Of all of MAS*H’s many nurses, from head nurse Margaret Houlihan to Hawkeye’s original sweetie Lt. Dish, Nurse Kellye arguably brought the most sunshine. Played by Kellye Nakahara in her first-ever acting role, Nurse Kellye appeared in 167 episodes, just 10 shy of Gary Burghoff’s Radar, but because her quirky character had few lines, it’s easy for her to slip into the background of the show’s history, if you let her.
Today, it’s time to salute the 4077th’s most understated but ever-cheerful cast member Nurse Kellye. Understanding how the character got added to the cast all starts with looking a little closer at the actress Nakahara.
Nakahara was from Hawaii, but as a young artist, she’d recently moved to San Francisco. That’s where she met her husband, David Wallett, who swept her away to Los Angeles and encouraged her to try acting. Soon, she landed a bit part on MAS*H as Nurse #1.
Even though Nakahara was in such a minor role, it was her first experience as a hired actor, and she worked out her nerves on set by doing silly things like tap-dancing to shake them out. The crew noticed her antsy antics and the next thing she knew, Nakahara told NPR in 2016, the character started being shaped to be more and more like her authentic self: “One of the scenes is me tap dancing, and it was really hilarious because I would think I was tap dancing and trying to practice tap dancing – which was awful – in my boots all the time while waiting for a scene to start. And all of the things that I really was off-screen, they put into my character.”
Beyond fleshing out her onscreen persona, Nakahara also sparked friendships that ensured Nurse Kellye stuck around.
She told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018, “Gene [Reynolds] and Alan [Alda] liked me. All of a sudden, I was being written in as Nurse 123 and then Nurse Able, Baker and Charlie. At some point, Alan said he couldn’t keep calling me ‘Nurse 1.’ ‘You’re Kellye. Nurse Kellye.'”
Once that was settled, the actress told NPR, “I just was so thrilled to be on that set. I loved the smell of the tents. I loved the people. So I would have a great time with the writers and talk to them and the crew, who I loved. And really, we became such great friends that I think I was in every scene because I put myself in every scene… And nobody told me to get out.”
She’s being modest, of course, because Nurse Kellye wasn’t always such a minor presence. There’s “Hey, Look Me Over,” where she’s the episode star, challenging Hawkeye on his superficial views and sharing two memorable dances with Alan Alda. In “Mail Call, Again,” she draws a laugh in a close-up shot, puffing on a cigar to celebrate the birth of Harry Morgan’s character Potter’s granddaughter. She’d share an even more significant scene with Morgan again when it came time to shoot the show’s final episode.
For “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” a scene was famously added to the episode in which an overnight bombing sparks a wildfire in the forest surrounding the camp, forcing an evacuation. What really happened was that an actual wildfire – the catastrophic Dayton Canyon Fire – had scorched the outdoor sets of MAS*H so badly, they had to write the natural disaster into the episode, and they needed to shoot additional footage to do it.
So Nakahara and Morgan visited the disaster site to shoot a very short but emotional scene of the pair surveying the damage to the camp. It was a rare somber moment for the upbeat character.
More rare was the development of Nakahara’s character on the cast of this show at this point in the 1970s and 1980s. Nakahara told The Hollywood Reporter, “I was the first Asian who didn’t play one. I was just an American soldier, a nurse on the same level as everyone else. My true ethnicity never even came up.”
Instead, Nurse Kellye as Nakahara described her was, “You know, a very, very competent person who was positive and upbeat and sweet.”
She continued in her interview with NPR:
“What she was to me was a genuine person who wasn’t being looked at in the same way as the glamorous girls that were coming through the compound.
And when she just stood up to Hawkeye and told him off, she made it clear that there’s so much more to me than you think there is. And I got mail. I still get mail. I have people coming up to me that say, as far as being Asian, you’re the first role model that I had of an Asian that wasn’t portrayed as an Asian, just as a person.
And I think that was – it took a long time, I think, for that to come around. I hope that it’s starting to change now. But I think it’s taken a long time.”
After the series ended, Nakahara said the fan mail never stopped. And to commemorate the conclusion of her biggest TV role, she told NPR that she threw her own parties when MAS*H wrapped:
“Then, after the show was over, we had potlucks at my house. And I thought, This is really hilarious. Here in Pasadena, down this little old street with craftsman houses, and I said, there comes Alan Alda with his pasta salad. This is hilarious.”