The TV Land network and their addictive marathon of M*A*S*H holiday episodes sucked me in once again.
First of all, my all time favorite character in any TV show or movie is Major Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce, played by Alan Alda. Hawkeye has the toughest job in the toughest place in the toughest time period. He lives and breathes tough decisions and his job is triage, discriminating between life and death realities, between saving this guy’s life over that guy’s life. Dealing every day with friendly and unfriendly comrades he is just stuck with. And yet, except for the last episode of the series (which I pretend does not exist), Hawkeye brings humor and optimism into the equation whenever he can. And thanks to some brilliant writing over the years (now decades ago) we got not only the best TV series ever, we got the best drama and comedy wrapped into one, and at that, each episode had only 20-some odd minutes to make us all become familiar with a war seemingly firsthand that we never otherwise would have had a personal affinity toward.
What M*A*S*H probably did best was remind us that even though we may have our own issues that approached or even sometimes surpassed the trials of the characters of this wartime mobile surgical hospital crew, more often than not you could be reminded that whatever you were going through was not really that bad–that things will get better if you can just keep your head up and march through it all.
Many main and supporting characters came and went over the years, from Major “Trapper” John MacIntyre to Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly, to Colonel Henry Blake, to Major Frank Burns. Some of these characters we were supposed to love and others we were supposed to hate. Colonel Sherman T. Potter was one of the best of the cast, the elder traditional soldier with a sense of both nostalgia for the golden days and humor for his young medical staff. Potter was played by Henry Morgan, who passed away two weeks ago at the awesome age of 96. Some great acting can be found in his list of films and TV series, from The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) with Henry Fonda, to State Fair (1945) with Dana Andrews, to Yellow Sky (1948) with Gregory Peck, to Bend of the River (1952) with Jimmy Stewart, and High Noon (1952) with Gary Cooper, to The Glenn Miller Story (1954) with Jimmy Stewart, to Strategic Air Command (1955) with Jimmy Stewart, to Inherit the Wind (1960) with Spencer Tracy, to How the West was Won (1962) with a who’s who of Hollywood, to his co-starring role as Officer Gannon with Jack Webb from 1967-1970 on the TV series Dragnet, and several supporting roles between and after, Morgan may not have been the leading man, but as a character actor he gave credibility to dozens of productions.
One of the often overlooked supporting characters of M*A*S*H was Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, played by David Ogden Stiers, who went on to be a guest character in hundreds of shows, including a guest role on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and a memorable role as Reverend Purdy in the TV series The Dead Zone. A snooty doctor of a old-money wealth, Winchester was typically a foil for the show’s own dynamic duo of Hawkeye and B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell). With a long run like M*A*S*H, which aired from 1972-1983, we were able to share a number of holidays, and holiday episodes, with the cast of M*A*S*H. If you saw the series, you probably remember this key secondary plot from the ninth season’s Christmas episode “Death Takes a Holiday.” If you haven’t or even if you have seen it, track down a copy from your library or video source.
The army outfit has invited local refugees to the 4077th for Christmas. Turkey dinners are being transported in, but Colonel Potter learns that the trucks aren’t going to make it. Each key character had received care packages from their loved ones, from fruitcake from Hawkeye’s aunt, to fudge from B.J.’s wife, to ham from the Colonel’s sister. Nurse Margaret Houlihan steps forward first to say she will offer up her care package of cookies to the refugee children and soon everyone joins in to plan a big party. Everyone except Winchester. Winchester will only offer up a small sardine-sized can of oysters, saying “it’s not the thought that counts, it’s the price.” Corporal Max Klinger points out that Winchester received several packages labeled “perishable” so the other officers ask “what gives?” Winchester is Scrooge once again.
And then the change-up occurs, that illustrates why this series was so good. Because it had a lot of heart–behind all the war drama and laugh out loud practical joke antics. Actor Mike Farrell wrote this episode that some may brush off as simply sappy.
We see a dark night, and Winchester covertly approaches the orphanage with giant boxes of gifts, one labeled from a certain premium confectioner. The man running the orphanage thanks him for the gifts and invites him inside so the children can thank him, which Winchester immediately says “no” to. Winchester recounts that his family has a tradition, going back every year since he was a child, and it only matters if it is done anonymously. Winchester shares with the man a story of waiting inside a running car with his sister in an earlier winter from far long ago, excited as they waited for his father to run back to the car to drive away after quietly, sneakily leaving gifts on some needy person’s doorstep. From the seemingly greedy and abrasive fellow, came an act of kindness and charity. A touching scene, that seems to affect even the actor as he tells the story.
Sappy? Maybe just a little. But great actors and great writing made for a great series, and a nice Christmas story.