M*A*S*H Star David Ogden Stiers

Disabled Dealer Magazine      June 2008

The Winner’s Circle

Looking at the Compassionate Side of David Ogden Stiers

by David Block

 

David Ogden Stiers’ impressive 30 plus year acting career spans Broadway,

concert halls, movies and television. He has worked with Hollywood

A-listers such as Woody Allen, Tom Hanks, and Jim Carrey. He has been the

Associate Conductor for the Newport Symphony Orchestra for over 15 years.

He has also lent his distinctive voice to numerous PBS documentaries and

the 2006 motion picture Lady in the Water. However, despite his remarkable

and varied career, he is probably best remembered for his brilliant

portrayal of the tough, yet sometimes sensitive war-time physician, Major

Charles Emerson Winchester III on M*A*S*H from 1977 through 1983.

 

Stiers’ illustrious career makes him a household name and face. But, what

fans may not know about him is that he stuttered throughout his childhood,

adolescence, and even into his early acting career. Stiers said that being

an actor helped cure him.

 

“I didn’t stutter when the lines were written for me,” said Stiers.

“Without lines to read was another story. One day, I noticed that I wasn’t

stuttering anymore, with or without lines. I overcame it by not giving up,

by continuing to play roles, and by overcoming my fear of saying something

wrong, or sounding stupid.”

 

The fact that he stuttered was not his sole reason for compassionately

portraying people with disabilities.

 

Stiers said: “The task of loving people doesn’t have to do with their worst

aspects. It has to do with their best aspects. My feeling, we’re all the

same person but differently expressed. There’s some things I can do others

can’t, vise versa. We’re all accomplished. We’re all on the earth, and the

more we help each other get our tasks accomplished, the better our lives.”

 

This was exuded when he portrayed Dan Franklin, a special education teacher

in the 1977 movie, A Circle of Children. One of the themes of the movie

included special education teachers helping autistic children reach their

full potential.

 

While preparing for the movie the cast visited a classroom for autistic

children.

 

“We sat in the class with them,” said Stiers. “We sat on the floor with the

class. We did a lot with them.”

 

None of the children who appeared in the movie were autistic.

 

Being in the movie was not the only time that Stiers

 

interacted with autistic people. While on M*A*S*H, Stiers and other cast

members frequently interacted with William Christopher’s autistic son, Ned.

Christopher, who was the compassionate Father Mulcahy on M*A*SH, often

brought Ned to the set.

 

“Ned was beginning to function pretty well,” said Stiers. “Whenever Ned

felt comfortable enough to come over to a group of people who were talking,

he was immediately included. Ned was an intelligent young man who thought

at a rate of speed that I could never do.”

 

In 1976 and 1977 Stiers guest starred on The Mary Tyler Moore show, three

times, portraying the WJM Station Manager Mel Price, who happened to

stutter. At the time, Stiers stopped stuttering.

 

“I auditioned for the role and because it was terribly easy for me to

stutter realistically, they hired me.”

 

Stiers summed up Mel Price as being a falsely nice person. Stiers said that

this was particularly evident in episode 157, “Look at Us, We’re Walking.”

In that show, Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) and Lou Grant (Ed Asner)

told Mel Price that if they didn’t get a raise, they’d quit. Price refused

and they walked out. At the end of the episode, Price asked them to return

and he even promised them a raise.

 

Stiers said: “that episode was like a forecast of what was to come in

corporate America. ‘You put in some good work; we’ll kill your 401k. If you

don’t like that, if you get upset and walk away, we won’t care. We’ll hire

someone better qualified for less money. If you want to go, then go!’

That’s pretty much how I view corporate business now. I don’t think that

they care about middle management or medium numbers staff.”

 

While on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Stiers learned from the M*A*S*H writers

and producers that Larry Linville, who played Major Frank Burns, was

leaving the series and they hired Stiers to replace him.

 

“They wanted to keep the character number in tact,” said Stiers.

 

Although there were a number of episodes when Winchester was incredibly

benevolent, two of them dealt with him helping disabled soldiers.

 

In episode 188, “Morale Victory,” Winchester was kind to Private David

Sheridan (James Stephens) who thought that his dream of being a concert

pianist was ruined because of his permanently injured hand. Winchester

showed Sheridan that he could still pursue a meaningful music career, and

that his dream could never be silenced unless he allowed it to be.

 

“That episode was actually an idea and a present from Loretta Swit,” said

Stiers. Swit, who played Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan, had the idea

of having an affair with Private Sheridan but changed her mind because her

character had had flings with other wounded

 

Stiers said that the producers did not develop that episode because Stiers

used to stutter or because he portrayed Mel Price.

 

soldiers. Swit wondered who else could have a rapport with him. She knew

that Stiers studied at Julliard, so he became her obvious choice. She took

her idea to the producers and they liked it.

 

“They told me this was from Loretta,” said Stiers. “That was the hardest I

ever hugged her.”

 

“There are those serendipitous overlap realities that don’t actually know

one another,” said Stiers.

 

In 1987, four years after M*A*S*H ended, Stiers appeared on Matlock in

episode 26 “Blind Justice.” Stiers portrayed Arthur Hampton, a blind

sculptor who committed murder.

 

In episode 244, “Run for the Money” Winchester befriended Private Walter

Palmer (Phil Brock) who stuttered. Winchester told Palmer that from reading

his record, he knew that he had an incredibly high I.Q. To prove this, he

gave Palmer his copy of Moby Dick and told him that that the book was

worthy of his intelligence. When Private Palmer asked Winchester why he was

being so nice to him, Winchester changed the subject.

 

At the end of the episode, Winchester returned to his tent and played a

tape that his sister Honoria mailed him. She stuttered.

 

Stiers explained why Winchester refused to tell Palmer why he was being

kind and supportive: “It was part of the character trait that Winchester

would NEVER admit that he had been kind to someone. He would never admit

that that kindness came from a part of his heart that was wounded by

someone else’s trouble. He would not admit to things like moments of

compassion or insight. He maintained that awful glacial exterior.”

 

“The producers hired for me a blind advisor to be on the set,” said Stiers.

“She was a wonderful young lady with a gorgeous golden retriever, whose

name was unfortunately Andy. (There were two Andy(s) on the set, the Seeing

Eye dog and Matlock’s star, Andy Griffith.) I was not adept to being around

people with disabilities, never attaching my stuttering as a kid to anyone

else’s. I thought that I would never understand anyone else’s problems.

That changed when I was on Matlock. It was opening my head and my heart;

getting on with the empathy that we all need to bring to bear on getting

along with each other.” On the Matlock set, Stiers committed a memorably

embarrassing faux pas: “I would finish rehearsing a scene; I’d walk to the

woman and ask, `How did I look? Did I do everything right?’ I forgot that

she couldn’t see. She forgave me. We became good friends.”

 

Stiers’ advice to all aspiring actors and musicians, both able-bodied

and/or with disabilities is the same…… never give up!