Burt Metcalfe, Who Left His Mark on ‘M*A*S*H,’ Is Dead at 87
Burt Metcalfe, who as the showrunner of “M*A*S*H” for the last six of its 11 seasons made a critical casting decision as he began his tenure and helped write the two-and-a-half-hour final episode, contributing ideas he had picked up on a trip to South Korea, died on July 27 in Los Angeles. He was 87.
His death, at a hospital, was caused by sepsis, said his wife, Jan Jorden, who played a nurse in several episodes of “M*A*S*H.”
Mr. Metcalfe had been an actor and casting director before becoming a producer of “M*A*S*H,” the sitcom about the staff of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the Korean War, a show widely regarded as one of the best series in television history. He joined for its first season, in 1972, at the request of Gene Reynolds, a friend and an architect of the show along with the writer Larry Gelbart. When Mr. Reynolds left after the fifth season, Mr. Metcalfe succeeded him as the executive producer running the series.
“He was able to successfully guide the show because of his personality, which was unusual,” Alan Alda, who starred in the series as the surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, said in an interview. “He was unselfish, he was gentle, and he was interested in the humanity of the characters.”
Mr. Metcalfe did not have to change much of what had been built by Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Gelbart, who left after the fourth season. For instance, he continued Mr. Reynolds’s practice of interviewing doctors and nurses who had served in the Korean War and who provided a rich supply of potential medical story lines. Mr. Alda, who wrote and directed many of the episodes, said he had pored over interview transcripts looking for a phrase that could inspire a story.
When, at a conference in Chicago, Mr. Metcalfe interviewed doctors who had served in the war, one told him that the series had made him “a hero” to his family. “They watched the show and my son says to the neighbor kids, ‘My dad is Hawkeye,’” Mr. Metcalfe quoted the doctor as saying in an interview with the Television Academy in 2003.
He said that under his direction, without what he called Mr. Gelbart’s “comedic intensity,” “M*A*S*H” had a more serious bent.
“We delved more deeply into the characters’ personalities in ways we hadn’t done before,” he told the academy. “We got criticism in later years that it was becoming more serious and less funny.”
Before the sixth season, Mr. Metcalfe’s first as showrunner, he faced the task of replacing Larry Linville, who was leaving the show after his run as the officious, rules-obsessed ninny Major Frank Burns. Mr. Metcalfe, who had originally cast Mr. Linville, said he wanted an actor who could play a much more formidable surgeon with a superiority complex. He found him one Saturday night when he saw David Ogden Stiers play a ruthless station manager on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and he hired him to play the pompous surgeon Charles Emerson Winchester III.
“When David Stiers was dying, I wrote him an email,” Mr. Metcalfe said in 2020 on “M*A*S*H” Matters,” a podcast hosted by Ryan Patrick and Jeff Maxwell, who played the food server Igor on the series. He told Mr. Stiers, he said, that hiring him to play Winchester “was the best decision I made of all the decisions I had to make on ‘M*A*S*H.’” Mr. Stiers died in 2018.
Burton Denis Metcalfe was born on March 19, 1935, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. His father, Louis, was a vending machine distributor who died when Burt was 3. Burt moved with his mother, Esther (Goldman) Metcalfe, a secretary, to Montreal, where he developed a love of acting. He performed comic sketches and imitations in front of his aunts, uncles and cousins; while attending a children’s theater school, he was asked to appear in half-hour radio dramas.
Burt and his mother moved in 1949 to Los Angeles, where he finished high school. In 1955, he received a bachelor’s degree in theater arts at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Over the next decade, Mr. Metcalfe was a working actor, appearing as a guest star on “Death Valley Days,” “The Outer Limits,” “Have Gun — Will Travel,” “The Twilight Zone” and other series; as a regular on the sitcom “Father of the Bride” in the 1961-62 season; and as a surfer named Lord Byron in the 1959 film “Gidget.”
Feeling bored, he moved into casting in 1965. This eventually led Mr. Reynolds to ask him to find actors for two pilots: “Anna and the King,” an adaptation of the musical “The King and I,” and “M*A*S*H.”
Both pilots were picked up, but “Anna and the King,” in which Yul Brynner reprised his stage and screen role, was canceled after 13 episodes. Mr. Metcalfe became an associate producer of “M*A*S*H” in addition to overseeing the casting; he became a producer in the fourth season, during which he directed his first three episodes (he would direct a total of 31). He became executive producer when Mr. Reynolds left to run the production of “Lou Grant.”
A couple of years before “M*A*S*H” ended, Mr. Metcalfe went to South Korea to talk to civilians about how they had been affected by the war. One story — about a mother who had been with a group of South Koreans trying to escape from a North Korean patrol, and who smothered her baby to avoid jeopardizing their safety — stuck with him.
Mr. Metcalfe contributed that story to the script for the series finale. In that episode, Hawkeye has a nervous breakdown on a bus ride with members of the 4077th and refugees after telling one of the refugees to quiet her chicken so as not to alert the enemy, only to realize later, under psychotherapy, that she had actually smothered her baby.
Mr. Metcalfe was nominated for 13 Emmy Awards, including four for directing.
He is survived by Emily O’Meara, a woman he regarded as his daughter. His marriage to Toby Richman ended in divorce.
Soon after “M*A*S*H” concluded, Mr. Metcalfe became the executive producer of the series “AfterMASH,” a sequel in which three characters from the original — Corporal Klinger (played by Jamie Farr), Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) and Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) — worked at a veterans’ hospital in Missouri. It was canceled after 30 episodes.
Mr. Metcalfe joked on the podcast that his decision to hire Mr. Stiers “was only a preface to making lots of bad decisions on ‘AfterMASH.’”
He later became an executive at Warner Bros. and MTM Enterprises. He retired in the 1990s.
“TV had changed by then,” Ms. Jorden said in a phone interview. “He said it had become meaner. And shows like ‘M*A*S*H’ only come around once in a lifetime.”