A friend, a fellow M*A*S*H enthusiast, once posited Major Charles Emerson Winchester III was the greatest of all the show’s characters. For me to choose one to take a top position is akin to selecting a favorite child, and given Winchester came to the 4077th late in the game I wondered at my friend’s argument. His case, unfortunately, is lost to time and a social media purge, so I can’t reveal what he said.
Recently we lost David Ogden Stiers, who gave life to Winchester and many other memorable roles in film, TV, and stage, and many of the classic-TV stations with rights to air M*A*S*H have responded with week-long Winchester-centric episodes in tribute. I’ve seen every episode of this show several times over, some in first run and all in rerun/streaming format, but this past week served to prove my friend right.
Major Winchester arrived at the 4077th in Season 6 to fill the gap left by Major Frank Burns. Where Larry Linville mastered a smirking, snake in the grass conceit designed to antagonize the staff and patients, Stiers as Winchester raised the bar on pomposity. At the conclusion of the two-parter “Fade Out/Fade In”, we’re led to expect the same with this new Swamp-mate, but a number of factors separate these characters: Burns thought he was a good surgeon, Winchester knew he was great surgeon and had the skills to back it up.
Unlike Burns, Winchester’s moments of antagonism weren’t the product of jealousy of spite, but frustration. He wanted out of the M*A*S*H…who didn’t? Winchester didn’t resort to outrageous Klinger-esque antic to accomplish, nor did he use deception when given an opportunity to leave fell in his lap (winning back his cushy Tokyo gig in “No Laughing Matter” required him to slander Major Houlihan, which he refused to do). Some episodes revealed his prejudices and ill-planned schemes – including one where he attempted to profit on expiring army scrip – yet many highlight his compassion and humanity. Winchester defended a soldier with a stutter from bullies, donated a expensive box of chocolate to local orphans, and helped an injured soldier reclaim his musical abilities. We rarely saw Burns in vulnerable moments, but we felt for Winchester in the moment he confides to Hawkeye that “where I have a father, you have a dad.”
If I take anything from years of watching of Stiers as Winchester, it’s his dedication to his work. The major introduces himself in the operating room thus: “I do one thing at a time, I do it very well, and then I move on.” He saw focus as an asset, and while a fast-paced environment like a M*A*S*H isn’t ideal for meticulous surgery he found a way to apply his work ethic.
I can’t compare my job to emergency surgery, but I can understand the need for focus when dealing with multiple clients. Each one requires my full attention and counts on me to do that one thing very well for them. Be it writing a blog or crafting ad text, I set a goal to deliver my best work, even under the pressure of a deadline.
When the work is done, I’ll treat myself to an episode or two of M*A*S*H, which Stiers and his cast mates performed extremely well.