“One of the first things you learn out here is insanity is no worse than the common cold,” Hawkeye tells B.J. the moment he arrives at camp in the fourth-season MAS*H opener “Welcome to Korea.”
B.J. has no snappy retort ready to zip off. All he does is smile a tight-lipped, conservative grin and grunt, “Hmm,” as if Hawkeye’s joke has given the new captain something to think about.
When B.J. Hunnicutt replaced Trapper John on MAS*H, nobody knew what to expect from this new character, not the audience and not even Mike Farrell, the actor cast to play B.J. And this first scene betrayed no hint of how the character would evolve.
“The role is going great and is getting better,” Farrell told The Indianapolis Star in 1975. He said the character was meant to be an “easy-going new Army inductee” whose attitude gradually changes as he settles into camp.
MAS*H producer Gene Reynolds said it was disappointing saying goodbye to Wayne Rogers and losing Trapper John, but that he didn’t view adding new characters to the show as gambling with the cast’s chemistry. He saw it as a chance to add even more dimension to the already dynamic cast.
“The introduction of new cast members gives a chance to re-examine the relationships and create new ones,” Reynolds told The Miami Herald in 1975. “New people can be an advantage to a show.”
Jamie Farr agreed that the fourth season was a turning point on the show that allowed for new growth, in particular through the eyes of Farrell’s new character, B.J. Hunnicutt.
“Mike Farrell is somewhat like Trapper,” Farr told The Lexington Herald in 1975, explaining that B.J. is “a doctor who has been in the Army a short time and never seen action. As a character, he has some growth yet. He’s seeing what is happening and you are getting a reaction from his point of view. And we are the veterans and have seen it. It’s an extra element of the show.”
Before B.J.’s first episode aired, however, the pressure was on, and as evidenced by The Miami Herald’s preview piece, not everybody in the audience knew what to expect or even want from the new captain:
“MAS*H’s large and devoted TV audience will expect Mike Farrell, as B.J., to be every bit as hilarious as Wayne Rogers (Trapper) was for three years,” the critic Bob Thomas wrote.
But Farrell had a different, more subdued kind of character in mind. He told Thomas that if B.J. was written to be just a knock-off version of Trapper John, he strongly felt he could not have taken the part in the show.
Instead, Farrell told The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1975 that he was excited to play B.J. as “a softer guy than Trapper, not so hard in edge and hopefully more likable, who wants to put in his Army time as constructive as possible.”
Once Farrell joined MAS*H, he told The Indianapolis Star that, “It was a little tough to get into the role.”
In particular, he struggled with the show’s humor, which must’ve felt extra-stressful considering Wayne Rogers’ portrayal of Trapper John was celebrated for the humorous banter between him and Hawkeye that consistently kept crowds tuned in.
“The keynote of MAS*H comedy is understatement,” Farrell said. “And I’m discovering that the subtleties of this kind of humor take a while to master. I consider the series creator, Larry Gelbart, a true genius.”
Of course, we all know how this story ends, with one of the most-watched TV finales of all time that hung its hat on how much audiences cherished the bond between B.J. and Hawkeye.
What do you think? Did Farrell achieve his goal of making B.J. more likable than the very popular Trapper John?