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