Several actors left MASH throughout its 11-season run, and here’s why each performer left the hit series. MASH was the second adaptation of the novel following the hit Robert Altman movie, which followed the experiences of a medical unit during the Korean War. MASH began as a comedy that nevertheless took the core subject matter seriously, and while the showrunners were forced to include a laugh track, they were able to drop it from scenes involving surgery. In later seasons, it evolved from a sitcom to a dramedy, with some episodes being borderline laugh-free.
The series ended up lasting eight years longer than the Korean War itself, with MASH’s finale being the most-watched scripted TV episode of all time. MASH’s unique fusion of laughter and drama had never quite been attempted before and would prove influential on future shows like Scrubs. Considering it ran for 11 years, it’s little surprise several MASH actors left the show during its run, sometimes to avoid typecasting or just to move on to other projects.
The earliest and most mysterious MASH departure is actor George Morgan, who played Father Mulcahy in the pilot episode. Before MASH, Morgan had appeared in Western series Bonanza and Robert Downey Sr’s cult film Putney Swope, and while Morgan only played Father Mulcahy for one episode, he can actually still be spotted in the opening credits of every episode. As was relatively common at the time, actors who appeared in a pilot could be recast when it went to series, due to factors ranging from cast chemistry to retooling the character’s role.
Curiously, Morgan doesn’t even have any lines as Father Mulcahy in MASH’s pilot and is mostly just used for comedic reaction shots. Morgan appears to have been replaced because executive producer Larry Gelbart felt the character wasn’t popping. He once stated (via MASH4077TV) that “George Morgan is a perfectly fine actor. We wanted someone who had a quirkier personality – one we wouldn’t have to write into the script.”
William Christopher replaced Morgan in the role, and appeared on MASH for its entire run; he was also one of the few cast members to return for AfterMASH. Sadly, Morgan didn’t have many other credits following his MASH exit, with his last credit being the 1990 movie Have a Nice Night.
Not only was McLean Stevenson’s exit a major turning point for the series, but his MASH death was also a groundbreaking TV moment. Stevenson played Colonel Henry Blake, the commanding officer of the 4077th during MASH’s first three seasons. Blake had a somewhat easygoing approach to running the 4077th and often let Alan Alda’s “Hawkeye” Pierce and Wayne Rogers’ “Trapper” get away with their shenanigans. Blake was especially close to Radar (Gary Burghoff), who hardly ever left his side and would seemingly psychically sense whenever Blake needed him.
While there was no tension between Stevenson and his MASH co-stars, as the show became more successful, he grew frustrated with being part of a large ensemble. He decided to leave and was written out in season 3 finale “Abyssinia, Henry,” where Blake receives an honorable discharge and leaves the camp. To the shock of MASH’s main characters – and audiences watching – Radar later informs everyone that Blake’s plane was shot down, killing all onboard.
While it’s not unusual for a major show to kill a major character now, back when this episode aired in 1975, such a move was unheard of. Killing off supporting characters audiences had grown to know and love was a bold move and one that paid off ratings-wise. It was also a controversial choice, with some furious viewers penning letters to CBS, with the network even cutting the ending of the episode out of a later re-run. Unknowingly, “Abyssinia, Henry” was to be the final episode for another major cast member too.
Just like the MASH movie, the first three seasons were something of a two-hander between the characters of Hawkeye and Wayne Rogers’ “Trapper” John. Rogers actually passed on auditioning for Hawkeye in favor of Trapper, as he found the character’s less cynical personality more appealing. Rogers joined MASH on the understanding Hawkeye and Trapper were equal main characters, but as Alda’s popularity with audiences grew, the writers began to focus on Hawkeye more and more.
Rogers grew tired of feeling sidelined and that Trapper had become Hawkeye’s sidekick, so he decided to quit. MASH’s producers were deeply unhappy with his decision and threatened to sue. However, it was soon revealed Rogers had never actually signed his original contract, as he objected to a “morals clause” present in it. This meant the producers had no case, and Rogers was free to leave.
This explains the abrupt exit of Wayne Rogers’ Trapper on MASH season 4’s opening episode, with his character being discharged offscreen, but leaving no goodbye notes for best friend Hawkeye. Rogers went on to roles in shows like medical sitcom House Calls, which lasted for three seasons.
Larry Linville inherited the role of Major Frank Burns from Robert Duvall, who played the part in the 1970 movie. Those were tough boots to fill, but Linville became a memorably nasty villain on MASH’s small-screen adaptation. Burns is a judgmental, self-absorbed and selfish figure who was widely despised by the 4077th. He was also strictly by the book, meaning he naturally hated Hawkeye and Trapper. The only person who actually liked Frank was Margaret (Loretta Swit), with the two having an ongoing affair despite the fact Burns is married.
Linville decided to leave MASH after five seasons, having grown bored of playing such a weasely character. He also felt the show’s swing towards more dramatic material made the cartoonish antagonism of Burns a bad fit. On the show, Burns’ exit is explained by him being somewhat heartbroken when his affair with Margaret ends on a bad note, and she becomes engaged to somebody else. MASH’s season 6 premiere explains Frank was sent back to the States for a psychiatric evaluation after a drunken night out in Seoul. The unit is, naturally, overjoyed by the news he’s gone for good.
Gary Burghoff was the only real holdover from the MASH movie, and he played the role of Corporal “Radar” O’Reilly in both. The Radar seen in the series was a much more naive, innocent figure, however, and he became a real audience favorite. The actor grew exhausted by the show’s schedule in later years, and despite the fact previous actors who left – such as McLean Stevenson and Larry Linville – had met with little success, Burghoff decided to leave MASH during season 8.
Radar’s MASH exit is one of the most emotional on show, and in contrast to other departing performers, it actually happens onscreen. Radar leaves when he is given a hardship discharge to go back to his family farm, following a death in the family. Following his departure, Burghoff went on to guest roles on the likes of The New Adventures of Wonder Woman and Fantasy Island. He also made a guest appearance as Radar on AfterMASH, before appearing in a solo spinoff called W*A*L*T*E*R, where the character becomes a policeman. While W*A*L*T*E*R was intended to launch another spinoff, it didn’t make it past the pilot.