Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Memories, M*A*S*H - 1982

sg Rob Kelly A few weeks ago, Trace and I were watching the M*A*S*H reruns they show on Nick at Nite, and this episode from the 11th season--"Run For the Money"--came on, and I just happened to be working on this blog at the same time.

It was like a thunderclap went off in my head--all the memories I had of watching this episode when it first aired in 1982 came flooding back to me. It's not like I haven't seen this(and every other) episode five thousand times since, but maybe it was the combo of the two at the exact same moment that made the connection for me.

The main(or "A") plot is about Father Mulcahy running a race to win money for the orphange, but it was the "B" story that really hit me.

A wounded solider, a member of the Army Corps of Engineers, arrives, and we find out he stutters. His comrades deride him for it, even after the M*A*S*H doctors tell them to knock it off. We see that this constant berating has left the solider, named Palmer(played by actor Phil Brock), insecure and painfully shy.

Dr.Winchester(played of course by David Ogden Steirs) befriends him, going out of his way to be friendly to young man. He is perplexed by this, and we in the audience are too, knowing what we know of Winchester.

Throughout the episode, we see that the Palmer reads comic books, and there are a couple of brief glimpses of them as he rests in his cot(we never get a good enough shot to see what any of them are).

Winchester takes him in another room and talks to him about his shyness and how he shouldn't let stuttering hold him back. During this wonderful sequence, Winchester reveals that he, too reads(present tense!) comic books, like Captain Marvel! "You read Captain Marvel, too?" Palmer asks incredulously. "Ever since he was a Non-Com!" replies Winchester.

Winchester shows Palmer his(Palmer's) personnel file, revealing an above-average IQ, and names several accomplished people who also stutter, like Winston Churchill. He tries to convince Palmer that he is smart enough to tackle other forms of literature, and gives him a leather-bound copy of Moby Dick. "I read the Classic comic book" Palmer jokingly replies.

With this, Palmer seems more sure of himself, realizing that his stutter is not some symptom of unintelligence, and is grateful to Winchester. He asks why he is doing this, but Winchester dodges the question and takes him back to his bunk. Later we see the doctor lay in his cot, drinking a cup of tea and his listens to an recorded letter from his sister Honoria. It's here we discover that his cultured, erudite sister stutters too.

The effect this episode had on me was enormous. As I've mentioned before, growing up I didn't see comics in the popular culture too much--you didn't see a lot of TV or movie characters read them--so when they showed up it was a big deal. Seeing them mentioned on TV, and on my all-time favorite show(then and now) was just so thrilling to my eleven-year-old mind.

I remember being shocked--shocked!--that the high-class, brilliant Charles Emerson Winchester(the third!) read comics, and even though I knew it was fiction it made me feel a little less sheepish about it. I was already on my way to being way ahead in English and Spelling in school, and my parents chalked that up to all the comic book reading I did as a kid.

And though I never stuttered, it always seemed like a particularly cruel affliction. I talk--a lot(and I have five daily blogs to prove it!)--so not being able to communicate easily would be Hell on Earth to me. Seeing a guy retreat into the world of comic books, and then having them be the thing that Winchester connects with him over, had a sizeable impact on me. Yet I never quite realized how big an impact until just last week.

When I got the idea for this post, I decided to try and talk to the people who wrote it. As you can see from the first screen shot, this episode was written by Elias Davis and David Pollack, with an additional story credit by B.J.Hunnicutt himself, Mike Farrell!

Well, I found that Mr.Farrell has a website, so I emailed him asking about the episode. I got a response the next day(!), from either him or(more likely) his duly-designated webmaster telling me to try Davis and Pollock. How the heck do I do that?

Luckily, I'm friends with
Ken Levine, another M*A*S*H writer(I can't believe I get to write that sentence!) so I asked him if he could hook me up with either of them. Ken helpfully fwd'd my email to David Pollock who wrote me later that day! Wait a minute--I grew up watching M*A*S*H, idolizing the geniuses who put the show together, and I'm trading emails with two of the writers in the same day? Hello, what wonderful planet am I now on?

Anyway, I asked David if he had any specific memories of how the comic book angle got into the show. I knew it was a long shot(we are talking almost twenty-five years ago now), and David let me know that he didn't have any particularly amazing story; most likely the plot was hatched in the writer's room, each of the staff throwing out a little bit here and there until they has a complete story. (My dream that David would tell me he was sitting at home by a window, trying to come up with a story, when all of a sudden a comic book came flying through his window and he goes "A-ha! Comic books!" was for naught.)

David did tell me "
As it turns out, Elias and I won an award for that particular episode from the National Stuttering Association back in 2002. In fact, a clip was shown at their annual convention."

They certainly deserved it, because it's a fine examination of the issue, not to mention just a damn good episode. And it resonated with me, and continues to, all these years later.

And while I know he didn't need the money, I hope Winchester kept all his comics; they'd be worth a fortune by now.


Anonymous said...

Great story! I, too, remember that episode. It was one of the few that made me actually LIKE Winchester (this, and two Christmas episodes, and the one about the pianist come to mind immediately). I remember there was an episode where Houlihan wakes up Radar, and we see that he fell asleep reading an issue of The Avengers from 1968...the wedding of The Wasp & YellowJacket, if I'm not mistaken. Oops! Time slip!!!

chunky B said...

And here I thought I was the only one that enjoyed M*A*S*H as a kid! Like you, this and many other episodes made an impact on me.

Hey, another comic connection that I just stumbled upon, David Ogden Stiers was Martian Manhunter in the 1997 pilot Justice League of America! (how did I miss this one?) and the voice of the Penguin in Batman: Mystery of the Batwoman (I'm going to have to re-watch this now)! plus Dr. Odium in Static Shock and Solovar in Justice League. Those are some deep DC roots!

rob! said...

i thought about mentioning the Manhunter thing(i had even forgotten about the other credits!), but the piece was already so long i left it out.

but yes, DOS has quite a DC-related resume! (plus he was on ST:TNG!)

mark said...

Let's not forget Palmer's Class A jerk of a CO, Captain Sweeney (Thomas Callaway) openly calling Palmer a dummy and mocking his stuttering. Charles could ignore Palmer's peers, but Sweeney grossly overstepped every line in the book. A CO is supposed to set a good example for his men; Sweeney failed miserably. Charles threatened that if Sweeney said one more unkind word to Palmer, Charles would write a report for his "201" file that would dog the rest of his career, cut off his interjection, and walked out.