“Wait,” Ron Howard delivers as his first line in the first season of M*A*S*H.
“I don’t wanna go home,” the guest-star says. “Please. I’d rather stay here.”
The M*A*S*H episode “Sometimes You Hear a Bullet” aired in 1973, five years after The Andy Griffith Show ended, but before Happy Days would premiere. It was a moment in TV history when Howard was still viewed as Opie Taylor all grown up, and not yet Richie Cunningham.
So it was a little shocking to hear Howard, who we’re used to seeing play a true hometown boy, begging not to go back home.
But for fans of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., the popular spin-off of The Andy Griffith Show, we know a similar scenario has happened before, and this moment on M*A*S*H felt familiar for a different reason.
Howard appearing in an episode of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. called “Opie Joins the Marines” in 1966. In that episode, Opie’s afraid he might get in trouble for his bad grades, so he runs away to join the Marines. He hides until he reveals himself to a trusted soldier — Gomer, of course.
The character Howard played on M*A*S*H is a soldier named Wendell who sneaks into the Marines at the age of 16 by using his older brother’s birth certificate. In the episode, Wendell manages to fool everyone but Hawkeye. On M*A*S*H, Hawkeye is the trusted soldier to whom Howard’s runaway soldier confesses.
The reference to Howard’s prior Gomer role seems clear, but in truth, this is just a coincidence you can chalk up to TV magic.
“How old are you, Wendell?” Hawkeye asks. The doctor has just told Wendell that he needs to rest a few days until the pain subsides. Overreacting, Wendell declares he doesn’t care about pain, he just wants to get back to the fighting.
“Twenty,” Wendell answers quickly.
But Hawkeye stares him down.
“Really, I’m 18,” Wendell then confesses, seeming to admit the truth.
“For somebody who’s both 20 and 18, you look awfully 16 to me,” Hawkeye says.
In this span between lead TV roles, Howard was actually 19 at the time and going to college, but he was able to accept the role on M*A*S*H because it coincided with his spring break. Soon TV audiences would easily accept him as the quintessential 1950s teen Richie Cunningham without blinking an eye, but Hawkeye’s got his nickname for a reason, we guess.
Howard just had that freckly young look that kept his star shining after The Andy Griffith Show ended in 1968, and we’d keep seeing him as a teenager on Happy Days long after that. Howard once talked to the Television Academy about his time on M*A*S*H.
He said even though he knew nothing about the show before he filmed his episode, he’d loved the M*A*S*H movie, so he agreed to do it.
He also said that he had no idea before he got to set that he’d be treated like a celebrity, “The M*A*S*H episode was really fun,” Howard said, “Because I was treated as a TV vet on that show.”
It was basically Howard’s first time being treated like the big deal that he is, and he said the cast welcomed him. “Alan Alda was cool, and Wayne Rogers, I spent a lot of time talking to him,” Howard said.
But the Gomer Pyle reference wasn’t the only familiar scene TV fans might recognize from Howard’s past.
Later in the episode, Hawkeye catches Wendell attempting to steal a jeep.
“You’re not sending me home,” Wendell says. Hawkeye assures him that they don’t send soldiers home over missing appendixes.
That’s when we learn Wendell joined the Marines, not because of bad grades like Opie, but to impress his sweetheart, who he says left him for another man who just returned from boot camp.
“It’s not my fault I’m too young to join,” Wendell yells, emotionally admitting that he’s younger than he said.
Then he professes to Hawkeye that he knows his love would take him back… if he came back with a medal to impress her. And that his real name is Walter. “Wendell”s my brother’s name.”
This mention might remind you of a very popular episode of The Andy Griffith Show that aired in that classic show’s second season. It was called “A Medal for Opie,” and in it, Opie learns the hard lesson about how to be a graceful loser. On M*A*S*H, Hawkeye gives Howard as Wendell this fatherly advice: “I was just wondering if any girl’s worth having who cares whether you have a medal or not.”
Then, Hawkeye promises not to turn Wendell in, if he leaves the jeep and promises to come inside and rest.
But by the episode’s end, Hawkeye does not keep his promise. After the episode’s most dramatic scene, Hawkeye reveals to Margaret that Wendell is posing as his brother and is only 15 years old.
“He’s going back home where he belongs,” Hawkeyes says.
Howard said he actually felt at home on the set of M*A*S*H.
“It also was kind of comfortable because that was a one-camera show and it reminded me a little bit of how The Andy Griffith Show was done,” Howard said in his interview.
On M*A*S*H, his character feels betrayed by Hawkeye, just as Opie feels betrayed by Gomer when Sheriff Andy shows up at the end of “Opie Joins the Marines.”
“You double-crosser,” Wendell/Walter says to Hawkeye.
He announces next that he plans to hate Hawkeye for the rest of his life. In the end, Hawkeye gets Howard the medal that both his characters pined for, and neither deserved.
Howard enjoyed dipping into drama on M*A*S*H and said he knew after doing that episode that the series would be a success because it was so different. “It did have some drama in addition to the comedy, so I kind of felt like it would be successful,” Howard said.