Monday, January 4, 2016

Good Bye Trapper, Remembering Wayne Rogers

On the final day of 2015, Wayne Rogers, the actor best known for portraying Capt. “Trapper” John McIntyre on the classic tv series M*A*S*H, passed away in Los Angeles, he was 82. The loss of Wayne Rogers for me is the loss of a childhood role model. For whatever reason, Rogers’ “Trapper” resonated with me in my youth more than Alan Alda’s “Hawkeye” Pierce. “Trap” was a family man, a doctor, an officer who was sometimes a gentleman but often a smart ass. For a time I tried getting the nickname “Trapper” to stick to the beginning of my own name, that didn’t work out.

But television audiences seem to demand a single central star to a show, even the brilliantly written ensemble show “Mad Men” primarily revolved around Korean War deserter Don Draper (Jon Hamm).** By the end of M*A*S*H’s 2nd season it was obvious that “Trap” was becoming “Hawk’s” sidekick/accomplice, no longer a true equal. Some great episodes were made that the revolved around, or included important character developing scenes about “Trapper” John. In memorial to the late Wayne Rogers, it is my pleasure to provide a short list of those episodes:

1) “Requiem for a Light Weight” (S1:e3, Aired 10/01/1972)
When a lovely new nurse (a pre-Welcome Back, Kotter Marcia Strassman) becomes the romantic prey of both Hawkeye and Trapper, the 4077th’s chief nurse, Maj. Houlihan (Loretta Swit) has her transferred to another unit. How will the two intrepid US Army surgeons get their girl back? Easy – Trapper John has to go the distance with a mountainous sergeant in an inter-unit boxing competition. This episode was one of the rare, early first-season offering still showed Trapper as an integral part of the story-telling, willing to go where Hawkeye was frankly too scared to go. Gladly, in the end, Trapper gets the girl.

2) “Kim” (S2:e6, Aired 10/20/1973)
When a small Korean boy, Kim, arrives at the 4077th with no family, Trapper decides the only thing to do is adopt the lad himself and send him to the states to live with his wife and two small daughters. While still early in the history of M*A*S*H, this episode sidestepped the usual wise cracks and college humor to expose a bit of heart under all that olive drab. When the boy is finally reunited with his own Korean mother at the end of the episode, the moment is decidedly a bittersweet. We are happy Kim found his mother, but Trap’s own disappointment and loss is as palpable as if Kim were already his own son.

3) “O.R.” (S3:e5, Aired 10/08/74)
I have to confess this is in fact one of my favorite episodes of the entire series, not just the early episodes before M*A*S*H became the Alan Alda show. A real ensemble piece, this episode presents each of the shows main characters get in various small scenes/vignettes built around a long O.R. session. This episode is admittedly not at all Trapper-centric, but Rogers does have some good scenes in it away from Hawkeye, and even gets to save the day by putting out a fire in the O.R.

4) “Mail Call” (S2:e23, Aired 02/23/74)
This is another ensemble/vignette episode, this time built around a newly arrived load of mail from home. Besides Henry having to balance his wife’s check book, Klinger’s obsessive pursuit of a discharge and Frank Burns’ obsessive pursuit of Wall Street wealth, this episode shows us the family man side of Trapper John when a letter from his daughters sends him on melancholy bender. While a competent womanizer, Trapper is also a husband and father, and misses his family to the point of desertion. A glimmer of Trapper’s true interior is shown in this episode, but that’s all, a glimmer never followed up on or given a solid chance to shine. This episode ends with a hearty, distracting laugh at Frank’s expense. The experiences of separation and longing, familiar to soldiers through the ages, are never fully explored or resolved in “Mail Call”, though they would be in later seasons with B.J. Hunnicut, Trap’s replacement.

5) “Check-Up” (S3:e7, Aired 10/22/74)
In a very real way, this is the “good bye” episode Trapper John never got on M*A*S*H. When the personnel on the 4077th are required to take their annual physical it is discovered that Trapper has an ulcer, which is believed to be grounds for discharge. Faced with the prospect of losing Trapper, emotions run high at the 4077th. It is only after his going away party that Trapper announces what Radar (Gary Burghoff) told him moments before – the Army doesn’t issue discharges for ulcers. Trapper stays on the mobile army surgical hospital, choosing to be treated there rather than Tokyo only to be reassigned elsewhere afterwards.

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It is said that Wayne Rogers left M*A*S*H after season three because of “contract disputes”. Not having been privy to those negotiations (I was all of 7 in 1974), I am in no position to question that reason. I have heard the decline of Trapper’s character from equal-to-sidekick was part of his thinking, and one source I remember described Wayne Rogers as more of a “leading man” type of guy.  Many feel, and myself included, that felt Trapper left too soon; Henry too, but that would be another article. Even Rogers himself is quoted as saying, “If I had known that the show was gonna run that long, I probably would have kept my mouth shut and stayed put.”

After M*A*S*H Rogers went on to star once again as a doctor in the TV series version of House Calls, and worked steadily as an actor until retiring in 2003. Rogers was also a very successful business man, financial advisor and appeared on Fox News as pundit/guest. A Princeton graduate, Navy veteran and father of two, Wayne Rogers was more than an actor, he was an educated, well-rounded man.

Netflix is currently streaming the complete series of M*A*S*H online, including the ones mentioned above. Check them out, this series still good, funny and even timely television. And mix a martini, with real gin, to toast ole Trapper John.

** The season 1 episode of Mad Men, “Nixon vs. Kennedy” contained flashback scenes to Draper’s time in the Korean War, where he was building a hospital compound. These scenes were shot on location in Malibu Creek State Park, Calabasas, California, where the movie and television series M*A*S*H were filmed. 

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