‘Ferret Face’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #7 in the series.

When McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers left M*A*S*H, as I have discussed, they broke up two of the three double acts that made up the original cast. At the same time, quite unintentionally, they sealed the fate of the third. Frank Burns and ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan were still partners in crime after the departure of Henry and Trapper, but their crimes were never the same again. The arrival of Col. Potter started a process that led to Frank’s complete disintegration as a character, so that there was no option but to release Larry Linville from the show when his contract was up. This did not arise from any shortcoming of Linville’s as a performer. The decline and fall of Frank Burns was purely a matter of errors in writing; and for this reason I want to examine it in some detail.

Linville, by every account I have read or heard, was a consummate professional and a thoroughly good sport. He knew he was there to play a comically inept villain, and applied all his considerable talents wholeheartedly to the job. The character’s nickname, ‘Ferret Face’, was actually a gift from the actor: that was Linville’s own nickname as an unfortunate boy. Linville had a marvellous capacity to extract laughs from the most unpromising material. He was a comedy Rumpelstiltskin, spinning gold from the straw of the lame comebacks that the writers gave him: ‘Nerts to you!’ or ‘Snot! Snot! Snot!’ or ‘I don’t chew my cabbage twice.’ (A Burns speciality, that line.) He was capable of stealing a scene, or at least capping it, with the hapless retort, ‘You… guys!’

He had the silent film actor’s ability to get laughs by facial expression alone. In one of the character’s best running gags, Frank and Hot Lips would turn up in Col. Blake’s office with a complaint (usually about the Swampmen’s unmilitary behaviour). Henry would address all his questions to Frank, but Hot Lips would give all the answers while Frank remained stony-faced and silent. This behaviour did not go unremarked by the colonel. ‘You’re in fine voice today,’ he said drily on one occasion; and on another, if memory serves, he threatened to subject Frank to an autopsy if he did not speak up on his own behalf.

This ability to milk laughter from limited material was all the more remarkable because Linville, before joining the cast of M*A*S*H, did not have a reputation as a comedian. He had been a capable but largely unsung character actor, mostly playing heavies in TV dramas. On one occasion, he played something like a traditional Linville villain role even on M*A*S*H.

In an episode called ‘The Bus’, the four surgeons and Radar are stranded on a back road whilst returning from a medical conference in Seoul. A wounded North Korean surrenders to them (and eventually repairs the bus). Frank, equipped with a rifle and (useless) walkie-talkie, takes it upon himself to frighten the prisoner out of his wits, pretending to be a tough, heartless combat officer with an itchy trigger finger. Linville plays the part to the hilt; he would be convincingly scary, if we did not know that it was only Frank talking. His performance is undercut by the ridiculous things he does in passing (giving his position over the radio by saying he is directly under the brightest star), but still more by the fact that the prisoner speaks not one word of English. Frank’s posturing is wasted on everyone but himself. But it is the context that makes him ridiculous, not Linville’s performance – in this instance.

It is significant that Hot Lips does not appear in ‘The Bus’. She and Frank were still an item, the last of the original double acts; but the arrival of Col. Potter had deprived them of half their raison d’être, and the long half at that. For three years, Frank had been the loudly squawking voice of the hated U. S. Army: the endless regulations, the bureaucracy, the stupidity and inhumanity, all boiled down into one intolerable caricature. But Potter, the Regular Army man, took that role away from him, and made it impossible to treat the Army merely as a laughing matter.

The damage to the character is shown in two different uses made of what was essentially the same joke. In an early episode, Henry Blake leaves the camp on Army business, leaving Major Burns in temporary command. One of Frank’s first official acts is to order that all the stones in the compound (placed there to mark the edges of the road) be painted white. Hot Lips, who actually is a career officer rather than just playing at it, tells him sotto voce that this is against air-raid regulations, because it makes the road clearly visible from the air by night. Frank tells the incredulous private who is dutifully painting the stones: ‘Just paint the top halves and, uh, turn them over every night.’ Later, when Col. Potter’s absence puts Frank in charge again, he tries the same silly stunt; but this time Radar takes away the bucket of whitewash, telling the major, ‘He said no.’ The presence of a competent and soldierly commander takes away half of Frank’s scope for idiocy.

The other half, sad to say, makes Frank pathetic rather than villainous. He is still a foil for the Swampmen, an inept surgeon, and there is still humour to be mined from his doomed love-affair with Hot Lips; but he is no longer a credible threat. In the earlier years, the pranks played upon him, the insults thrown in his face, had been just revenge for his abuse of his authority over the other doctors. Now he is effectively emasculated, and the pranks and insults are merely cruel. Instead of laughing at Frank and with the Swampmen, we find ourselves having a kind of shamefaced and wincing sympathy for him.

Greenbaum and Fritzell actually exploit this sympathy in an episode called ‘Der Tag’, in which Potter orders the Swampmen to make friends with Frank while Margaret is away. He cleans them out at poker, gets riotously drunk, makes a pass at Nurse Kellye, and passes out in the officers’ club. Before the end of the show, he has mysteriously turned up on the front lines at a battalion aid station, out cold and wearing a toe tag labelled, ‘Emotionally exhausted and morally bankrupt.’ It is a good bit of writing in itself, and a funny episode; but it points up a serious structural weakness in the show, arising from Frank’s characterization.

I have mentioned that the three double acts were broken up by the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. The World tempted McLean Stevenson to leave the show for greener pastures; the Flesh tempted Alan Alda to throw his considerable weight behind a scheme to make Trapper’s replacement a poster child for family values and marital fidelity. Now came the Devil’s turn. He did not tempt Linville, but rather the writers and producers; and the temptation was to push Frank’s character too far, to make him a mere cartoon, and then take away his colours so that nothing was left but an empty outline.

The trouble was that Frank Burns, unlike the rest of the cast, was not conceived as a character from the outset, but a caricature. As I mentioned earlier, this goes back to the composite character that Robert Altman created for the film version of M*A*S*H. The combination of self-righteous martinet and shameless philanderer made Frank uniquely easy to hate. Gelbart and Reynolds, and the writers working for them, took great care not to contaminate him with any redeeming qualities. He was pusillanimous, childish, incompetent as a surgeon, and to top it off, a colossally inept schemer, as sure to be hoist on his own petard as Wile E. Coyote. His presence guaranteed that the show could not completely abandon the element of farce that had been so pronounced in the early years. This was not a bad thing in itself, but as the show began to change in tone, Frank came to clash rather badly with his surroundings. The change of tone was not an error on the writers’ part; but their failure to change Frank – the fact that he had been invented as a caricature incapable of change – was a glaring error, and glared all the more with the passage of time.

In reality, Frank Burns was not a human being at all, but a flag. Like a flag, he was a symbol, standing for authority, patriotism, military discipline. But he was a flag in an anti-war comedy with its roots in the 1960s counterculture; and in that milieu, the principal function of a flag was to be desecrated. One of the most iconic visuals from the Vietnam era, after all, is the image of protesters setting fire to the Stars and Stripes. In effect, the character’s last name is not a proper noun, but a verb. Like the flag for which he stands, Frank burns. And once the Vietnam War ended, and the Army itself was no longer portrayed as the enemy on the show, there was nothing left for Frank to burn for.

The final stage of Frank’s disintegration, however, happened after another major change of personnel. This time, it was not the cast that changed. After four years, Larry Gelbart decided that he had said all he had to say, and left the show he had created. He seems to have seen the writing on the wall sooner than anyone else. Every successful TV show, if continued long enough, eventually degenerates into repetition and formula, and finally into self-parody. In the fourth season, despite the transfusion of new talent in the persons of Mike Farrell and Harry Morgan, Gelbart felt that M*A*S*H was approaching that point; and so he got out.

At the same time, Gene Reynolds kicked himself upstairs to become executive producer (a position that had not previously existed on M*A*S*H). He was replaced as producer by a three-headed monster: Allan Katz, Don Reo, and Burt Metcalfe. Katz and Reo were both up-and-coming young writer-producers, who had cut their teeth on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, and would go on to have distinguished careers in film and television. Metcalfe can perhaps be described as a consummate technician. He had been the show’s associate producer for the first four years, responsible for all the busywork and KP-pushing that keeps a Hollywood production rolling.

All three were capable, but they lacked the stature of the men they were replacing. Metcalfe, in particular, seems to have had a real knack for managing and massaging actors’ egos, as well as dealing with the nuts and bolts of production; but the corollary is that he was a less forceful and more self-effacing personality than Reynolds. In 1979, he in his turn took the title of executive producer; not, as Reynolds had done, to make his exit from the daily responsibilities of running the show, but merely to make room on the credits for talented subordinates. Metcalfe has said, somewhere or other, that he took the ostensible promotion because Jim Mulligan and John Rappaport wanted to be credited as producers. This was a fine and generous thing to do, and speaks well of his ability to manage people; but perhaps it also bespeaks a certain lack of steel, an unwillingness to face down the naked egos of his subordinates. At all events, his promotion marks an epoch in the slow transformation of the show from Larry Gelbart’s M*A*S*H to ‘The Alan Alda Show’.

As with the cast changes of 1975, the crew changes of 1976 were helped along by the expert writing team of Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum. The fifth season begins with their very funny hour-long episode, ‘Bug Out’, which, incidentally, shows Frank in his best form. He throws his insignificant weight around, forbidding Radar to transport his animals, or Klinger his dresses, on official U. S. Army trucks; but he is reduced to whingeing ineffectuality when Col. Potter confiscates his whistle. The illusion is perfectly preserved that this is business as usual for M*A*S*H. But it is only an illusion, and Frank’s position will be completely destroyed in the very next episode: ‘Margaret’s Engagement’.

I do not know who came up with the idea of having Margaret Houlihan get engaged to the (mostly offscreen) West Point he-man, Col. Donald Penobscot. Whoever it was, he deserves the blame, or credit, for killing Frank Burns. Once his affair with Hot Lips ended, Frank was left utterly friendless at the 4077th, betrayed by the one person whom he had counted on from the beginning.

Even at that point, it would have been possible to rescue Frank; we had learnt enough about him to form the makings of an actual human being. All that was lacking was the will. There is a sort of false dawn at the end of ‘Margaret’s Engagement’. Frank kicks against the pricks, giving Margaret a dose of her own medicine and even palling up with the Swampmen for a moment:

Listen, Pierce, why don’t you and I go out on the town tonight, hmm?

Well, this is so sudden, Frank. I don’t have a thing to wear.

Well, I mean, get a couple of nurses. Go over to Rosie’s Bar, have a little fun.

     (puzzled but not disapproving)
Sounds good to me.

There’s this little redheaded nurse who’s had her eye on me. Tonight her wish will come true.

You mean that new girl with the freckles on her nose?

Yes, that’s the one.

She’s a little young for you, isn’t she, Major Burns?

Well, I don’t know. I think a little youth might be nice for a change.

But the writers chose to let that opportunity go by. The humanized Frank Burns, who has real motives of his own and can at least occasionally give as good as he gets, really exists, or is adumbrated, only in this and a few other isolated scenes. For the rest of that season, his last one on the show, Frank gradually spirals down into pathetic ineffectuality, and finally into insanity. When last we hear of him, he has been arrested in Seoul for accosting a general’s wife – nude in a bath with her husband! – under the wildly mistaken impression that she was the honeymooning Margaret. He is rotated Stateside, and (in a characteristic touch of military folly) kicked upstairs, promoted out of harm’s way. He ends up as a lieutenant colonel in charge of a veterans’ hospital in Indiana. But by that time Larry Linville was already gone. When last we see him on the show, he is standing all by himself on the chopper pad from which Hot Lips and her new husband have just taken off, saying to the empty sky: ‘Goodbye, Margaret.’

It was not just a goodbye for Frank Burns. For Margaret, too, though she did not leave the 4077th, this marked the end of the line. Loretta Swit continued to be a regular cast member until the end of the series’ run; but from the moment when she said ‘I do’, she ceased once and for all to be ‘Hot Lips’ Houlihan, hard-nosed Army nurse and habitual groupie to senior brass. She would spend the next six years playing a very different character, who happened, by not much more than coincidence, to have the same name. And that, once again, is a story for another time.

Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view


  1. It sounds like Larry Linville was much like DeForest Kelley in that he considered his craft work and took it seriously. I’ve always admired that in an actor.

  2. Jay Allman says

    I keep forgetting to come in here and say how much I liked this entry. It was one I was waiting for. Maybe that’s why I put off commenting: I can’t say enough good things about it, and not just because it reflects in a much more articulate and penetrating way what I’ve vaguely felt about “MASH” and Frank Burns.

    The show’s treatment of Frank always bothered me, even in the early days when–as you point out–he was obviously set up to be desecrated. Semi-equivalent characters in other sitcoms, like Mel Cooley in “Dick van Dyke”, usually retained a little dignity, and were sometimes even treated as the good guys. But Frank was abused mercilessly, neutered by Potter’s arrival, and kicked to the curb without even an onscreen departure.

    They kept Margaret and, yes, completely changed her: They made her a human character and not a symbol to be mocked and abused. They couldn’t have done that with Frank? Really?

    You mention a few places were you can see the possibility of an evolution in Frank. There’s one more I’d add. (I’ve not seen the show in many years, so I may be remembering it wrong.) Frank and Margaret are working on a patient and she’s gushing about Penobscot. Frank is silent the whole time, then slices her finger with a scalpel while maintaining a poker-faced innocence about afterward: It was an accident! Afterward, as Pierce treats her, she rants about Frank’s meanness in assaulting her that way; Pierce replies he’d have done the same thing if she had been at his station.

    It’s a very nice incident, using humor, empathy, and some very low-key but intense personal drama to reveal sides of the characters we haven’t fully appreciated. (It’s also the sort of incident whose real impact is for those who have followed the serial, and understand all the implications.) In this context, I’d just point out the implications for Pierce’s character: If Frank in some scenes is shown willing to make peace with Pierce, this is a place that shows Pierce is decent enough to make peace with Frank. They could never have been friends, I think, but you can see hints of how a new kind of relationship could have developed between them, one not based simply on comic hatred.

    Instead, these moments just become a tease–a what if–that makes Frank’s final fate all the more insulting.

    Thank you also for noting Linville’s astonishing professionalism. You are right that he gave himself utterly to the role, probably to the detriment of his own career, for he had to have realized how far he was destroying his future prospects by making Frank one of the most memorably loathsome characters on television. Ted Knight would complain bitterly to the producers on “Mary Tyler Moore” that he was being confused with Ted Baxter both professionally and on the street. I have the impression Linville went the rest of his life being confused with Frank Burns, which is a fate that should be suffered by no one, particularly a dedicated actor like Linville.

    • Yes, that was an excellent scene. It happened just as you describe, in ‘Margaret’s Engagement’, with an added bit of comeuppance for Miss Insensitive. It happens while Hawkeye is treating her cut finger. Margaret thinks Frank ought to simply shrug off any emotional damage she is doing him, on the grounds that ‘He’s a grown man… semi.’ Whereupon Hawkeye pours raw alcohol on Margaret’s cut. When she cries out, he tells her: ‘You can take it. You’re a grown woman… semi.’

      I’m not sure, however, that it’s entirely accurate to describe the revised Margaret as a human character. To a considerable extent, they simply turned her into a different flag. On Gelbart and Reynolds’ M*A*S*H, she was part of the American flag kit along with Frank Burns, to be laughed at and abused. On Alda’s M*A*S*H, she became a shiny new flag for Anachronistic Seventies Women’s Lib, to be lionized beyond her due. I hope to have something to say about that in a bit.

      Thanks, by the way, for your detailed and thoughtful comment. It makes me feel like I’m doing some good with these pieces.

  3. I’m deeply enjoying this series. It makes me want to rewatch M*A*S*H from start to finish while keeping everything I’ve learned in mind.

    • Thanks!

      • I have started binge watching it on Netflix due to your insightful commentary Mr. Simon. I am half way through the second season and already the “Alan Alda Show” nature of the writing is obvious. If someone has to save the day it is Pierce. If someone has to “bravely” approach a wounded sniper, we’ll it must be Pierce. I was relatively astonished that Trapper got to be the one to “almost” adopt the 5 year old cute Korean boy. I suppose it stretched even the great writing prowess of that group to come up with a plausible way for the always selfish Hawkeye character to try to adopt him. At any rate I am enjoying seeing the show through the fresh eyes of the creative process brought to life through your essays. Many thanks.

  4. Henry: That’s pretty strong stuff, Frank.
    Margaret: It’s true. You’re nothing but a golf-playing figurehead!
    Henry: Now you watch your language, Frank, or I might just have to punch her right in the mouth.
    — from “L.I.P.”

    However much they paid Larry Linville for his role, it wasn’t half enough. He was Rowan Atkinson’s superior as a comedic heavy, and I think Atkinson is great.

    Mike Farrell told the story of Linville doing a phone interview from the studio. Farrell heard Linville say, “Well, I think there’s a little Frank Burns in everyone.” The reporter apparently disagreed and Linville snapped back, “Well, what makes you think you’re so hot?!?”

  5. TheConductor says

    One of the few moments I remember Frank being given a chance to be a real person and form even a momentary connection with another character was in the first season episode “Sticky Wicket.” As I remember it, Hawkeye at the beginning of the episode is once again berating Frank over his medical skills. Shortly afterward, one of Hawkeye’s surgical patients develops complications, apparently from a mistake Hawkeye made that he can’t pinpoint. Frank, clearly relishing the opportunity for once to give it back to Hawkeye in kind, starts belittling him in turn, to the point where Hawkeye takes a swing at him. But Hawkeye is snapping at everybody, too, including Trapper; Henry ultimately questions whether Hawkeye cares more about the patient or about his ego.

    Then, Hawkeye awakens out of a sleep with an idea of what might have gone wrong. He interrupts a Frank-and-Hot-Lips liaison to tell Hot Lips that he needs her to prep for surgery (going inside her tent to apologize to Frank, who is hiding in her closet, for the interruption). As he and Hot Lips are working, a masked and gowned Frank, out of curiosity, enters the OR. Hawkeye finds the problem – the bullet scraped the back of the sigmoid colon. Frank remarks, “Anybody could have missed THAT.” Hawkeye interprets that comment as a compliment (that it was an easy thing to have missed and does not reflect on any lack of skill on the surgeon’s part) and says with sincerity, “Thanks, Frank.”

    These few will o’ the wisps are all the more poignant for the missed opportunities they suggest.

  6. Steven says

    It is somewhat baffling to me that the writers would spend some time developing the psychological underpinnings of Frank Burns, but ultimately do nothing with it. It is clear from several scenes that Burns was abused, physically and emotionally, as a child.

    In one, Burns says to Radar, “My mother and father never got divorced. I’d have done much better coming from a broken home.”

    In another, when he is talking to his mother, he says, “I’m fine, Mom. Well actually, I’m not. You see, I had this friend. And this friend only pretended to like me. You know, the way Dad used to?”

    Finally, and I can’t remember the exact quote, Frank states that the only time he could speak around his father without getting hit was when he was tattling on someone. It explained why he was such a fink.

    • That’s a very good point. The only explanation I can offer is that those bits of characterization were done by several different writers at long intervals. Each one was done to sell a gag, and whatever potential they had to develop the character further was simply not pursued at the time. Since M*A*S*H never bothered much about continuity in small details, I suspect the producers (and Fox and CBS) simply weren’t interested in developing that character realistically.

      It’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened if Frank Burns had still been part of the cast when Burt Metcalfe took over as showrunner. His style was definitely more character-oriented and introspective, and he was less willing to sacrifice psychological realism to get a laugh. His team of writers and script editors put enormous work into making Winchester a rounded and interesting character. I’d like to pay a visit to the alternate reality in which Larry Linville stayed on the show and that work was done on Frank instead.

  7. I’ll confess, even in the early days I never cared much for Frank Burns. (nothing against the actor) He makes a great foil, true, but I always greatly preferred Winchester as a better character who could give as good as he could get and would show the sporadic bouts of humanity. (like the episode he helps out the soldier with a stutter and shows you at the end why)

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