.

And MASH got a great blood transfusion.

One final trivia note: In college I once went out with a girl named Honoria. I asked if she used any nicknames, like maybe "Honey"? She arched her back and angrily said, "NO. My name is Honoria!" Needless to say we didn't click. But I used that name for Charles' sister. Never give shit to a future comedy writer.

49 comments:

Ger Apeldoorn said...

Honoria?

Is that pronounced HonĂ³ria or HonorĂ­a?

Ger A.

Anonymous said...

My god, I wish I could agree about MASH changing for the better post-Frank Burns. Although I agree that Stiers is great (in other roles as well, such as The Accidental Tourist, Star Trek-the Next Generation, etc.), the humor of the show became obscured by other concerns. Whether this was concomitant with Alda writing and directing more, I don't know. (Margaret never being called Hot Lips any more was also symptomatic of the change.)

There are latter-period episodes I enjoy, but not because of the comedy - such as the one with James Stephens as the injured pianist being exposed to Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand, for which Winchester happens to have the score. (I have a copy of it, and it's a marvelous achievement of piano writing; now and then I try to sight-read parts of it.)

I'm well aware that some episodes in seasons 1 to 5 had their dramatic scenes, not to mention Gelbart's "The Interview" - but me, I need the silliness that only Frank Burns could bring.

Ken Levine said...

You know what? You're right. I amended my post. More accurate is that MASH got a new dynamic that helped keep the show fresh, and David realized that character beyonds anyone's expectations, but the best years of MASH -- far and away -- were 1-4: the Larry Gelbart years.

No era, even the one we presided over, can even approach it.

Ken

Oh, and ger...

It was pronounced Ho-NOR-ia... although frequently on the show Hawkeye pronounced in Honorhea.

Dhppy said...

Okay, the subject is MASH, remember this because there is nothing in my post that will indicate this:

I was doing the Yahoo! crossword puzzle for October 18th, entitled “Gorillas in the Midst”, and 60 across had the clue “’Cheers’ actress”. It was then that I realized that Shelley Long, Kirsty alley, and Rhea Perlman all had 11 letters in their names, and any one could fit…. I thought, "how funny". Then I later found out Kirsty spells her name “Kirstie” and my excitement about my pointless discovery was blown to hell.

Bitter Animator said...

The thing with Winchester for me is that he came in exactly at the right time. The show was changing direction and, yes, for me it wasn't as laugh out loud funny but it also gained a depth. While Frank Burns was a perfect comedy character, he really was a weasel and I think the shift in direction required a more human character.

Stiers and the writers gave Winchester a pompousness and arrogance that led to some great comedy but there was a sadness to it too. He was a total fish out of water and, as brilliant as he might be as a surgeon, he always felt a little out of his depth.

That had me relating to Winchester more than I had ever related to Burns, even though I wasn't laughing as hard.

Jon J said...

Thanks very much for clearing up where Winchester's sister's name came from. One of those nettling little questions I've had forever.

Dave Williams said...

I had the great pleasure of spending a couple of hours with David a few years ago and found him to be the least pretentious, most gracious celebrity I have ever interviewed. He rolled up to the Sacramento radio station all alone in a rented car, carrying a cup of McDonalds coffee and two spares for anybody who wanted them. He was scheduled for fifteen minutes but said he had no place to go and wound up staying for more than two hours.

David told me he lived in a small town in Oregon, I believe, from which he commuted for acting jobs.

By the time he left I felt that I had met a potential best friend I would probably never see again and I'm sad to say I haven't.

Mef said...

I have similar feelings towards the post Shelley Long Cheers. I liked it and the show was still really good, but there was the Sam/Diane dynamic was one of the best ones in the history of tv.

(The episode where Sam and Diane have dinner at Frasier and Lilith's is still probably my favourite, though there were lots of great ones.)

It's still amazing to me how Cheers and Mash (especially golden era ones of boths shows)exist out of time. They still work just as well in 2007 as when they first aired. Other shows stay in their time, and though I liked, and even loved them (seinfeld) when they were on, they seem stuck in the time they were first aired.

Maybe I think about this too much.

The Minstrel Boy said...

i saw david at an actor's workshop in arizona for students at ASU. he did something that literally took my breath away. he was talking about playing "fat" and said that too often an actor will load on some padding and walk exactly like they normally do. the he said "normal" and walked across the stage. then he said "fat" and lumbered, and labored back. without any special effects he gave the physical impression of more mass and required effort to move that mass.

i am not surprised in the slightest that he was able to back off an accent slightly. he probably could have ramped it up just as easily, or, changed neighborhoods or colleges.

estiv said...

Stiers and the writers gave Winchester a pompousness and arrogance that led to some great comedy but there was a sadness to it too. He was a total fish out of water and, as brilliant as he might be as a surgeon, he always felt a little out of his depth.

This comment reminded me of something I recently saw again, one of my favorite MASH moments. It's Winchester's segment of the dream episode. It is such a simple idea, neatly executed, and summed up perfectly his personality and his place in the hospital. It was, to me, probably the most effective "serious" moment I've ever seen in a sitcom.

The Pale Writer said...

interesting stuff, ken. i can't remember: were you there during the woody introduction?

there it seems the decision was made to NOT rock the boat (as you did on MASH by going in the opposite direction), more or less replacing coach with a younger (perhaps ultimately less wise) version in woody.

what was the process in making that choice? i've always thought the CHEERS dynamic was fascinating; how it maintained its greatness in the face of so many cast changes. how frasier/cliff emerged to fill diane's role; etc.

god, i love that show.

Anonymous said...

We lived in a small Midwestern town where we stuck out for several reasons. We didn't have a car. There were eight kids. My mother was Jewish and my father was from Boston. (I am not kidding people asked me if he was from Ireland, that's how rare that accent was in our area.)
Until I saw David Ogden Stiers on TV, I never heard anybody who sounded like my dad. My dad was as intellectual as CEW, but not as snobbish. Anyhow, our family got a huge kick out of CEW and DOS's skills as an actor.

Diogo said...

I personally didn't mind the post Diane Cheers. I understand that even was the original plan for the series, to have a woman who was Sam's boss. Some people called it Cheers I and Cheers II. I enjoyed both eras equally for different reasons. It became more of an ensemble post season 5, and, truth be told the weight of Shelley Long's absence could not have been put solely on Kirstie Alley. I enjoyed seeing Sam more as "one of the buddies" than a constant soap operatic plot of "will they get together". remember that scene in the Rebecca years, of Sam trying to take off his pants in Rebecca's apartment, and being unable to do so? that for me is where Sam's Magic is. He is a womanizer, he should not have been straped to that relationship for 5 years. Also, what more could be done with Diane? Marriage? oh my God, thanks that didn't happen.

Alina said...

Ken, I don't know if you were involved in the Frasier episode where Mr. Stiers guest-starred.

I saw it recently and while the entire episode was fine if (sorry) a bit predictable vis-a-vis "the big reveal," what really put a lump in my throat was the Steirs/Mahony exchange at the very end.

Stiers says, about Martin's dead wife, "She was a hell of woman," and Martin replies, "She sure was."

Now, on paper, those lines seems to be (again; sorry) nothing special. But the actors put such meaning and poignancy into them.

So I guess my question is, when you write for such pros, is the writing "easier" if you know they can wring every last drop out of them than it is when you're writing for actors who aren't as good or, even simpler, actors you don't know?

Are there times when actors do the heavy lifting and other times when the writers do?

Gail Renard said...

If I may answer Alina, as a writer you always do your best to make your script (in my own charming words) as idiot-proof as you can for the actor. What I actually mean is everyone on a series has more than enough to worry about without having to do someone else's job as well. I think it the ultimate courtesy to give an actor as perfect a script as I can. BUT when I'm working with a gem of an actor or one I know and respect, I find I write far fewer stage directions. It's my tribute because a brilliant actor certainly doesn't need to be told by me how to deliver his lines. And oh what I'd give to work with David Ogden Stiers!

Barry said...

So who collected the character fees for Winchester, you and David who wrote him first, or Fritzell and Greenbaum in whose episode he first appeared?

Vermonter 17032 said...

Regarding the post Shelley Long years of Cheers: The show was just as funny, if not more so, but in losing Diane, Cheers lost much of its heart. Diane was ever the optimist and was always a cheerleader for everyone. When Carla would have some crisis (usually involving Nick), Diane was always the first to jump to her rescue or defense -- that despite the fact that Carla never returned the favor. After Diane was written out of the show, the humor came more from the characters flaws and failures -- funny yes, but ultimately less satisfying. Also, Sam was written to be stupider with each new season. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed all eleven seasons of Cheers, but the first five were definitely miles above the final six.

Diogo said...

Gail, quick question. Ricky Gervais, the funniest guy, or the luckyest bastard ever? I ask this because his sitcoms don't follow exactly the traditional structure, and knowing that you worked on some sitcoms I'd like to have a writer's opinion on that.

jbryant said...

I was pleased that you took a moment in this post to praise Larry Linville. Though not given as "rounded" a character as most of his castmates, Linville (and the writers, of course) made Frank Burns into a classic comic creation. And, yes, lightning struck twice with Winchester/Stiers. Though the Gelbart years were indeed the best and many later episodes were disappointing, my friends and I never stopped watching. The good always outweighed the bad, and a lot of that was due to Stiers (I recently saw the DVD of "Better Off Dead," in which he plays John Cusack's dad -- almost didn't recognize him! Certainly nothing "Winchester-esque" about that character).

Diogo said...

there were some interesting episodes in the post Gelbart years, of really good drama. I remember one where Coronel Potter received a bottle in the mail. and than he became increasingly sad during the day. turns out that bottle meant that all his comrades in arms from back in the day were dead, and, as the last surviving member he became the owner of that fine vintage. I don't know if that was one of yours Ken, but to whomever if falls, it was a brilliant piece of work. the last scene where they toast the departed friends of the colonel still brings tears to my eyes.

The Crutnacker said...

How many sitcoms would kill to have some of the "worst" episodes of MASH. I was addicted to MASH when my local station was playing the show sometimes 3 times a day. I'd watch the afternoon and evening showings, going to bed past midnight on school nights. Reruns of MASH often beat Johnny back then in my market.

Then syndication cut them to hell, to the point where it seemed as though half of each scene was missing.

When I was younger, I loved the later years, when I got older, I liked the later years. But honestly, the show was a gem till the end.

I wonder how many of us were shocked to hear David Ogden Stiers real voice after years of seeing him on MASH. It's certainly one of the best jobs I've seen of creating and staying in character. And though I loved Frank Burns, Winchester always seemed to be a richer character.

It is a tribute to MASH that you can say, "Do you remember the one where" and so many of us can say, "YES!" even with 7000 episodes (okay, maybe a bit less) in the can.

I was never a Cheers fan, but for Frasier and MASH, I give Ken Levine my undying gratitude.

Miles said...

I always loved MASH as a kid. I mean, LOVED it. From the hilarious early years -- which I saw in syndication sometimes 3 times a day -- to the deeper, more heartfelt later years.

As a teenager, I lived not far from the FOX lot and during the week that they shot the last regular episode -- I believe it was the Time Capsule episode -- I claimed to be too sick to go to school and, instead, rode my bike onto the FOX lot -- security thought nothing of it back ten -- found the MASH soundstage and the people who worked behind the scenes were so very nice that they gave me a tour, signed scripts, signed photos.

I was in heaven.

Diogo said...

I think Alan Alda did the same thing for real, that they did in that last episode (not the movie, the last half hour show). he and some co-workers burried a crate full of MASH clothes and other things somewhere on a beach, in hope that it would be discovered many years later, but he claims that six months after that he got a call asking if he wanted it.

Ken Levine said...

The bottle of wine episode was beautifully written by Dennis Koenig.

Dan Coyle said...

David Ogden Stiers is a brilliant actor. Kind of funny that he's brought up because I bought Kingdom Hearts II a few days ago and he reprises his Cogsworth role in the game. His voicework is frequently stunning; who wants to see Jumba M.D.? I sure do.

I could go on for hours about memorable roles Stiers has had, beacons in oases of crap like Two Guys and A Girl and The Dead Zone.

My memories of Winchester are far stronger than those of Frank Burns, though I haven't watched any MASH in years. What happened to him in the finale- the scene where he grabs the record and breaks it- some have ran that whole plotline as mawkish but I find it heartbreaking.

Winchester may have started off a pompous ass but he went through changes and hopefully became a better human being. But he was human to start with, thanks to Stiers and the writers.

tb said...

One of the most DRAMATIC moments from MASH that I'll never forget was Hawkeye explaining to the shrink how a peasant woman had to kill a chicken that was making noise on a bus they were trying to hide in. Enemy soldiers were passing by. Then he confessed that it was a really a baby. That is such a heavy situation. Who wrote that one?

BigTed said...

TB, is that a serious question? You're referring to the "Goodbye, Farewell and Amen" -- the series' finale -- which was one of the most-watched TV events of all time. It was credited to eight of the show's writers, including Alda.

BigTed said...

Of course, if you're looking for a great late addition to a TV series, you've got to go with Poochie on "The Itchy & Scratchy Show." He has attitude, he's edgy, he's "in your face." This is a dog who gets biz-zay! Consistently and thoroughly. We're talking about a totally outrageous paradigm.

Diogo said...

one other thing I saw David Ogden stiers do (believe it or not) was in a 2 parter thanksgiving episode of ALF (yes THAT one). He played a vagrant (sp) that finds ALF and calls the Alien task force, but ultimately befriends him. The show was crap, but he managed to bring some humanity to it, with what little he was given. Also, doesn't Winchester remind you of certain aspects of Frasier? not the one on Cheers, but the more pompus one on Frasier. there are definately some similarities there.

tb said...

Sorry bigted - I just remembered that scene, didn't realize it was part of the finale.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I have to mention the Christmas episode where Winchester maintains a family tradition by leaving expensive chocolates anonymously at an orphanage. He's enraged to find that the director sold them on the black market, until he learns that the money bought the children rice and beans they needed more. It was a moment of cultural epiphany which Stiers, needless to say, played to perfection. All the Christmas shows are wonderful, but this one always get to me. Thank you for casting David Stiers on a show that was worthy of his talent, for once.

Anonymous said...

Stiers may be a fine actor, but I dislike the post-Frank episodes of "M*A*S*H" - less funny and more preachy.

As for Shelley Long vs. Kirstie Alley on "Cheers": the first five seasons were pure magic. The show had a lot of heart, and the writing was clever and smart. When Alley came in, the first season was still pretty good. Then, the writing team changed - Angell/Casey/Lee left to do "Wings", and Eichen/Steinkellner from "Who's the Boss" took over. That's when things went downhill - Sam became dumber, Carla became meaner, Cliff became more annoying, and Rebecca became a neurotic mess. Less clever, less smart, more obvious, and no heart. There were still a few good episodes here and there, but the consistent brilliance of the first five seasons was gone.

Dhppy said...

I think that Cheers became two equally great shows. The Sam/Diane years were a sophisticated Dramedy, and the remaining years became a broad comedy that focused on the whole cast. Though I believe the last two seasons went down slightly in quality, it is still one of the few the shows that never "jumped the shark". Both versions of Cheers are my favorite sitcom.

Beth Ciotta said...

The story is fabulous, of course. But, oh, My God... you dated an actual Honoria?

You can't make that stuff up.

Or can you??

Beth Ciotta said...

I commented before reading all of the wonderful comments from other readers. So much to say... I'll just echo 'crutnacker'.

"How many sitcoms would kill to have some of the "worst" episodes of MASH."

Seriously.

The Crutnacker said...

One of my favorite MASH Episodes, The Colonel's Horse:

Exchange....

Radar: [on the phone with the US] Whoa, did you know it's yesterday there?
Hawkeye: Well, it's today here.
B.J.: It's always today here.
Hawkeye: Oh, yeah? What about tomorrow?
B.J.: Good point.
Hawkeye: Ha, I wasn't born yesterday!

The Crutnacker said...

I'm going through IMDB to see the episodes that Ken wrote. I see he was ahead of his time, in writing an episode in which Radar's mouse was doped up before a big competition.

I also noticed every episode has a 5 or 6 rating. Who the heck rates an episode of MASH that low?

Diogo said...

if you think about it MASH had it all, and it had it all FIRST, and that's the magic. they did a monologue episode, an episode set in real time, where they had a clock on screen, an episode based heavily on improv (the interview), an episode where the camera was a character (point of view), an episode of dream sequences, and the episode I mentioned back there by Dennis Koenig, called "Old Soldiers", one of the finest pieces of television ever! drama, comedy, farse, and everything else in between. Trully an amazing body of work.

Anonymous said...

Stiers was also damn good at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego during the early 80's. I saw him perform as King Lear and also do the bumbling cop in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING. Great range and great acting.

Gail Renard said...

An answer to Diogo's question a little while ago. Excuse the delay; I think we're all on different time/ space continuums. Is Ricky Gervais funny or lucky? I think he's an original comedy genius who does only what he believes in and never compromises. I've often seen Ricky live and he takes my breath away. He's very quick on the draw and, having met him, I can also say he's one of the kindest and nicest chaps you'd care to meet. For Gervais fans, he's just filmed an Extras Xmas special in Britain, rounding off that series in the same way he did with The Office here. I'm sure it'll be a grand Xmas gift to us all!

Alina said...

Interesting that cultural relativity and the MASH finale with the baby having its neck broken both came up in this post.

Having grown up in the USSR and having heard WWII survival stories all my life, I actually knew a woman whose mother suffocated her infant brother when they were hiding in a drainpipe so the Germans wouldn't hear them. When watching the final episode of MASH, as soon as Hawkeye started his story with the chicken, I knew where it was going and found that story the most predictable of the finale. It seems like whenever anyone wants to do a horror of war story, they go to that old chestnut.

Diogo said...

Thanks for the answer Gail. See, that's what breaks my heart about british shows. As Soon as you start investing in them they are over. another -13 and out-run. I think the funniest thing I've seen gervais do, aside from his comedies, was a guest appearence on Alias. he is SO out of his element. you can almost see the "what did I get myself into" look. there are some cool outtakes on the DVD, of him just cracking up on having to say nasty things. Also, for fans of the office and extras, Stephen Merchant has a cameo as a CTU employ on the 1st episode of the 6th season of 24.

pat reeder said...

I remember reading an interview with Larry Linville years ago in which he addressed the criticism of the Frank Burns character. Critics (many of whom went to college to dodge the draft and never served in the military) would say Burns was too cartoonish and unrealistic. But Larry said that every time he met with groups of veterans who were fans, he'd ask them which MASH character they thought was most realistic, and they always said the same thing: "Frank Burns. We had that SOB in my outfit."

BTW, believe it or not, during its first year, MASH was so low-rated that it was rumored CBS would cancel it. I was in junior high at the time, and it upset me so much that I wrote a long letter to CBS, arguing that they needed to keep it on and give it a chance to find an audience. So Ken, you have me to thank for your career. You're welcome. That was the only time in my life that I've ever been exercised enough by network stupidity to mail a protest letter, although I once write a draft of one about "Fridays," protesting that anything that unfunny should be allowed on the air.

John said...

The time was right for the change in adversaries. If you look at the later shows in Linville's final year, with the romance over between Frank and Margaret, there's a bit of isolation of Frank that creeps into the story lines that make him a bit too pathetic to be a really strong opponent for Hawkeye and B.J. Brining in Stiers as Winchester allowed the show to go in a new direction with a strong character than what Burns had become.

Also, its interesting that you said the poker game story with Stiers ended up setting up the character's personality for the two-part season opener. There was one episode in David's first season as Winchester involving his attempt to pull off a scam with the swapping of Army script that -- at least to me -- comes off as out-of character for Charles, but in-character for something Frank Burns would had tried. That wasn't a story line left over from Season Five that was tweaked to fit into Season Six, was it?

Geoduck said...

Dittoing what others have said. Burns' problem wasn't that he was too stupid for the army, it was that he was too stupid for Hawkeye. He was always going to lose, and eventually that gets really old. Winchester was much better.

Paul Duca said...

It wasn't Hawkeye who pronounced it "Hon-or-REAH"...it was Colonel Flagg (the man who lives up to the term "counter-intelllegence"), in the episode where he suspects Hawkeye of being a Communist sympathizer, after treating a badly wounded North Korean soldier. Flagg tries to recruit Winchester to assist him, by promising him reassignment to a military hospital near Boston, so he "could go home every night to Wellesley, where you still live with your mother and father and sister Honoreah"

"That's HONORIA!!!"

H.R.H said...

I for one definitely think that MASH changed for the better after Charles came onboard. (Actaully, since BJ and Col. Potter arrived) It was infinitely less shallow and the characters - right down to Klinger - got a chance to grow and gain a depth that was severely lacking early on. Margaret and many others went from 1-dimensional to very human and far more complex. And David Ogden Stiers is absolutely fantastic. He made Charles my favourite character. (Not to mention the one who blossoms the most.) As opposed to shows which become progressively repetitve and rely on situations becoming more and more ridiculous (such as Seinfeld, The Simpsons, etc) MASH went in a unique direction and ultimately ended far more memorably and moving than it began, while still remaining remarkably funny and enjoyable. Having more dark moments only served to highlight the comedy. :)

MP Imbillicieri said...

Along with Mr. Burns, Maj. Dr. Winchester is my favorite fictional character ever.

Unknown said...

This post is years old, but as I'm coming to it now I just have to add to the chorus of admiration for David's talents.

I'm in my 40s now, but I have been a M*A*S*H fan since I was introduced to the show by my 5th/6th grade teacher. I wish I had thanked him.

David is indeed a remarkably gifted actor. He added such depth and poignancy to a character that so easily could've been a one-note boor. Instead, Charles Emerson Winchester, III was as complex, admirable and lovely as he could be insufferable at times. He is one of my favorite characters - and on this show, that is saying quite a lot.

Despite being such a huge fan for literally most of my life, it was only a few years ago that I learned of David's musical/conducting skills. I had no idea! Knowing that the character's love of music was based in the actor's real love of music simply added even more depth and enjoyment for me.

But you know what? Even if David himself had not an ounce of musical interest or talent, he would still have made that performance believable. Of that, I have no doubt.

My understanding is he doesn't wish to talk about his time on M*A*S*H. I understand and respect that.

But I do wish I could convey to him my respect.