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People Top 5
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- October 24, 1983
- Vol. 20
- No. 17
The War (and M*A*S*H is Over, but for Colonel Potter and Company, the Show Goes on
AfterMASH is a ratings smash—so far. About 100 million people watched its premiere, the most successful season opener since Laverne & Shirley in 1976. Some critics embraced it. "A mixture of heavy and light, good writing and acting," ruled the Los Angeles Times. But lots of others brought out their scalpels, arguing that AfterMASH is preachy without punch. "Right as rain and dull as dishwater," moaned the Washington Post. It may be a Little Hospital on the Prairie or a Doctor Knows Best, but one thing is certain: It is not M*A*S*H.
"We don't want to do M*A*S*H!" protests Jamie Farr, 49, who after M*A*S*H is still Klinger. "We want to do something new." The cast and crew are plainly defensive on this point. "I can't imagine that I will ever be on anything like M*A*S*H again," says Farr. "But that doesn't mean I should go out and shoot myself."
To viewers, though, comparisons are inevitable. The most obvious difference is the absence of Alan Alda, who ended the war and M*A*S*H itself in the last episode in February and now is off making Atari commercials and developing a TV series based on his movie The Four Seasons. "I love Alan Alda," Farr says. "But I'll tell you, when we watched the show, I didn't miss him." On the set there are nothing but kind words for Alda, who sent flowers for the first day of filming (His message to Farr was: "Don't forget, I want to see at least one of those moist eyes in every episode"). "He was very gracious and supportive," says Larry Gelbart, creator of both M*A*S*H and its sequel. "I expected no less." But Alda is not planning to make a guest appearance. "He wants to let Hawkeye stay in Korea," says Burt Metcalfe, executive producer of the sequel and of M*A*S*H. "That is basically the feeling of all of them." The other alums—Loretta ("Hot Lips") Swit, Mike ("B.J.") Farrell and the man with six names, David Ogden ("Charles Emerson Winchester") Stiers—have no new TV series in the works. But Farrell is planning to star in a TV movie as a Vietnam vet, and Swit plays a jilted professor in the CBS movie First Affair next Tuesday.
So the sequel is placing its bets on Harry Morgan, 68, as the retired Colonel Potter, father figure extraordinaire and now head of staff at the General Pershing veterans hospital in River Bend, Mo., along with Farr as Klinger, his ever-loyal clerk, and William Christopher as Father Mulcahy, the eternally optimistic priest who now has a drinking problem. It is an amiable bunch—the nice guys, not the naysayers, from the old ensemble. "Three preachy Pollyannas," gripes one critic. Their popularity, though, is unquestionable. In the TVQ ratings of tube personalities' appeal, Gelbart reports, Alda consistently ranks No. 1, but Morgan is No. 2, and Farr is a quite respectable No. 10. "We don't have anything like the leading man we had in Alan," Gelbart acknowledges. But he adds: "I think this show can survive without Alda."
The replacement troops are led by Barbara Townsend (who's about Morgan's age), an intriguing unknown, as Potter's sweet wife, Mildred, and the 25ish Rosalind Chao as Klinger's Korean war bride, Soon Lee. If possible, they're even nicer than their husbands. Okay, there are two bad guys—John Chappell as the bombastic, bureaucratic hospital administrator and Brandis Kemp as his loyal and loathsome clerk. But so far they are just cardboard characters.
That's the real difference between the ole block and the chip off it: There were no bad guys in M*A*S*H—irascible, yes, bad, no. The bad guy was war. But AfterMASH is set in peaceful 1953. "Not having Korea to play against is a problem; I don't know if we can solve it," Gelbart concedes. "Peace isn't nearly as crazy as war...unless you Live in Beverly Hills."
The company is convinced that a veterans hospital is a lush jungle of story lines. "Look at the subject matter you can deal with—endless!" says Farr. The cast visited a VA hospital in L.A., and the writers interviewed dozens of hospital patients, doctors and even janitors to find true tales about veterans. As Gelbart says: "If the theme of M*A*S*H was war is hell, the theme of AfterMASH is that peace is no picnic either."
The show will also tackle everyday problems of life in the '50s: paying the rent, prejudice (in the second show, a patient calls Soon Lee a "gook"), bureaucracy and more.
There will be no cheesecake in khaki or white on this show. "There's no room for it," Gelbart says. Nor will there be as much blood—none from battle, little from the operating room. "We've had one little operation in the seven shows we've done so far," Morgan says. "In it, the train comes by and I say, 'There's the 2:10, hold his organs.' " With jokes like that, the laugh-track comes in handy. "The laughs—some of them—are there," Farr protests. "They're going to get better."
Farr is both the company clerk and the cheerleader. He defends the show against all criticism as "a work of love, Capraesque...terrific, despite what some of the reviewers have said." He heats up. "Do they think we're doing it for money? Larry Gelbart could go anyplace after Tootsie. I could go anyplace. I could go and get my own series, guaranteed. I don't need this."
AfterMASH was, in part, Farr's idea. He spent 11 years on the old show and, "about halfway through the last season," he recalls, "I was just talking and Alan just happened to mention something in passing: 'Jeez, I wonder what happened to all those patients in post-op.' The minute he said that, it triggered an idea, and I said, 'Of course, a veterans hospital! It's never been done.' " Morgan—the veteran of eight TV series, from Dragnet to Pete and Gladys, and of eight seasons as Potter on M*A*S*H—had planned on "slowing down and taking it easy." But the new show enticed him. "I've never been more comfortable in a part than with Colonel Potter," he says. Then William Christopher, another 11-year M*A*S*H vet, joined up.
"Some people came up with story lines where Colonel Potter moves in with Klinger," Farr recalls, "and we become a 1950s' odd couple. I said, 'Come on, let's do something significant.' " They pushed the VA idea. It was not an easy sell. Three M*A*S*H producers turned them down. "They felt it would be maudlin," Farr says. "They also thought that it would be compared with M*A*S*H, which has been the case. Harry and I were shattered."
But Gelbart was interested. "Larry goes off to his think factory in Palm Springs," Farr reports, "and what does he come up with? A veterans hospital. It's a natural!" He signed on to create the show and write two episodes, including the premiere. Gelbart, a god on the sitcom circuit, was the magnet who attracted heavy talent to the show—among them David Isaacs and Ken Le-vine, Emmy-winning producers from Cheers. But even then it wasn't an easy sell; it was still only an idea. "That's all they had," Morgan says. "Gelbart's brain and Jamie and Bill and me." CBS bought only 13 shows, hedging its bets on a full 22-week season.
Then came the job of looking for the rest of the cast. The toughest hire was Mildred Potter, known in absentia to every M*A*S*H fan through her homey letters to the colonel. Gelbart was looking among a half dozen actresses for a cross between Bess Truman and Gracie Allen. Then Morgan's agent gave him a picture of Barbara Town-send. She tried out. "I read perfectly horribly," she recalls. "I hadn't been that nervous in years." Gelbart told her to "stop being Mildred Potter and just be Barbara Townsend." She got the part. Then she met her TV husband. "When I saw Barbara," Morgan says, "I thought she was absolutely right on the nose." To keep anticipation high among old M*A*S*H fans, Townsend's debut was hidden from view; no critic was allowed to preview the premiere.
Viewers had already seen Town-send, dozens of times, in commercials for everything from cars to deodorants. She's a 45-year veteran of showbiz who was born in Piedmont, Calif., attended the University of California at Berkeley and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, then worked for $10 a week making background noises on The March of Time, a radio show based on TIME magazine.
She gave up acting in 1938 to marry John Shaffer III, an Annapolis graduate who died in World War II while commanding the destroyer Champlin in the Atlantic. With their daughter, Sandra, in tow, Townsend returned to New York and for 14 years worked steadily on radio (Armstrong Theater of Today) and TV (I Remember Mama).
In 1958 she again left the business to marry Dr. William Louis Wheeler Jr., a New York internist. In 1969 they moved to Nairobi, Kenya—a city they fell in love with during a photo safari. But the doctor died 10 weeks after they arrived. Townsend stayed in Nairobi to emcee an English-language radio program featuring Italian opera for a country that speaks Swahili. She returned to the States in 1975, first to the Bay Area, where she made some episodes of Streets of San Francisco, then to L.A. (She still commutes from her tiny Beverly Hills apartment to San Francisco every weekend to go to the opera.)
Then came the part of Mildred Potter. "I really never saw M*A*S*H," she admits. "But once I got called, I became an addict, looking at the reruns."
Harry Morgan's own wife, Eileen, a former actress, looks a lot like Town-send, and the two women get along "pretty well," he says, "but I sit between them so as not to take any chances."
Finding a mate for Farr (whose real-life wife, Joy, 44, is a former model) was a snap; Soon Lee came with Klinger in a package deal, since they had met and married in the last episodes of M*A*S*H. In fact, his beautiful Korean bride, Rosalind Chao, is not Korean. She's the American daughter of Chinese parents, 1948 immigrants (her father from Soochow near Shanghai and her mother from Peking). They now own Chao's Chinese-American Restaurant in Anaheim. Since Rosalind speaks Mandarin, she had to learn her Korean accent.
Chao was discovered at 4 in her parents' restaurant and cast in Teahouse of the August Moon at the Melody-land Theater near Disneyland. "I was bitten by the bug," she recalls. As a youngster she made commercials, played in a Here's Lucy and, after graduating from USC with a degree in broadcast journalism, played a reporter in Chuck Norris' An Eye for an Eye. More recently Chao was Gary Coleman's teacher on Diff'rent Strokes.
Her brother, Raymond, a former child actor himself and now a business student, played a small part on a 1977 episode of M*A*S*H. "And I never even got auditioned," Rosalind fumes. "I used to get so furious. But it was worth waiting for this part."
Like Soon Lee, who kept Klinger in Korea to look for her parents, Chao reflects her conservative Asian upbringing. "I still consider myself Old Worldish," she says. "To this day I listen to my parents' advice." She was taught her parents' tongue at an early age and attended both Buddhist and Christian religious ceremonies. Her mother even brought a fortune-teller to her house for a consultation (she ruled that the closet in Rosalind's Santa Monica condo was feng-shui jen hau, "very good for my career").
With the addition of stage actor Jay O. Sanders as another doctor on the show, the ensemble was complete and the cast went to work. "They were all scared to death," Morgan says. "But," Farr adds, "we didn't allow them to be intimidated." "They were really looking out for me," Chao says, "almost like the kid sister of the bunch."
That sort of ensemble morale may be AfterMASH's most valuable asset. "The thing that made M*A*S*H so good was the fact that we did have those relationships off-camera and took them on-camera," Morgan says. "We haven't got what we had on M*A*S*H. Maybe we never will have. But it's a helluva nice bunch of people, and maybe it will come to that someday." The question is, given the tough act it has to follow, whether the show will last that long.
- David Wallace.
January 31, 2015
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