Max Klinger never was intended to be a full-time character on M*A*S*H. But Jamie Farr was too brilliant at playing a cross-dressing soldier.
And maybe it’s because Farr, who was desperate for work when he was cast in M*A*S*H, tweaked the Klinger character. Farr recalled all this during a 2017 interview with the Toronto Sun.
“The director that week had me rehearse it kind of swishy and even though I didn’t feel it was right, I went along with him,” the M*A*S*H star said. Then (writer) Larry Gelbart got onto the set and said ‘Jamie, this isn’t any good,’ and I said ‘I know, why don’t I just play him as a real guy.’”
Now, there’s a caveat with the “real guy” explanation. Klinger was a real man who still wore over-the-top dresses and other costumes, all in an effort to get a Section Eight discharge out of the Army.
Lenny Bruce Inspired Klinger Character
The first time M*A*S*H fans saw Klinger was on the episode Chief Surgeon Who. Gelbart created the part of Klinger and based him on Lenny Bruce. A ground-breaking stand-up comic, Bruce wore a woman’s uniform during World War II. The Army discharged him for it. And since the best TV shows pull from real headlines, a fictional character was born.
Gene Reynolds, the M*A*S*H director, hired Farr to play Klinger. The two worked together on a previous project. So Farr was added for the episode and was paid $250 a day.
“I was really down on my luck,” Farr said in 2017. “I hadn’t been working, so when they called me, they didn’t even tell me what the part was, they just said you got a part, and it pays $250 for the day. So, I said to my agent, boy I’ll be there.”
And like Bruce a decade before, Klinger wore a woman’s military uniform in his first M*A*S*H episode.
“So I said, ‘what the heck kind of part is this,” Farr recalled. “But I put the thing on, and (everyone) started laughing because of my hairy, bowed legs and everything, then (Reynolds) took me on this stage, and everybody had a good time laughing.”
Klinger’s Outfits Gave M*A*S*H a Pop of Color
Klinger’s outfits also gave the show some more vibrant color to break up all the military-grade green.
“The show was shot in color,” Farr said. “But everything, the jeeps, the tents, the uniforms, were olive drab, so I think Klinger’s outfits were the only things that brought color to the show. The cheesier and more outlandish the outfit, the better it was.”
Klinger wore outfits inspired by Cleopatra, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. By season three of M*A*S*H, Farr, as Klinger, evolved from recurring character to full-time cast member.
Klinger did tone it down when Gary Burghoff, who played Radar, left the show. Klinger became the company clerk of the 4077th. And that was a serious job.
“I took that one joke and parlayed it as best I could,” the M*A*S*H star said. “And the producers figured we’ll move into another area. So that is the reason why they decided to get me out of those outfits.”