The third season MAS*H episode called “House Arrest” invited the most decorated nurse in the Korean War to the Swamp, where she promptly attempted to seduce Frank Burns.
For the role of Colonel Reese, there could have been no character actor to cast other than Mary Wickes.
MAS*H producer Gene Reynolds said in the biography Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before that the episode was written just for Wickes.
It’s most likely the only nurse role specifically written for Wickes in a career full of playing nurses, but even if it’s not, it’s certainly the best one. Reynolds said that Colonel Reese combined two of the comedian’s best-known characters: “the nurse and the man-hungry, unattached woman.”
MAS*H writing duo Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum wrote the episode, and it was their idea to cast her.
They’d worked previously with Wickes on a TV episode of The Gertrude Berg Show that gave Wickes her only Emmy nomination, and they’d never forgotten how funny she was.
“They said, ‘We’ve got a part and we have to use Mary Wickes,’” Reynolds said. “They wrote the part for her.”
When Wickes read the script, she doubled over laughing, describing the character of Colonel Reese as “hysterical – she really was a funny, funny character.”
By the time Wickes appeared on MAS*H, she had acted in more than 300 stage productions and appeared in more than 30 movies.
Her onscreen career started in 1934, after Wickes discovered acting in community theater and ditched her pre-law degree to pursue a career as an actor.
“I never thought I’d be an actress,” Wickes told the Press and Sun-Bulletin in 1975.
But she had been going to see plays since she was a kid and remembered being 7 years old when her love of theater first struck.
“I remember crying when a play was funny because I was so happy,” Wickes said.
In her long career, Wickes became a dependable comedic character actor who refused to do roles with spoken lines that skewed too crass. She would not be the one to deliver dirty jokes.
“I can get as much with a look as with an innuendo,” Wickes told The Daily Leader in 1976. “I’m good enough now. I never say to someone, change that. I just say, get someone else. Mary Wickes can’t tell dirty jokes. I enjoy some that are funny, but I can’t tell them. It’s not me. But I don’t expect people to rewrite for me. Not at all. Just get someone who will do what they want done, but don’t ask me.”
On TV, one of her earliest roles was playing Dennis the Menace’s singing neighbor, and Wickes also created the Mary Poppins role in 1949.
She continued cracking up audiences for decades, with one of her most entertaining final roles as a nun in the 1992 movie Sister Act.
Sixty years into her career, she had just finished the Sister Act sequel when she fell and broke her hip, then died of complications during surgery in 1995.
It was a tragic loss for fans, as well as the acting community that had valued her as one of the best among character actors.
Through her career, Wickes said, “I’ve always been lucky and worked with good people.”
She prioritized getting memorable parts over becoming a star, and she never regretted it.
“I’d rather be the best supporting actress in this business than the lead, a great star,” Wickes said. “I like doing character comedy. There are really many more jobs available.”