Benjamin “Hawkeye” Pierce was MASH‘s true lead, but his best partner-in-crime wasn’t Trapper John McIntyre, it was his replacement — BJ Hunnicutt. The groundbreaking medical dramedy ran for 11 seasons on CBS. Given how long it was on the air, it had a few cast changes over the years — most of them concentrated in its first few years. As an ensemble, losing characters left the show in a tricky position. Arguably the biggest departure from MASH, however, was when Wayne Rogers left the series. Considering how pivotal he was during the first few seasons of the show, his exit could have spelled the end of the dark sitcom.
Rogers decided to leave MASH after season 3. Unlike Henry Blake’s farewell which was well-executed with his tragic death, Trapper’s exit was abrupt, he didn’t even get to have an actual farewell storyline. This created a big issue for the writers of the show as they were forced to bring in new characters to fill the void left by cast members who departed the series. While Blake was replaced by a more buttoned-up commanding officer for the 4077 in Col. Sherman T. Potter, Hawkeye found a new partner-in-crime in BJ. Comparisons between the characters were inevitable — something that continues to be a favorite topic of conversation among MASH fans.
Why BJ Was Hawkeye’s Best MASH Partner, Not Trapper
From the get-go, MASH established Hawkeye and Trapper’s tandem as goofy but capable doctors with hearts of gold. Throughout the first three seasons of the show, the pair had been involved in multiple schemes. Some of them were meant to terrorize their own co-workers, particularly Frank Burns and Margaret Houlihan. However, some of their ploys, while still hilarious, had a deeper objective, just like when they invented a military man just to fund an orphanage. The chemistry between Alan Alda and Rogers was also palpable. They riffed on each other naturally, which made watching Hawkeye and Trapper be mischievous so fun.
That being said, for the kind of show that CBS’ dark comedy eventually became, Hawkeye was definitely better off with BJ. Introduced in the MASH season 3 premiere, “Welcome to Korea” as the actual replacement to Trapper, Hunnicut and Hawkeye quickly bonded over a series of unfortunate events from the airport all the way to their trip back to the 4077. Subjecting both of them to stress immediately established their camaraderie, which was pivotal considering the pressure for Hunnicut to fill in the big shoes that Trapper left.
Despite being a replacement, the dynamic between Hawkeye and Hunnicut was different. It wasn’t always fun and games, which was oftentimes the case for Hawkeye and Trapper. This allowed MASH to easily stage more dramatic moments and tackle more serious narratives. As great as they were together, there were times that it felt like Hawkeye and Trapper were almost in competition with each other. MASH didn’t lean on this subtle rivalry, but it was there. That wasn’t the case with Hawkeye and Hunnicut. They were different enough that they complemented each other, which made for a better relationship.
MASH’s Trapper and BJ Are Different From Each Other
Knowing full well that comparisons between the old and new cast members were inevitable after MASH‘s cast exodus, CBS opted to make their replacement characters significantly different from their predecessors. That was the case for Blake and Potter, but also for Trapper and Hunnicut. Like Hawkeye, Trapper was goofy and childlike. He was married, but he unabashedly fraternized with the nurses. Hunnicut, on the other hand, was more straight-up. He wasn’t below a good sarcastic remark or prank, but he was a devoted husband and father. This created so many unique storytelling opportunities for the character. It also effectively differentiated him from Hawkeye.
What MASH Would’ve Looked Like If Trapper Stayed
When MASH started, it was more of a straight-up comedy. It did feature some dramatic moments, including when Hawkeye couldn’t save his long-time friend who was injured in the war. As the show progressed, its storytelling became more provocative — toeing the fine line between comedy and drama. It’s difficult to imagine MASH making this seamless transition if Trapper (and even Blake) was still in the show. Had he stayed, the series may have continued to lean on its lightheartedness. Otherwise, it would have been trickier to make the subsequent darker moments of the project work.
Trapper staying would have also had behind-the-scenes ramifications on the show. As widely reported, Rogers left MASH because he felt outshone by Alda, when the series was technically supposed to be an ensemble. If they weren’t able to address the burgeoning issue and Rogers continued his involvement, it could have gotten worse. However, if changes were made to accommodate his complaints, maybe MASH would have not been the hit that it eventually became.