Saturday, March 03, 2018

RIP David Ogden Stiers

Devastating news that David Ogden Stiers has passed away.  He was only 75.   Probably best known for playing Dr. Charles Emerson Winchester on MASH he had a long distinguished career in films, TV, the theater, and voice work.

I first met David in 1976 when he guest-starred in an episode of THE TONY RANDALL SHOW that my partner, David Isaacs and I wrote.   He played a radio talk show host named Robert W. Cleaver.  He was naturally hilarious.  That same year he also guested on THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and MASH Executive Producer, Burt Metcalfe had seen him and was impressed.

We joined MASH after that season and the first task we all encountered was replacing Frank Burns since Larry Linville decided to leave the show.   We wanted the new character to be much smarter than Frank, a worthy adversary for Hawkeye and BJ.   There were no casting sessions, no lists compiled.  Burt suggested David Ogden Stiers, we were wildly enthusiastic over the idea, and that was that.

Stop me if I've told these stories before, but the week before production David came up to our office and we heard him read the character.  He chose to do it in a thick Boston accent.  We told him we were concerned that it was hard to decipher some of the words.  He said, "Well, what if I backed off just a little bit?"  He re-read it with that slight adjustment and we said, "Perfect!"  That's the way he played it from then on.

David Isaacs and I actually wrote the first episode featuring Charles although it didn't air until late in the season.  The episode is called "The Merchant of Korea" and dealt primarily with a poker game.  Since there was no need to film at the Malibu ranch it was held back to the latter part of the year when going to the ranch was unfeasible due to lack of daylight.   That script served as the template.  Jim Fritzell & Everett Greenbaum then wrote the terrific hour episode that introduced him.

The night of the premier we had a big party.  I was sitting next to David on the couch and just before the show aired I said, "In one hour your life will change forever."  He thought I was being a tad over-dramatic.  Three days later he said to me, "My God.  You're right. I can't go anywhere without being recognized."

There's always the worry when you introduce a new character that fans will not take to him.  In David's case it was instantaneous acceptance. 

David was a wonderful gentle soul.  And quirky.  He didn't drive -- not easy in Southern California.  He rode a scooter (way ahead of his time).  He engineered sly practical jokes. He was truly loved by the cast and crew.  

David rarely gave interviews about his time on MASH.  He didn't want to just be remembered for that show.  In documentaries and articles he always declined to participate.  But I know he was intensely proud of his contribution to MASH.   And through MASH his brilliance will be seen and appreciated for years and years to come.

RIP David Ogden Stiers.  I salute you... with tears in my eyes. 

A new post for Sunday will appear later in the day.  Check back.  

61 comments :

Wally said...

Nice remembrance, Ken. His character proved a great foil for BJ and Hawkeye. Condolences to Honoria Winchester and all friends and family.

ScarletNumber said...

The best thing that you and David did was making Winchester a competent doctor and human. Frank Burns was too easy to mock and win against. The movie boxed you into a corner but with Larry leaving you were free to invent a better character.

scottmc said...

I am completely stunned by this news. When you linked the recent article on the anniversary of the MASH finale I noticed that he wasn't included in the piece. I remember him in a Woody Allen movie playing the John Houseman character's younger self and being blown away. He always struck me as the consummate professional.

Astroboy said...

Another loss that truly makes me feel sad. Condolences to you Ken and all who knew and loved him. A favorite on MASH, but I think my favorite role of his was as Mayor Nicholson in the film "Doc Hollywood," with Michael J. Fox. One of those movies that works as well as it does because all of the actors, no matter how large or small the role, were so good. Goodbye Mr. Stiers, thanks for all the fine work.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

I am SO SO SORRY to hear this.
My deepest sympathies to you, Jeff Maxwell, and anyone else who knew and loved Mr. Stiers.

What a big loss to all of us.

Anonymous said...

Ken,

Sorry for a loss that is obvious much more personal for you than for your average reader.

I always liked the turn he did in Doc Hollywood, and I'm also grateful for his support of classical music in the Pacific Northwest. (He probably supported other causes and/or institutions, but I'm only aware of his activity in this regard.)

Please take care of yourself,

Keith

Doug G. said...

Wow. It was just the other day that "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen" turned 35.

I remember reading in "The Complete Book Of M*A*S*H" that when Burt Metcalfe saw Stiers as the station manager on The Mary Tyler Moore Show the he knew right away Stiers was going to be Charles Winchester. Metcalfe said in the book that he never watched or considered another actor after that.

While I understand not wanting to be remembered for just one role, I think it's different when you're on a show that's so popular and has such a cultural impact that you're always going to be most famous for it. No matter how many shows Ted Danson does, he will always be Sam Malone even though he hasn't played that role since a February 1995 episode of "Frasier." According to IMDB, Stiers has 167 acting credits so I think multiple generations will remember him as I see he has voice credits on video games and has some voice work on Disney video shorts. It's just that Charles Winchester III will be the most famous role that he'll be remembered for.

Just as I typed that, it got me to thinking what it means to be famous today. You had told the story about telling David Stiers that his life changed forever once the 6th season of M*A*S*H premiered. And it did. But today with all the television (broadcast and cable networks) and internet (Hulu, Netflix, Amazon) options, the tv audience is so split that who is actually famous anymore? The most watched sitcom- "The Big Bang Theory"- drew 13.6 million viewers last Thursday. And some more will be added on CBS' website and DVR viewing but that number won't double. And this is in a country of over 327 million. But even if it did- just for the sake of argument- it would still mean that 92% of the population didn't watch the most popular sitcom on tv today.

DwWashburn said...

An amazing talent. I was fortunate enough to see him conduct a symphony orchestra and he did it beautifully. 75 is way too young.

Mr. Hollywood said...

Had the joy of interviewing David when he was doing a very forgettable film called KRIPPENDORF'S TRIBE with Richard Dreyfuss. Not only a gentleman, but a lovely man, so well spoken, so bright. A true pro. A man who made an indelible mark in every project he participated in. Sorry for your loss. Sorry for all of us as well.

YEKIMI said...

I first heard he passed when listening to CBS Radio newscast. Was really impressed when they listed his music accomplishments and that he had conducted over 70 orchestras/symphonies over the years.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Mr. Stiers was in my favorite scene of the entire run of "MASH": The one in the Officers' Club in which he encourages a wounded classical pianist to pursue other avenues related to his talent, such as composing and conducting. He also introduces the pianist, played by James Stephens, to pieces written especially for the left hand.

It's a wonderful scene written by John Rappaport and obviously based on Stiers's own love of classical music.

There was also Stiers's guest appearance on "Frasier" and that superb scene with John Mahoney at the end of the episode, written by Jon Sherman.

My condolences to Mr. Stiers's family and friends. A true loss.

michael del said...

I remember seeing David Ogden Stiers perform in “Billy Bishop Goes to War” at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego way back in 1982. He was a fine actor indeed.

My favorite MASH line of his was from the episode “Dear Comrade”:
Charles: Try, try not to be absurd.

Bill Kelliher said...

We have lot a great one. Amazingly talented actor and even more important a great human being.

He was a high school classmate of film critic Roger Ebert who sadly passed 5 years ago. They must have had some great teachers at that school.

He will be truly missed.

Craig Gustafson said...

So sad. I got to see him onstage in San Diego in the summer of 1983, just after "M*A*S*H" ended. It was a good news/bad news thing. I was only in town for a short time, and was able to see him as the Irish hothead, Sir Lucius O'Trigger in Sheridan's "The Rivals." He was brilliant.

What I did *not* get to see was one of the other shows he was doing in repertory that summer. "Henry IV, Part I." As Falstaff. Damn it.

Boomska316 said...

I like Winchester a lot more than Frank. Frank is too much of a cartoon character sometimes. Charles is a real person. This is my favorite Winchester moment:https://youtu.be/ijEiwBLCXeo

Joseph Scarbrough said...

This is so bizarre, because I had actually been thinking about him recently, what with THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER doing those articles on the 35th anniversary of "Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen," and how David Ogden Stiers seems to shy away from anything having to do with M*A*S*H, and yet, he was one of the voices of my childhood: years before I started watching M*A*S*H as a teenager, I only knew his name and his voice from the various different Disney movies he lent his vocal talents to, such as Cogsworth in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, the Archdeacon in THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, Governor Ratcliffe in POCHAHONTAS, and JUMBAA in LILO & STITCH to name a few. His ability to nail accents always impressed me, whether it was the stuffy, upper-crust accent he used for Cogsworth, or the Russian-esque accent used for Jumbaa (interestingly, Stiers also played a Russian mob king in JUNGLE 2 JUNGLE). So when I started watching M*A*S*H, and began seeing his name at the beginning of Season 6, I thought this should be interesting . . . and it's amusing to see how similar his portrayal of Charles was (in voice and mannerisms) to Cogsworth . . . but, since Charles came first, I guess it should be the other way around. I remember to remember reading in an interview that, like with Charles, Stiers felt that giving Cogsworth the accent helped distinguished what a little snob he was.

On the subject of Disney, I remember years ago when Stiers came out of the closet, he praised Disney for being such a gay friendly (for the most part) company to work for, and how comfortable he was voicing animated characters, since you can often get away with animated characters having such flamboyant tendancies that can be played for laughs. And also amusing, I remember watching an interview with him where he insisted in an almost Winchester-ish manner that Disney movies, "are not 'cartoons,' they are 'animated features.'"

But honestly, Stiers was just so good at playing those kind of pompous, snobby kinds of roles . . . much like how Walter Matthau was really good at playing curmudgeonly grumps. He's certainly going to be missed. In fact, I'm even more saddened when it donned on me this evening that now more than half of the main cast of M*A*S*H are no longer with us.

P.S. "The Merchant of Korea" is one of my favorite episodes; it's certainly one of yours and David's masterpieces, Ken. Wish I knew the secret to Winchesters never prespiring.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Boomska I can take both Frank and Charles in moderation for the same reason: both can be genuinely unlikable characters at times, but whereas Frank was a weasely little twerp you loved to hate, sometimes Charles went out of his way to be condescending to everyone else he considered to be beneath him in smarts, wits, and skills. But likewise, both characters had their human moments that showed that weren't completely jerkasses.

Barry Traylor said...

So sorry to learn of this. His character on MASH is a classic. Charles was one of my favorite characters.

Frank Black said...

There are episodes from the last three series - perhaps too many - where, quite frankly, Charles makes the show.

Really saddened by this.

RIP

Johnny Walker said...

I grew up watching the Winchester years. Luke others here I preferred him to Frank. So sad that the talented man who played him is gone. And so soon after John Mahoney.

James S said...


Lovely and deserving tribute to David.
Like so many others, I also loved his contribution to the MASH series.

Cheers J

Anonymous said...

He was so funny! I will never forget the first time I saw the scene (and I was really young) where Col. Flagg calls Winchester's sister Honorrhea, and Charles says, "It's Honoria!" Just the way the two actors both said their lines was so hilarious. Those subtleties in the broad humor made it work so well. Julie, Burlington, Iowa

Stephen Robinson said...

"Gentlemen!"

I loved Charles Emerson Winchester III -- such a complex, compelling character. There's an old saying that any jerk can easily play a saint (paging Dr. Huxtable) but it takes a kind soul at heart to make us connect with a character who might otherwise be unlikeable. The casting of Alan Alda and David Ogden Stiers truly *made* the characters of Hawkeye and Charles work.

Of course, my thanks and admiration to Ken and the writers who wrote the many arias for Stiers to perform so well. More than any other character, he is the one who has scenes that can make me tear up thinking about them.

Michael said...

Ken, my sympathies to you in particular.

Julie mentioned the Colonel Flagg episode. That episode, I thought, meant a lot in terms of Winchester's character, both as a character and in the person he really was: he did have principle, and he could play pranks, too.

Kevin Fitzmaurice referred to a favorite of mine, with James Stephens as the concert pianist. The other thing that was beautiful to me about that episode was that Stiers studied with Houseman, and Stephens co-starred with him on The Paper Chase. His boys did pretty well.

I loved the shows that made him more human. That one, along with the one where he takes an interest in the stuttering soldier, then goes back to The Swamp to listen to Honoria's tape, and the one where he sits with Hawkeye, who's awaiting word about his father's surgery.

Ken mentioned the episode where the stateside families got together. Winchester's reactions to his parents loving Radar's mother are priceless.

Tudor Queen said...

I was terribly sad yesterday when I read the news. He was a wonderful actor and I always got the feeling that he was, in reality, a gentle and kind soul. That infused Charles's arrogance with something else, a sense that he could be counted on when it mattered most. The episode where he was accused of selfishness for hoarding a big Christmas care package - only for it to turn out that he was donating it anonymously to the orphanage - is one of my favorite 'Charles' episodes, plus, of course, his tragic role in the finale.

In addition to "MASH" and "MTM", I loved him in various important Disney voices, and also his guest shot on "Frasier," where he was rumored to be Frasier and Niles's biological father!

Mike Barer said...

Sad to hear, I think that leaves Alan Alda, Mike Farrell, and Loretta Swit.

Mike Barer said...

Oh Gary Burgoff and Jamie Farr.

Michael said...

I really appreciated about how for some of the characters in MASH elements of their authentic selves were incorporated into the script. For example, Jamie Farr's Toledo roots were often referenced in episodes. With David, it was his patronage of what Winchester once referred to as 'serious music'. David, I would imagine, was not so stodgy about his affection for music. Nonetheless, Ken, your insights suggest that David had gifted us this aspect of his personality. And we as viewers were the better for it with several well-crafted episodes in which classical music took center stage. We are all familiar with the storyline from the series finale. However, I wish to mention two episodes that I am particularly fond of...one in which Winchester faces a crisis of sorts about how to reach out to a devastated soldier who owing to a battlefield injury faced the premature end to a virtuoso career as a pianist. Where else would the TV-watching American public be introduced to Ravel's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand? Also noteworthy was the episode in which a confined B. J. becomes rankled by Winchester's infatuation with the music of Gustav Mahler. At the time, I found Mahler's music particularly overbearing but this episode helped me to overcome my initial resistance to the point that I now consider Mahler among the greatest of composers. I could not believe the news when I heard of David's passing. I certainly grieve the loss felt by all the surviving cast and crew, his fans, and most of all for David's friends and family. We take comfort in knowing his memory will live on through David's immeasurable contributions to the arts.

Jeff Maxwell said...

Class. Dignity. Talent. Humor. Wisdom.

Sharing the tears.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I read somewhere that Mr. Stiers was booked for a morning radio interview, and he came in with coffee for everyone. It's a small thing, but it seems to sum up the generosity and modesty of this very gifted man. I miss him already.

gottacook said...

I was already familiar with the Concerto for the Left Hand since before the episode aired - it's just amazing writing, especially the solo cadenza near the end. Ravel's two piano concertos are among his last works (circa 1930), written at the same time and quite different in character. My favorite recording of the left-hand concerto is online, with Samson Francois and the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, circa 1960:

www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Sxpi0zybzA

The initial entry of the piano - a long solo passage after two minutes of orchestral buildup - is what James Stephens's character begins to play (ostensibly sight-reads) in the episode. Thanks to Stiers for his part in causing the episode to be written.

John Hammes said...

In a reversal of the 1980 M*A*S*H episode "Old Soldiers", Colonel Potter is no doubt sharing a toast - and a bottle of brandy - with this latest M*A*S*H reunion of cast and crew, now taking place on the other side.

On this side, the rest of us are, no doubt, also sharing a toast.

Kevin Johnston said...

My condolences to those who knew this talented and wonderful person. His work on M*A*S*H was never anything but top notch.

Joe said...

All things considered, Winchester may have been the best character in M*A*S*H. The episode already mentioned with the pianist with the hand injury was fabulous.

Rest in peace, David Ogden Stiers. You did tremendous work in M*A*S*H and in many other roles.

James said...

"He didn't want to just be remembered for that show." Yes, but--the vast majority of working actors and almost everyone else on the planet who ever lived will never be remembered for anything.

Kirk said...

A great actor who played a fantastic character.

Mike Bloodworth said...

My first attempt last night didn't go through...I heard about it on the 11 o'clock news. So sad. As a testimony to his acting, I thought his BOSTON ACCENT was real. It wasn't until M*A*S*H went off the air that I realized that he didn't actually talk that way in real life.
M.B.

Unknown said...

Good night Major Winchester....you will be missed, but we will continue to enjoy your talent for years to come. Most memorable episode of mash was when you took the pep pills and gave them to Radars mouse and you vulnerabilities surfaced...very touching.

Stephanie Mitchell Mitchell said...

Also Kelly Nakahara. Very talented but low keyed. Best of her was when she showed her fondness for Hawkeye

Kosmo13 said...

I always think of him when someone calls me a 'Visigoth.'

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@James Sadly, a lot of actors and actresses are like that. A prominent example was Elizabeth Montgomery: after BEWITCHED, she threw herself into a number of really gritty, controversial TV movies throughout the 70s, 80s, and into the 90s (most infamously, A CASE OF RAPE), because she wanted to send a loud, clear message that she's not Samantha Stephens, and in fact, hated when people asked her to twitch her nose. I heartell Wayne Knight also once blew up at somebody who said, "Helllloo, Newman" when passing him on the street.

Andrew said...

The episode that instantly came to my mind on hearing the news was the one with the wounded pianist who plays Ravel at the end. That episode obviously left an impression on many commenters.

My favorite comic episode centered on Charles was the one where Hawkeye and BJ forge a letter that he has received a top position in a Massachusetts hospital.

And the most emotional moment of the MASH finale for me was when Charles quietly says, "They were musicians," and then breaks the record of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto into pieces. Absolutely devastating.

A great actor in a great role. RIP, fellow music lover.

Andrew said...

(Oops. I meant the Mozart Clarinet Quintet. Sorry, Mr. Stiers.)

Allan V said...

Such a likable man, and a terrible loss. A first-rate actor and more. I disliked Winchester at first, then grew to really enjoy him as David added texture and humanity to the man. Hawkeye and BJ needed a counterweight, and David delivered magnificently.

Thoughts & prayers to his loved ones and friends, most certainly including Ken and Jeff.

Dave P. said...

I was a freshman in high school when I saw him in The First Olympics miniseries. That, and his other work after M*A*S*H , made me appreciate his vast talent. RIP.

PJ said...

So sad and such a loss to acting and to the people who knew him. My favorite moment was in Sons and Bowlers...I'm quoting from memory, so forgive any mistakes.

You see, where I have a father, you have a dad.
Charles, you never told me anything like that before.
Actually, Hawkeye, I've never told you anything before.

So brilliant, and all the emotion is in the pauses and his inflection. It's so perfect.

Welles said...

That was a lovely tribute, Mr. Levine.

My favorite memory of Maj Winchester is from whenever he'd enter the Swamp. He'd say "Gentlemen...Pierce", snubbing Hawkeye as no gentleman. (I hope I have remembered this correctly.) It was brilliantly subtle but so fitting for the character.

Cristina Graziella said...

Good bye, Major Winchester! Honour and respect! With Mash you will remain for ever in the hearts of people all over the world...

TimWarp said...

I don't think M*A*S*H would have run for as many seasons as it did without the addition of Charles Emerson Winchester III - the character added so many new options for the show. My favorite scene of his was the episode where the 4077th is answering letters from school children, and Charles, who has been mocking the letters - and children - mercilessly for the entire episode, turns on a dime at the end with the receipt of a New England fall leaf, and his response is pure poetry.

McAlvie said...

RIP Mr. Stiers.

The addition of Charles was absolutely brilliant. To this day I often find myself, when under stress, muttering, "I do one thing, I do it very well, and then I move on." I agree that Hawkeye needed a worthy adversary, and I really believe that the thoughtful cast additions are a major reason why the show ran for so long. The fresh faces probably inspired a lot of new story ideas.

He did go on to do a lot of work besides MASH, and I have a fond recollection of him playing a cleric of dubious virtue in a series based on one of the Stephen King stories. I believe there was a Murder She Wrote and a Columbo appearance as well. Those were the days.

McAlvie said...

Oh, it just popped into my head, the scene where Radar surprises Charles with his old knit hat. That was such a great scene and to see that bit of vulnerability added a lot to the character. I thought it was very well acted, to show that very human and sympathetic side without weakening the character.

Which reminds me of another aspect of the show that I loved - all those characters stuck together and rubbing each other the wrong way so often ... but when the wounded arrived, the animosity was put aside and they became a team. I think, you know, that this was another part of the appeal ... we know in the real world that we don't all get along, but you like to think that people will put that aside when there is a real need. And they often do. We need to remember that.

RR said...

As soon as I heard the news Sunday, this exchange at the end of his debut M*A*S*H episode came to mind:

Hawkeye: [after finding in his own bed the snake he and BJ had put in Charles' bed, to Charles, who is listening to classical music] Clever, very clever.

Charles: [looking over shoulder] Please, Mozart.

Perfectly captured the man and the character. Heavy sigh.

demoncat_4 said...

nice tribute. for mash was where i first got introduced to david. plus he was also the voice of cogsworth in beughty and the beast and for comic book fans he was the very first live action version of martian manhunter in cbs infamous jl tv pilot. rip david your legacy of work makes you immortal . hope you are keeping god in stiches. sympathy to his friends and family for their loss

Don Hilliard said...

One correction, Ken: David did drive, at least in later years and in his home area of the Oregon Coast (where you pretty much have to.) First year or two when I lived up the block from him, it was either a smallish pick-up or a very nice '70s convertible.

And then the Tesla Roadster came out. I think his was the only one in the county.

Don Hilliard said...

And a few reminiscences from the local folks that are pretty cool: http://www.newslincolncounty.com/archives/198136

mmtper said...

David Ogden was a talented man for sure, Trivia: he was on Broadway as a young actor supporting Zero Mostel and Tommy Lee Jones in the play "Ulysses in Nighttown". Stiers was in some musicals, and he sings with real panache in Pocahontas: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DSfYrPdTKVA

sanford said...

Thought this was a nice article on Stiers. https://uproxx.com/tv/david-ogden-stiers-mash-winchester-death/2/

Christopher Lowery said...

One of the funniest moments in MASH was when, if I remember correctly, Charles W was not speaking to anyone in the camp (can't remember why), so they were trying to goad him into talking and Hawkeye made a comment how CW (or his family?) had voted for Roosevelt (then a pause) 4 times. Still laugh about it when it comes to mind

Is that a 3 percenter?

Also, who wrote that segment?

Ken Levine said...

David Isaacs and I wrote that. It's from "The Billfold Syndrome." Thanks for laughing.

Janeen Heller said...

Feona 68. RR mentioned my favorite MASH memory or at least one of them, "Mozart,..please" Instantly I was in love. I am a big Perry Mason fan and it all started with the movies for me because I didn't even get to see the TV show until much later in my adulthood. As soon as I saw two of my favorite actors on the planet in one movie (Raymond Burr and David Ogden Stiers) I was IN. God rest you Sir.

Jo Ann Wingfield said...

The Charles Winchester character captured my heart when he spoke of playing the piano and said so wistfully, "i can play the notes, I just can't make the music." It still touches me after all these years.