When a sniper opens fire on the 4077th in MAS*H’s second season, everyone huddles in the dark, keeping still. That didn’t stop Hawkeye from giving a pretty nurse a little nudge.
“This is eerie,” the nurse tells Hawkeye.
“Sit a little closer,” Hawkeye suggests, in typical ladies’ man fashion. “It drives away the series.”
“Why do I feel safe here with you?” she says, snuggling into Hawkeye’s arms.
“Search me,” Hawkeye jokes back. “I don’t.”
Playing the nurse in this scene from “The Sniper” is Teri Garr, an actor who became a comedy legend after gaining attention as one of the most crushworthy women of the Seventies.
She was everybody’s crush in this era, not because of her beauty — although she had plenty of that — but because she appeared to be the complete package: the specific kinda dream girl who every girl wants as her best friend and every guy wants on his arm.
“Not quite the girl next door; that would be too perfect,” Washington Post critic Tom Zito wrote in 1983. “She’s more like the girl next door to the girl next door.”
“I always had this American-pie face,” Garr said.
Born to a vaudeville actor and a Rockette, Garr was destined for a career in entertainment.
“Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a dancer, to wear fancy costumes and play make-believe,” Garr told the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 1984.
A dancer is precisely how Garr broke out, working hard to move up in Elvis movies and on the TV show Shindig!
“It dawned on me that I was better than the people dancing in the row in front of me,” Garr told the Post. “But sometimes it’s hard to be assertive. Even now, when I get tired of playing the roles I do, I think of the million other women who want to be me and I go right back to work and say, ‘Thank you very much.'”
By the time Garr appeared on MAS*H, she had just broken out from background roles in movies to speaking roles on TV, starting when she memorably rolled into Mayberry in a red convertible on The Andy Griffith Show in 1968.
Her big breaks came that year from two memorable roles, one on the big screen, and one on TV.
For the Monkees movie Head, Jack Nicholson, who wrote the script, chose Garr as a woman who gets a snake bite and begs, “Quick, suck it before the venom reaches my heart!” This would become Garr’s first-ver onscreen line.
Then, in the Star Trek episode “Assignment: Earth,” she played a secretary mistaken for an agent who unwittingly helps an alien escape from Kirk and Spock. The episode was supposed to lead to a spin-off series, where Garr would have had her first TV cast role, but the spin-off series was not meant to be.
Instead, Garr said she got cast as a bunch of “birdbrained lasses” in bit parts on TV, which she said kept her from landing the major roles she felt she deserved.
“I’ve worked a lot, but it’s been mostly character roles,” she told the Pittsburgh Press in 1984. “I’d like to play a leading lady who is the focal point of the picture, you know?”
“What I’ve done is more quantity than quality. I want to do quality,” she said.
It didn’t matter to folks in the audience whether Garr was in the spotlight, though, she still caught pretty much everyone’s eye. The Pittsburgh Press article declared that “almost every adult male fell in love with a Teri Garr in his senior year in high school.”
Garr thought this sort of attention was silly, but she could relate. When she was growing up, Garr confirmed in her memoir Speedbumps: Flooring It Through Hollywood that her celebrity crush was James Dean.
Although Garr was typecast for a long time as the kind of wholesome girl perfect for commercials for laundry detergent or toothpaste, and then later as a mom, she kept her head up and her eye on the prize.
“I’ve always had a very positive attitude,” Garr told the Sentinel. “Whenever I walked out after being rejected in an interview, I always said, ‘You are so wrong. You’ll be sorry that you didn’t choose me for the job.'”
Garr’s fans know that the year after she appeared on MAS*H, her career picked up sensationally when Mel Brooks cast her as Inga in Young Frankenstein. She apparently got offered the role of Inga after nearly getting cast as Elizabeth, a role performed in the movie by Madeline Kahn.
“Mel picked me [for Elizabeth] out of 500 girls, but he admitted Madeline Kahn was considering the part,” Garr said. “He called me back to say Madeline had accepted the role. But could I come back the next day with a German accent? I said, ‘Ya, I zertainly can.'”
In his memoir, Brooks remembered her audition a little differently. He recalled that she got cast because the movie’s star, Gene Wilder, also had a crush on Garr. “Teri was a dancer on television,” Brooks wrote in Young Frankenstein: A Mel Brooks Book. “It was Gene, not me, who insisted that we audition her. The rumor is during the movie they may have fallen madly in love with each other.”
Wilder wasn’t the only one who saw something special in Garr, though.
“I knew Teri would be sensational,” Brooks said.
Less than a decade later, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Dustin Hoffman’s acclaimed comedy Tootsie.
Now considered a comedic legend, Garr looks back at her time on MAS*H a little less romantically than Hawkeye actor Alan Alda probably does:
“I remember once saying I clawed my way to the middle,” Garr told The Ottawa Citizen.
That newspaper declared “a whole generation of young men had a crush on her” during this scrappiest phase of her career. Asked what she thought of becoming one of the Seventies biggest sweethearts, Garr demurred, the perfect girl next door to the girl next door: “I’m really not aware of it. People say that and I say, ‘Oh, you’re kidding.'”