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.