‘Goodbye, Radar’, Part 2

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #12 in the series.


After three seasons on M*A*S*H, Gary Burghoff, like many Hollywood stars, was having serious trouble with his marriage. Unlike many of them, he did not give in to the easy solution of a divorce. So he renegotiated his deal with Fox; henceforward he would appear in only 14 of the 24 episodes each season, allowing him more time with his family. To keep up appearances, he was listed in the opening credits of every episode, and it is quite possible for the casual viewer not to notice his absence unless the script calls attention to it. Usually that attention-calling takes the form of having Klinger serve as company clerk pro tem.

After four more years, this half-measure was no longer enough. Burghoff’s domestic problems were becoming acute, and besides, it was becoming harder every year for an actor in his thirties to play a character perpetually in his late teens. He was becoming typecast as the adolescent boy he could no longer portray. Moreover, there is evidence that he was not popular with his castmates. At that time, Burghoff had the usual insecurities of the actor to an unusual degree. He could be touchy, thin-skinned, and temperamental; and the fact that he practised his own version of ‘Method’ acting did not make him easier to work with – though it probably contributed to the emotional sincerity of his performance, and allowed him to pass himself off as the teenaged Radar years longer than he might have done by conventional techniques. The fact that he received special treatment from Fox, being spared the gruelling schedule of a 24-episode season, probably did not endear him to his fellow actors. Everybody loved Radar, but nobody, it seems, cared much for Gary Burghoff; and in the end the contradiction was too much to sustain.

Ken Levine and David Isaacs, the story editors, also wanted out. Levine tells how he came to his decision to leave the show. They were just shooting an episode called ‘Preventive Medicine’, another script by Tom Reeder, in which Hawkeye removes a perfectly healthy appendix from a bloodthirsty line officer to get him removed from command. One day, Levine went home and saw a M*A*S*H rerun on the TV. It was an episode from about five years before, with exactly the same plot device; only that time it was written by Larry Gelbart, and consequently funnier and more dramatic. The only way in which the new episode improved on the old one was that B. J. gave a passionate argument against Hawkeye’s scheme: ‘Cutting into a healthy body is mutilation!’ Even that was put in at the insistence of Mike Farrell, who had a heated dispute with Alan Alda over that precise point. It was then that Levine realized the show was repeating itself, and he was running out of original contributions to make. It was time to go.

Before they left, Levine and Isaacs wrote one final script: the two-part ‘Goodbye, Radar’. As originally planned, it was to be the season finale. Like Henry Blake, but unlike Frank Burns or Trapper John, Radar would receive a proper sendoff at the end of his last year on the show. But CBS baulked. The network knew very well that Radar was the show’s most beloved character, and feared that the audience would not stick around without him. This fear turned out to be groundless: as the anchor of CBS’s powerful Monday night lineup, M*A*S*H remained in the top 10 of the Nielsen prime-time ratings for the remainder of its run. But at the time, the network insisted that ‘Goodbye, Radar’ be put off until the early part of the 1979–80 season.

Burghoff did not take this news well. He dutifully returned for ‘Goodbye, Radar’ and a few pickup scenes for the earlier episodes of Season 8; but his heart was not in it. The lovable and childlike Radar is gone; in his place we see an angry middle-aged actor, going through the motions and saying his lines, but clearly unhappy to be there. Gone, for the most part, is the woollen cap that he had used for years to conceal his receding hairline. Even his voice changes; it becomes harsher, deeper, more strident. Burghoff knew CBS was using him to prop up the aging series, and he did not trouble to hide his resentment.

One change at the beginning of the eighth season makes it obvious that CBS was exploiting Burghoff’s name to pull a fast one on the viewers. He had originally been last on the bill in the opening credits; then Jamie Farr and William Christopher were added after him, and he remained sixth on the list thereafter. In season 8, he was removed from his usual spot, and the opening credits ended with this:

Also starring
GARY BURGHOFF
as Radar

This notice continued to appear for a couple of months after Burghoff left the show. It was a blatant attempt to cash in on his name for the benefit of a show on which he no longer appeared. Small wonder that Burghoff felt cornered and exploited.

This much we can say: when Radar was finally allowed to leave, Ken Levine and David Isaacs sent him off in style. ‘Goodbye, Radar’ is a graceful tribute, and does justice to all the qualities the character developed over the years.

The episode begins in another heavy O.R. session. The lights flicker out; Potter sends Klinger to start up the auxiliary generator. But the backup has been stolen, and Sgt. Zale’s attempt to repair the main generator yields a blast of smoke and a heap of dead machinery. Klinger tries to look on the bright side: ‘On the way over to tell Colonel Potter, maybe we’ll get lucky and step on a landmine!’

Radar is in Tokyo, trying to return from R & R; but he is bumped from his flight to Seoul to make room for a cardboard cutout of General Imbrie, an eccentric gift from the general to his troops. As the Air Force clerk at the passenger terminal sourly remarks: ‘The bigger they are, the weirder they are.’ Radar tries to wheel-and-deal his way aboard the flight, but even a wizard (as Gandalf once said) cannot make fire without something to burn. He tries to bribe the clerk, but cannot manage it with only four dollars in his pocket. ‘Some guys just can’t be bought,’ he says glumly as he sits down to wait.

Another passenger sits down beside him: Patty Haven, a pretty blonde nurse from Lancaster, Missouri. She is impressed to hear that he is company clerk at a MASH unit. Patty volunteered for a MASH, but spent her whole tour at Tokyo General, and is now being sent home. Radar and Patty talk awhile, a sweet and gentle flirtation that leads up to a kiss. The clerk interrupts to tell Radar that he has arranged passage for him in the hold of a cargo plane. This time Radar tries to bribe him not to put him on the flight, with no better effect than before. He bids Patty a hasty goodbye, and promises to look her up after the war. (Significantly, if prematurely, he later refers to Patty as ‘my gal’ in a conversation with a third party.)

Back at the 4077th, the staff are doing their best to practise medicine without electricity. Col. Potter saves one patient by putting together an improvised Wangensteen suction. Hawkeye, whose hand got caught in a rib spreader when the power went out, is trying to cope with his injury: ‘Just what I needed – ten percent off on my fingers.’ Klinger has gone through the entire Eighth Army telephone directory to no effect: ‘If there’s an extra generator in Asia, nobody’s talking about it.’

Radar returns to Korea in the back of a jeep laid on its side in the hold of a cargo plane: ‘I got carsick and airsick at the same time.’ His ride back to the camp is commandeered by an infantry patrol with tired feet, who toss his duffel bag out on the road, smashing the bottle of perfume he bought as a gift for Maj. Houlihan. He eventually arrives via cart, pulled by a Korean on a bicycle. (The Korean is played by Richard Lee-Sung in one of his 11 appearances on M*A*S*H. His bald head, toothy grin, and impeccable comic timing made him a scene-stealer whenever he appeared. One could well wish the producers had found a way to employ him more often.) The ride costs him four dollars, naturally – fulfilling the comedy Rule of Three and leaving Radar flat broke.

Everyone at the 4077th is overjoyed at Radar’s return. They are counting on him to replace the generators that went AWOL – ‘Absent Without ’Lectricity’, as B. J. puts it. Radar doesn’t understand what the fuss is about: ‘A generator’s only a three-call finagle.’ He is unhappy to be pressed right back into duty without even a meal or a shower, and furious at the mess Klinger has made of his office: ‘You shamblized it!’ But he tries to take these things philosophically; as he says to Sparky on the phone—

I guess it’s a bear we all gotta cross. Uh, Sparky, listen, we could use a generator.
     (beat; listening)
Well, I could let you have, uh, an inflatable wading pool. I got a neat collection of Spike Jones records with a lot of burps and glug-glugs on ’em… Yeah. And guess what? I can give you a really sexy-smelling duffel bag.
     (beat)
Huh?
     (beat)
Well, is it a deal?
     (two beats)
What do you mean, no?

Mighty Radar has struck out. He retires to the Officers’ Club to drown his sorrows in a warm Grape Nehi. While he does that, a telegram arrives from Ottumwa: his Uncle Ed has passed away. The first order of business is for Radar to call home and make sure that his mother is all right and the family farm will be looked after. Second, as Col. Potter solemnly informs him, is to take out a DA-7 form (Compassionate Discharge) for himself. Radar is going home.

          HAWKEYE
Radar, I’m very happy for you.

          RADAR
Yeah. I’m happy for me too… I guess.

Part II begins with Radar packing to leave, musing over the memories that have become attached to his belongings. We see the reactions of the other cast members to his departure. Klinger, who is in over his head as the new company clerk, frantically appeals to Radar for help, only to be angrily rebuffed. Margaret gives Radar an impulsive buss on the lips, at which he remarks: ‘Wow! Hot lips!’ Winchester is haughtily indifferent to Radar’s departure, but fears that Klinger will never be able to find a new generator: ‘Perhaps when you get back to Ioway, you’d think to send us some batteries.’

Radar’s apprehensions increase when he has to help B. J. repair the ‘Hoosenwagon’, and B. J. remarks: ‘If we don’t get some power around here soon, it’s going to be lights out for everything.’ He keeps trying to scrounge a generator, but when he hears incoming choppers at the end of the day, he gives up on that and calls for all the trucks and jeeps that the neighbouring units can spare. In a brilliant feat of improvisation, he parks the assorted vehicles in a circle in the compound, and sets up the operating theatre in the middle, illuminated by dozens of headlights. Winchester quips: ‘What a curious turn in my medical career: from the operating theatre at Boston General to the drive-in theatre at Uijeongbu.’

After the session, Radar decides to forgo his discharge and stay on.

          RADAR
Colonel, if I left now, you’d be up a tree without a paddle.

          POTTER
Been there many times before, son. Don’t let that stop you.

          RADAR
Colonel, I can fix it so my mom can manage without me. But the 4077 is different. You saw what just happened out there. A lot of lives depend on me doing my job, and I’m the only one around here who can.

Hawkeye, hearing of this change of mind, comes to chew Radar out:

          HAWKEYE
…They’ve been holding wars long before you signed up, and the fun will continue long after you leave. Let me put this as gracefully as I can: We don’t need you.

          RADAR
Oh, you don’t, huh? How’s your generator? Is Klinger gonna find you one? If things got tough and you were the one who was leaving, you’d be staying.

          HAWKEYE
Don’t bet on it. I’d be out of here so fast, my shorts would have to catch the next plane. Get—ow!

HAWKEYE tries to grab the clothes that RADAR is packing in his bag, but catches his sprained finger. He winces and cries out in pain, shaking his injured hand.

          RADAR
Oh, yeah. I saw you working in O.R. with your hurt finger. You’d stay.

HAWKEYE shakes his splinted finger at RADAR, who turns around and almost bumps into it.

          HAWKEYE
Don’t go poking your nose into my finger!

Hawkeye’s harangue fails to change Radar’s mind. The next harangue goes to Klinger, who chews himself out because his failure made Radar decide to stay. But in the scene that follows, he gets a chance to redeem himself, and does so in the finest Klinger style.

          KLINGER
He’s going, then he’s staying. Why is he staying? Because I’m an idiot. Why don’t we make everybody happy? Let the hero stay, let the idiot go home.

The TELEPHONE RINGS. KLINGER digs it out from under a pile of paper and answers.

          KLINGER
Four oh seventy-seventh. What’d I do wrong now?
     (beat; listening)
O’Reilly? No, he’s not here.
     (beat)
How do I know? Probably out posing for a statue.

KLINGER gets a pencil and paper while he listens.

          KLINGER
Yeah. What is it?
     (writing)
Hondo McKee. Cute name. I Corps supply… You got a generator and you want to talk deal.
     (smiling)
Oh, yeah? Listen, Hondo! Pal! I can handle that for you.

SMASH CUT TO:
Ext. ‘I’ Corps supply depot. KLINGER is unloading a crate of whisky from a jeep and handing it over to HONDO.

          KLINGER
There’s your Scotch. Where’s my generator?

          HONDO
Boy, you didn’t waste any time getting here.

          KLINGER
After I picked up the Scotch, speed was of the essence.

          HONDO
Oh, yeah? Where’d you get it?

          KLINGER
Don’t ask. It’s the code of the desert.

Before they can finish the exchange, the rightful owner of the generator shows up to collect it. This is a Major Van Kirk, a mustachio’d blowhard with a ten-ton chip on his shoulder.

          VAN KIRK
I’m here in person to make sure that baby gets to me. Somehow, a lot of the stuff that we order through this place gets lost.

HONDO puts on a disarming smile and tries to placate VAN KIRK.

          HONDO
Sir, I… I’m surprised. I don’t know how that could be happening. Your generator’s here. I have been personally holding it for you.

          VAN KIRK
I hope so, because we’re down to using a puny backup generator. And we had to swipe that from a MASH!

Van Kirk tries to appropriate some of the Scotch to compensate himself for his trouble, but Klinger, thinking fast, heads him off:

          KLINGER
I wouldn’t recommend that, sir. This stuff’s been tampered with. One sip could kill you.

          HONDO
     (quickly; going along with the scam)
Oh. Yeah.

          VAN KIRK
Lousy Commies!

          HONDO
If you’ll follow me, sir, we’ll take care of that generator.

          VAN KIRK
Damn well better. I’ve had two swiped here already.

Exit VAN KIRK into a Quonset, followed by HONDO.

          KLINGER
     (imitating VAN KIRK)
Lousy Commies! I’ve had two swiped here already.
     (with an evil grin)
Do I hear three?

CUT TO:
Int. supply dispatcher’s office. The DISPATCHER is sitting with his feet up on his desk, reading a comic book. Enter KLINGER, puffing on a cigar. The DISPATCHER ignores him until KLINGER rings the bell on his desk.

          DISPATCHER
     (bored and indifferent)
Yeah?

          KLINGER
I’m from the 243rd Service and Supply, here to pick up the generator. We’re in kind of a hurry!

          DISPATCHER
Requisition form?

          KLINGER
No got.

          DISPATCHER
I don’t issue air without a requisition form.

          KLINGER
Major Van Kirk just gave it to Hondo. By the way, don’t rile the major. He knows you guys have kiped two of our generators already, not to mention other miscellaneous door prizes. So just roll it out fast, or we blow the whistle on this whole scam.

The DISPATCHER takes his feet off the desk and reaches for the phone.

          DISPATCHER
I’ll just check with Hondo.

          KLINGER
Better still, go over there yourself. Then Major Van Kirk can chew out the two of you and not miss a bite.

KLINGER jams his cigar back in his mouth and bites down on it for emphasis.

ANGLE ON:
The DISPATCHER, holding the phone in his hand, looking very worried.

CUT TO:
Ext. the 4077th compound. KLINGER is driving a jeep into camp, towing a trailer containing the new generator. As the jeep comes to a stop, he blows the horn while a crowd of people gather around, cheering.

Klinger has succeeded where even Radar failed; he has earned his bones. And while he broke every regulation in the book to get the generator, he has abided by the customs of the informal Army organization – the scrounger’s code, or if you prefer, the Code of the Desert. Since Van Kirk is the one who stole the 4077th’s backup generator, it is poetic justice that Klinger should steal a generator from him. Without that little touch, we would admire Klinger’s cunning; with it, we regard him as a hero.

Now, at last, Radar knows the 4077th can survive without him, and he can go home. His farewell party, called off when he decided to stay, is on again. But this, after all, is war. A rush of incoming wounded forces the cancellation of the party, and he has to say his goodbyes in the compound while the other cast members are doing triage. He speaks briefly to every regular except Hawkeye. We even see him saying goodbye to his animals: ‘I don’t want you to worry about nothing. Instead of just me, you’re gonna have everybody taking care of you now. I mean, except the cook.’

Before leaving, he stands outside the O.R. door – since he is no longer one of the MASH personnel, he cannot enter – and gives Hawkeye a farewell salute through the window. Hawkeye steps back from his operating table and returns the salute, one of the very few times in the series when we ever see him salute anyone.

In the tag, Hawkeye returns to the Swamp and finds Radar’s teddy bear on his cot. Corporal O’Reilly’s ‘interminable childhood’ is finally over: he has passed his final trial of maturity, and does not need his bear anymore. Hawkeye picks up the bear and says sadly: ‘Goodbye, Radar.’

In a little under fifty minutes of film, we have had a fine dramatic plot with plenty of comic relief, and worked in every one of Radar’s salient characteristics as I listed them above. It is a fine farewell to Corporal Walter Eugene ‘Radar’ O’Reilly, late of Ottumwa, Iowa, myopic farmboy, animal lover, Grape Nehi drinker, perpetual adolescent, and all-round débrouillard.

And it is a fine farewell from Ken Levine and David Isaacs, screenwriters and script editors. They performed a task that had previously been entrusted only to Everett Greenbaum and the late Jim Fritzell: seeing M*A*S*H through the delicate surgery of a major cast change. Radar’s childlike traits had sometimes been overdone, and were sometimes, in Larry Gelbart’s own word, ‘coy’; but in this script, the writers handled them with subtlety and taste. If the episode had been filmed as the previous season’s finale, as originally planned, it might have ranked as the finest episode since ‘Abyssinia, Henry’ four years earlier. In the circumstances, it was somewhat marred by the continuous undertone of anger in Gary Burghoff’s performance. But we cannot blame the writers for that.

One thing that Levine and Isaacs have been mildly criticized for is giving Klinger a previously unsuspected skill as a scrounger and con artist. Certainly he was never able to con his way into a Section Eight discharge. But that only shows that the skills of scamming, horse-trading, and flim-flamming, while invaluable in the informal organization of the Army, are not much use in going through official channels. The task of ‘kiping’ a generator definitely belongs on the informal side; as Col. Potter observes, ‘I always knew he had the larceny in him.’ We can believe that a fast-talking kid from the streets of Toledo would have the skills to perform it. The only weakness, and that a slight one, is that the writers seem to have stacked the deck excessively against Radar in order to give Klinger his chance of glory. But that falls under the heading of ‘fridge logic’: one doesn’t notice the flaw while watching the show, only (if at all) upon later reflection.

As I said at the outset, Radar was irreplaceable; and the writers made no attempt to replace him. Instead, they got Klinger out of his dresses and into uniform, and made him the company clerk for the remainder of the series’ run. In the process, quite by accident as I believe, they stumbled upon one of the best elements in the late seasons of M*A*S*H. The show had begun with a cast of three comedy double acts; now its autumn years would be illuminated by a fourth.

Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

Comments

  1. Klinger’s best one-liner in the entire series was S02E21, “Crisis.” Frank is the only one in the camp with warm feet and wires in his boots, and Klinger realizes, “They’re hunting socks! I got a bra like that!”

    An excellent dissection of Radar’s character and leave-taking. I wondered why Burghoff seemed so angry in it; his performance really sticks out, in a bad way. Also, Klinger’s generator success seemed a bit contrived. It would have been much more believable and internally coherent had he acquired the generator by trading his old stockings and furs as gifts for future girlfriends.

    Once more, sir, I thank you for this.

    • I loved that line. Also when Col. Blake wanted to know why the Swampmen were attacking Frank’s feet—

      Radar: ‘They’re hunting socks, sir.’
      Blake: ‘At this hour?!’

  2. Both the back story and analysis are much appreciated.

  3. Stephen K says:

    I loved MASH back in the day, and these marvellous essays go a long way to explaining what I liked and what I didn’t. It is always good to see a new one. Thank you very, very much.

  4. Cranston Snord says:

    I always felt that Burghoff’s somewhat more gruff manner in the two part “goodbye” episode was deliberate on his part; not out of resentment, but as an acting choice. Radar was no kid anymore; he had seen and experienced enough in the War to age prematurely, and his childlike defenses to fight the “war against the War” (his bear, comics, pets, playing with the local children) were no longer doing the trick. While the character’s absence from so many episodes in the previous few seasons stemmed from Burghoff’s’ real-life woes, the repeated vague explanatory references to Radar being off on “R & R” smack of a subtle way of implying that he is “losing it” and needing a break more often. (I can almost imagine an unfilmed scene between Radar and Dr. Freedman setting such a scenario up.) These episodes also layed the groundwork for Klinger’s eventual transfer to Company Clerk, which clearly had been already considered as an eventuality during those previous Radar-light seasons. I believe both elements were deliberately incorporated into scripts when it became obvious that Burghoff would eventually leave the series.

    The whole theme of the two-part farewell is Radar’s maturity and changing responsobilities on the homefront now, and the emphasis of Potter, Hawkeye and others repeatedly telling him, “Look, you’ve more than done your duty…it’s time.” I don’t think Burghoff’s manner or tone in the two-parter were in any way a result of his mood; I think he is too much of a professional to sabotage a scene in that fashion. (Indeed, the fact that there was no love lost between Burghoff and the rest of the cast, yet you NEVER see that conflict affecting their interactions on film, speaks volumes of the professionalism of the entire cast.)

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