Burt Metcalfe, who left his mark on 'M*A*S*H,' dies at 87

Burt Metcalfe who as showrunner of “MASH POTATOES” for the final six of its 11 seasons made a critical casting decision as he began hi...


Burt Metcalfewho as showrunner of “MASH POTATOES” for the final six of its 11 seasons made a critical casting decision as he began his tenure and helped write the final two-and-a-half-hour episode, contributing ideas he picked up on a trip to South Korea, died on July 27 in Los Angeles. He was 87 years old.

His death, in hospital, was caused by sepsis, his wife said, Jan Jordanwho played a nurse in several episodes of “M*A*S*H.”

Mr. Metcalfe had been an actor and casting director before becoming producer of “M*A*S*H”, the sitcom about the personnel of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, a show widely considered one of the of the best series in the history of television. He joined for his first season, in 1972, at the request of Gene Reynoldsa friend and an architect of the show with the writer Larry Gelbart. When Mr. Reynolds left after the fifth season, Mr. Metcalfe took over as executive producer of the series.

“He was able to successfully run the show because of his personality, which was unusual,” Alan Alda, who starred on the show as surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, said in an interview. “He was selfless, he was gentle, and he cared about the humanity of the characters.”

Mr. Metcalfe didn’t have to change much of what had been built by Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Gelbart, who left after the fourth season. For example, he continued Mr. Reynolds’ practice of interviewing doctors and nurses who had served in the Korean War and who provided a rich source of potential medical stories. Mr Alda, who has written and directed numerous episodes, said he pored over interview transcripts looking for a phrase that could inspire a story.

When, at a conference in Chicago, Mr. Metcalfe interviewed doctors who had served in the war, one of them told him that the series had made him “a hero” for his family. “They watched the show and my son said to the neighbor’s kids, ‘My dad is Hawkeye,'” Mr Metcalfe said, quoting the doctor, in a interview with the Television Academy in 2003.

He said that under his direction, without what he called Mr. Gelbart’s “comic intensity,” “M*A*S*H” had a more serious bent.

“We delved into the personalities of the characters in a way that we hadn’t done before,” he told the academy. “We got criticism over the next few years that it was getting more serious and less funny.”

Before the sixth season, the first of Mr. Metcalfe as showrunner, he was to replace Larry Linville, who was leaving the show after his run as the unofficial, rules-obsessed Major Frank Burns. Mr Metcalfe, who originally cast Mr Linville, said he wanted an actor who could play a much tougher surgeon with a superiority complex. He found him on a Saturday night when he saw David Ogden Stiers play a ruthless station manager on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and he hired him to play pompous surgeon Charles Emerson Winchester III.

“When David Stiers was dying, I wrote him an email,” Mr Metcalfe said in 2020 on “M*A*S*H” account”, a podcast hosted by Ryan Patrick and Jeff Maxwell, who played food server Igor on the show. He told Mr Stiers, he said, signing him to play at Winchester “was the best decision I’ve made of all the decisions I’ve had to make on ‘M*A*S *H.'” Mr. Stiers died in 2018.

Burton Denis Metcalfe was born on March 19, 1935 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. His father, Louis, was a vending machine distributor who died when Burt was 3 years old. Burt moved with his mother, Esther (Goldman) Metcalfe, a secretary, to Montreal, where he developed a love of theater. He performed comedy skits and impersonations in front of his aunts, uncles, and cousins; while attending a children’s drama school, he was asked to appear in half-hour radio dramas.

Burt and his mother moved in 1949 to Los Angeles, where he graduated from high school. In 1955, he earned a bachelor’s degree in theater arts from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Over the next decade, Mr. Metcalfe was an active actor, appearing as a guest star on ‘Death Valley Days’, ‘The Outer Limits’, ‘Have Gun – Will Travel’, ‘The Twilight Zone’ and d other series; as a regular on the sitcom “Father of the Bride” in the 1961-62 season; and as a surfer named Lord Byron in the 1959 film “Gidget.”

Feeling bored, he moved on to casting in 1965. This eventually led Mr. Reynolds to ask him to find actors for two pilots: “Anna and the King,” an adaptation of the musical “The King and I” and “M *A *S*H. »

Both pilots were picked up, but “Anna and the King,” in which Yul Brynner reprized her role on stage and screen, was canceled after 13 episodes. Mr. Metcalfe became associate producer of “M*A*S*H” in addition to supervising the cast; he becomes a producer in the fourth season, during which he directs his first three episodes (he will direct 31 in total). He became executive producer when Mr. Reynolds left to direct the production of “Lou Grant”.

A few years before “M*A*S*H” ended, Mr. Metcalfe traveled to South Korea to speak to civilians about how they had been affected by the war. One story – about a mother who had been with a group of South Koreans trying to escape from a North Korean patrol and smothered her baby to avoid compromising their safety – stuck with him.

Mr. Metcalfe contributed this story to the script for the series finale. In this episode, Hawkeye has a nervous breakdown while on a bus ride with members of the 4077th and refugees after telling one of the refugees to quiet his chicken so as not to alert the enemy, only to realize later, under psychotherapy, that she had in fact smothered her baby.

Mr. Metcalfe has been nominated for 13 Emmy Awards, including four for directing.

He is survived by Emily O’Meara, whom he considered his daughter. Her marriage to Toby Richman ended in divorce.

Shortly after “M*A*S*H” ended, Mr. Metcalfe became the show’s executive producer. “After MASH”, a sequel in which three characters from the original – Corporal Klinger (played by Jamie Farr), Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan), and Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) – worked at a veterans hospital in Missouri. It was canceled after 30 episodes.

Mr. Metcalfe joked on the podcast that his decision to hire Mr. Stiers “was just a preface to making a lot of bad decisions on ‘AfterMASH’.”

He then became an executive at Warner Bros. and MTM Enterprises. He retired in the 1990s.

“TV had changed by then,” Ms Jorden said in a telephone interview. “He said it got meaner. And shows like ‘M*A*S*H’ only come once in a lifetime.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Burt Metcalfe, who left his mark on 'M*A*S*H,' dies at 87
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