Wayne Rogers (left) in MASH scene with Alan Alda (right)

Image courtesy of CBS Television/20th Century Fox Television

M*A*S*H Star Wayne Rogers Dies at 82

| published January 1, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

He was one half of a television comedy-drama duo arguably among the funniest and most endearing in TV history. And though the show was set in during the Korean conflict of the 1950s, its writing was in fact a sharply-crafted, thinly-disguised commentary upon the Vietnam War.

Actor Wayne Rogers died this week at the age of 82. A prolific and well-known actor of stage and television, he was best remembered for his longstanding role as Captain “Trapper” John McIntyre in the classic TV series M*A*S*H, which ran from September 1972 to February 1983—an eleven year run during which the show won frequent Emmys and often ranked among the top ten shows for viewership each year.

Rogers played the role of McIntyre from the first episode through the end of the third season, at which time he left the series and his character was written out of the script—only to return in his stateside incarnation in the TV series “Trapper John, MD” (played by Pernell Roberts). Rogers also played regular parts in a dozen other TV series, including Murder, She Wrote, and City of Angels. He also became a fixture on Fox News and Fox Business Channel as an analyst and commentator—a fact often missed by aficionados of the television series M*A*S*H not aware of Rogers’ alternate life as a real estate investor, money manager and investment analyst.

He appeared in scores of TV shows in guest roles. Like many actors in the crowded world of Southern California, he accepted many roles over time. His guests appearances were frequent and diverse: The F.B.I.; Gunsmoke; Gomer Pyle, USMC; The Fugitive, and several seasons in the late 1950s as “Slim Davis” in the daytime drama Search for Tomorrow. He landed bit parts in movies, like his modest supporting role in Cool Hand Luke opposite Paul Newman and Strother Martin.

But Rogers’ most famous character portrayal was that of Captain McIntryre, an Army surgeon deployed to a mobile army surgical hospital unit in war torn Korea. Rogers played off against his constant friend and fellow surgeon, “Hawkeye” Pierce, played by Alan Alda. The Alda-Rogers chemistry was a staple of the writing and scripting for M*A*S*H, which was developed by Larry Gelbart as a close adaptation of the successful movie of the same name. (The Hollywood movie was itself adapted from Richard Hooker’s 1968 novel, MASH: A Novel of Three Doctors, often cited by literary critics as the successor to Joseph Heller’s best-selling dark comedy Catch-22).

Rogers was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in April of 1933. He dabbled with a bit of stage in high school and college, but majored in history with a minor in economics at Princeton, where he was a member of the Princeton Triangle Club. His real life stint in the U.S. Navy in the early 1950s and at the height of the Korean War helped him years later when he needed to slip more adeptly into the role of a military surgeon deployed near the front lines.

When his agent told him about the chance to secure a role in the TV show M*A*S*H, which was then under development after the success of the novel and the movie, Rogers was first asked to consider the top spot—the role of Hawkeye Piece. But after reading the material, Rogers decided that the part involved too much cynicism and gloomy dark humor. The character of Trapper John—through a realist and an integral part of the comedic back-and-forth—was nevertheless the sunnier and more optimistic of the two principal characters. Rogers felt that McIntyre better suited the upbeat spirit of his own personality, and he passed on playing Hawkeye. The part went instead to Alan Alda. The pairing worked well, and their comedic rapport became a fundamental part of the show’s award-winning writing. Adding to the mix in the early seasons: McLean Stevenson as Col. Henry Blake.

Ironically, Rogers decision to pass on the role of Hawkeye and take on the character of Trapper John instead proved problematic to his original understanding of how the writing for the series would evolve over time. Hawkeye and McIntyre were to be equals, and the lynchpins of the show’s narrative, but over time ratings and focus groups indicated to the CBS brass and the show’s producers that in the give-and-take between hardened cynic (Hawkeye) and jesting optimist (McIntyre), audiences found the cynicism funnier and more appealing. Alda was drawing the most positive reviews, and by the end of the second season was regarded as the star—both in terms of fan base and in the way the writers deferred toward his character. Though Alda and Rogers were close friends, Rogers (like McLean Stevenson) felt that the show’s writers were recrafting the series to favor Alda’s comedic stylings and timing.

By midway through Season 3, Rogers already wanted out, but decided to stick with it through the end of Season 4. However, after several contractual disputes in early 1974 Rogers felt that the time for his departure had come, and he left immediately after shooting for Season 3 was concluded. That summer, Mike Farrell was offered the part of a new character, Dr. B.J. Hunnicutt.

Though M*A*S*H was written to tell the story of medical units and surgeons during the Korean War, a critical long view of the show quickly developed that the series had as its most obvious targets the Vietnam War, political hypocrisy, and the sort of bureaucratic corruption exemplified by Watergate. Many TV critics credit the show’s durability to its ability to thread the experiences and sensibilities of the 1970s so neatly into a plot narrative set in another decade and place. That the more hardened and jaded of the two principal characters “prevailed” so quickly in the long series has been interpreted by some TV historians as evidence that the show accurately reflected the cynicism of the 1970s, and in fact had an only superficial connection to the realities of war on the Korean Peninsula in the 1950s.

Still, the writing was crisp and compelling, and the show’s casting was crafted skillfully enough to bring the show some of the highest ratings in television year after year. The final 2 hour 30 minute farewell episode, which aired on February 28, 1983, drew in more than 125 million viewers and pulled in a then-unprecedented a Nielsen rating of 60.2, making it the most highly watched single TV event in history at that time (that record has been broken several times since by recent Super Bowl events).

Rogers was already somewhat adept at making money in the financial markets by the time he left M*A*S*H. But his real estate and financial activities became something of a second—and completely parallel—career for the TV actor. He eventually started his own investment and money management firm, Wayne Rogers & Co., and would go on to become a board member of several technology companies based in California. Politically a centrist, Rogers appeared before House and Senate panels in 1988 and again in 1990 to testify on behalf of the importance of banking and finance laws such as the Glass-Steagal Act of 1933 which require the separation of commercial banks from investment firms.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Leonard Nimoy, Rest in Peace; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; February 28, 2015.

Frank Gifford, Rest in Peace; Earl Perkins; Thursday Review; August 19, 2015.