David Ogden Stiers missed out on becoming the most hated man in America, but in return, we got Maj. Charles Winchester on M*A*S*H.
Before M*A*S*H, Stiers had been the station manager on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
“I played the role three times and I hoped to be the man who fired Mary at the end of the series,” Stiers said in a 1982 interview with The Tampa Times. “I’d have been the most-hated man in America. But Vincent Gardenia got to fire her. By that time I’d been fired myself, but not on camera.”
This led Stiers to his opportunity in M*A*S*H. In 1977, Stiers got a call from the producers. Larry Linville was giving up his role as Maj. Frank Burns, and they needed someone new to join Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell) in the 4077th.
According to the interview, Stiers hadn’t watched the M*A*S*H series prior, only the 1970 M*A*S*H movie.
“I saw that I was moving into illustrious company,” Stiers said. “It started out nifty and it got better.”
It doesn’t take a M*A*S*H expert to know that in 1977 ratings were high, and the fan base had already been built. Stiers admitted that he was “very scared” to join the cast while they were in their sixth season, and Mike Farrell, another newcomer, helped him to adjust.
Farrell knew what it was like to come into a series late, as he did with his character B.J. Hunnicutt after he replaced Trapper John in season four. Stiers wanted to be accepted, and Farrell was a big step in doing that.
“I knew I was accepted by the others the first time somebody threw something at me in the operating room,” Stiers said. “We’d just finished an intense scene. I heard the director say ‘cut,’ and I looked up waiting for him to say ‘print.’ That’s when I was hit with three pieces of gauze. I had become part of the practical jokes.”
Anyone who watches M*A*S*H knows that pranks were the 4077th’s love language.
Stiers said he didn’t think he and Winchester would be friends in real life. Winchester was rich, confident and just a bit arrogant. Unlike Winchester, Stiers said he knew how to be humble about his knowledge.
“I would hate to work for Charles, but I would love to be his boss,” Stiers said.
Like most characters on TV, Winchester came with a set of predetermined skills and traits. However, Stiers said he was able to add a little of himself to his character.
“They were looking for someone different than Frank Burns. They were looking for someone with his own strengths and weaknesses,” Stiers said. “The difference is that Charles can fight back. Frank’s responses were limited.”