Gary Burghoff spent an entire career being confused for the character he famously portrayed on TV. Whatever he appeared in, whether on stage or screen, people wanted him to be Radar. It’s hard to forge one’s own identity after being associated with a cultural phenomenon like M*A*S*H. But Burghoff’s face was no longer only his. Whether he wanted to or not, he shared it with Corporal Walter Eugene “Radar” O’Reilly. Maybe it was because he played Radar on both the big screen and the small screen. Regardless of why, Gary Burghoff struggled to establish himself as separate from his most notable role.
By his third season on M*A*S*H, the actor renegotiated his contract, so he’d only need to appear in 13 of the following seasons’ respective 24 episodes. By season seven, burnout had set in so entirely that Burghoff had no choice but to leave the show. The rigorous M*A*S*H schedule had upended his personal life, causing irreparable damage to his relationships. “I was burned out… overloaded… tired… irritable,” said Burghoff in a 1982 interview with The Courier-Daily. “I didn’t know how I felt anymore. I had to get back to things I knew were real.”
In addition to the upheavals in his personal life, what finally sealed the deal for a M*A*S*H exit was the constant Gary/Radar confusion. People everywhere were addressing him by a name that wasn’t his and expecting to greet a personality that belonged to a TV character.
“We all have identities outside our work,” said Burghoff. “If the only identity we have is what we do, then we’re in big trouble — especially if we lose a job. Then we don’t have an identity anymore.” This was all, of course, easier said than done for a man who spent close to a decade as another man.
Luckily though, like a phoenix from the ashes, Gary Burghoff was born again. In more ways than one: He bounced back post-M*A*S*H with renewed faith, attributing his second act to religion.
In the end, Gary Burghoff’s story had a happy ending. Just don’t call him Radar!