The MAS*H prankathons were epic episodes, and most definitely among the show’s most hilarious. Among the very best pranksters was B.J. Hunnicutt, who once dedicated 24 hours toward winning a bet that he could prank everyone in the camp.
It’s a quintessential aspect of BJ’s character that he be clever and funny enough to pull off these pranks, and it’s a set up that adds a lot of tension to the sixth-season episode, “Last Laugh,” where B.J. gets arrested after an old prankster buddy shows up and makes light of a serious situation.
In “Last Laugh,” the role of B.J.’s buddy Leo Bardonaro went to actor James Cromwell. Today, Cromwell is an Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning actor, but back in 1977, he was just at the beginning of his career.
Before his guest appearance on MAS*H, Cromwell had appeared on TV in a handful of recurring roles, including a memorable character on All in the Family called Stretch Cunningham. Stretch was also a prankster and one of Archie’s best friends, and it seems this early role set the tone for the types of roles Cromwell got in the Seventies.
Not everybody realizes this, but when you’re watching “Last Laugh,” you’re actually getting a peek at who B.J. might have been if Mike Farrell had not gotten the part.
Cromwell auditioned, but Farrell won the role, and “Last Laugh” became our only glimpse at how Cromwell’s take on impish pranksterism could’ve meshed with the rest of the MAS*H cast. It makes the episode extra fun to watch, knowing what could have been.
In The Hollywood Reporter, Farrell described how he beat out Cromwell and another MAS*H guest star Alan Fudge (who appears in “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler”), simply by being one of the first people they thought of to call:
“My agent calls and tells me there’s a possibility that Wayne Rogers is leaving. They want to know if I’d be willing to come over and have a meeting. I was as nervous as a kitten going to this interview because I thought this show was so incredibly wonderful. Gene, Larry [Gelbart] and Burt told me they couldn’t promise anything. They just had to prepare in the event Wayne leaves.”
After a screen test with Alan Alda, Farrell said he was visiting his mother when his phone rang.
“You got it,” his agent told him.
“I said something along the lines of, ‘I can’t talk right now,’ and hung up,” Farrell said. “I ran in, hugged my mother.”
After missing out on MASH, Cromwell appeared on just about every TV show you can think of, until his movie career picked up in the mid-1990s, thanks to his charming role in Babe. To this day, he remains prolific, appearing in multiple productions, and it all started with the prankster spirit you can see both in his MASH character’s friendship with B.J. Hunnicutt — and in the character he would’ve liked a chance to play.