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Frank Burns (Television)

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For other similarly named characters please see Frank Burns
The way I see it, unless we each conform, unless we obey orders, unless we follow our leaders blindly, there is no possible way we can remain free.
~ Frank Burns being Frank Burns

Major Frank Burns (simply known as Frank Burns) is a surgeon and medical officer in the Korean War of 1950-1953, serving in the United States Army as second-in-command of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.  

TV Series History

From the very first episode, Burns was a chronic pain in the side of both the acerbic Hawkeye Pierce and the much put-upon CO, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake. There was almost no action anyone could take, silly or serious, that did not end up in one of his reports. He was in fact a pain on many levels, the saddest of which was his lack of surgical skill and almost non-existent devotion to his young wounded charges.

Burns was on the receiving end of some borderline-cruel pranks and remarks, but even if these were somehow disproportionate, he was not a man to draw out people's better natures. He was short with the enlisted personnel and treated them shabbily, while his barking at the nurses sometimes made the sexist banter of Pierce and Trapper John McIntyre seem tame by comparison. His open contempt for Colonel Blake regularly topped both the war itself and Pierce's escapades in making the CO's day difficult. Blake once said that Burns went over his head so often, his scalp had blisters. His rotten bedside manner once got him taken hostage in the shower by a battle-fatigued soldier he had mocked and derided for not wanting to go back to combat. Once, when Max Klinger belted Burns after a confrontation, every one in the Post-Op Ward, nurse, corpsman and patient, erupted in cheers.

While not as hateful as some, Frank often also showed an astonishing amount of bigotry towards almost anyone who wasn't a match for his definition of a 'true American.' While his attitudes were likely historically correct for many people in the real world during this era, in the world of the 4077th, enlightened by the savagery of war, he was more than just a throwback. The views he held on Koreans and other Asians were almost neolithic, and various ethnicities within the camp staff felt the sting of his views, sometimes even to Father Mulcahy.

One of his biggest hypocrisies concerned his preaching about the sins of others, particularly the womanizing of his fellow doctors, while carrying on a relationship with Head Nurse Margaret Houlihan, at that time quite preachy herself, this despite Burns' having a wife and children stateside. While the very married Blake and McIntyre could be called on the same carpet, they at no time lied to the nurses whose company they kept, feeding them false promises of possible marriage, and still loved their wives, keeping their activities a secret for fear of hurting them, other consequences aside (In fact, Henry's wife also cheated on him while he was away, and Trapper's marriage dissolved post-war for unrelated reasons). Burns not only strung Margaret along with the possibility of him leaving his wife, but his was a loveless marriage where he lived in fear of his wife, and likely had the disdain of both her and her family, a thought borne out by a wedding film reel the other doctors once found, for which Hawkeye and Trapper provided humorous commentary while they played the film with Blake, Klinger and Radar O'Reilly also in attendance.

Frank's gung-ho attitude surprisingly did not net him any friends even among those military officials disturbed by the lack of proper discipline and the strange behavior of the 4077th staff. Even those repulsed by Pierce's anti-military attitudes and sometimes-childish escapades deeply respected his surgical prowess and deep commitment to the young wounded soldiers. Burns and his constant snitching became so much background noise to them, and his endless reports were nearly disregarded - especially after his failed attempt to unseat Colonel Blake by going so far as to accuse him of lending aid and comfort to the enemy. One General irritated by Burns suggested Blake give Burns a high colonic followed by sending him on a 10 mile hike. Blake indicated wanting to be rid of Burns on many occasions, but cited paperwork and the challenge of finding another semi-competent surgeon to replace him. Despite, or perhaps because Burns was such a headache on the command front, Blake made Pierce Chief Surgeon over him, a slight he never forgave. On more than one occasion, Burns' blindly ra-ra-ing the Army's often circuitous way of doing things made various crises all the more aggravating.

This is not to say that Burns never showed any humanity. In fact, many instances can be cited for this, including one in which he did not attack Pierce for a surgical error after Pierce had done so to him many times. But sadly, these instances seem all the more infuriating against the backdrop of everything else he did. In an episode decades ahead of its time for both the 1950s in which it was set, and the 1970s, in which it was broadcast, Burns had his fiercest clash ever with Pierce and McIntyre over the desire of a young homosexual soldier to continue serving in the same unit where his fellow soldiers had attacked and beaten him. In the end, extortion plus an appeal to Frank's better nature combined to have Frank let the matter drop. In an interesting contrast, the Hawkeye who was miles ahead of his contemporaries on ethnic and religious tolerance issues reacted to the soldier's revelation with some trepidation, though he respected his wishes to return to the front and face those who had attacked him. Frank only rarely ventured into monster status, and never into complete monster territory. But sometimes, his insistence on the rules and strict interpretation of them in a situation where flexibility was needed caused more trouble than did his snitch mode. One thing can definitely be said: Despite finally becoming CO when Henry Blake was discharged, Frank was as distraught as anyone else when Radar announced that the plane carrying Henry Blake home had been shot down over the Sea of Japan, with no survivors.

Burns' tenure as Commanding Officer did not last very long at all. Within weeks, he was replaced by Regular Army (non-draftee, non-ROTC, long-serving) Colonel Sherman T. Potter. If nothing else about Burns ever really changed, one thing did: Potter, no-nonsense and respected by Generals who were once his fellow enlisted men, got no reports written about him. This is not to say that Potter was able to lance that boil entirely. Stinging from being replaced, Burns made disrespectful comments about Potter's age to his face, and even more contemptuous ones when he wasn't around. In return, Potter told Burns exactly how little regard he held for him. In one instance, Burns' ineptitude as temporary CO led to him flailing about and getting himself knocked out cold. He then accused Pierce of outright mutiny, a court-martial offense punishable by firing squad. Once more, the preponderance of evidence had the army siding with the irreverent Pierce rather than the gung-ho Burns.

When Margaret Houlihan returned from Tokyo engaged to be married, what was left of Frank's world crumbled apart so hard and so fast, even Pierce and his new cohort Captain BJ Hunnicutt showed sympathy and backed off. Sharp exchanges between the former lovers left Frank in an ever-greater spiral. Frank ended up providing the push that got Margaret's foot-dragging fiance to the altar, but dissolved completely right after the newlyweds left. Going AWOL from a leave in Seoul that had expired, Frank engaged in a campaign of drinking, unbecoming behavior, and chasing everything female and blonde that resembled his lost love. After harassing a general's wife in a public bath, Frank was at last arrested and subjected to psychiatric observation. Burns was additionally permanently transferred away from the 4077th, to which Hunnicutt exclaimed that it reduced the enemy to just North Korea.

In one last phone call with the 4077th, Frank revealed that the army had cleared him of the charges, promoted him to Lieutenant Colonel, and been rotated back to a base in his native Indiana. Pierce reacted to this news by throwing the phone equipment out the door of Radar's office.

Still, it cannot quite be said that Burns was a Karma Houdini: He still had to live with his wife, and with himself. Moreover, if Burns ever bothered to check camp casualty statistics after the war, he might find this slap in the face. While he was on staff, the 4077th MASH had a 94% survival rate. When he was replaced by the sharper, better skilled and socially much more tolerable Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, that survival rate went up to 97%. In one of the final episodes of the series, the staff buried a time capsule, containing mementos from departed staff like Blake, McIntyre, and O'Reilly. When Winchester asked if such a memento would be placed for his predecessor, "the infamous Major Burns", Pierce responded that he considered including a scalpel, but if included in Frank's memory, that would mean he was placing a deadly weapon inside. This was said as a joke, but sadly it was no joke to the soldiers lost due to him.

Larry Linville played Frank Burns one last time, at least in name, in a parody on The Howard Stern Show.

Burns shared a trait with two other pest/villain characters from the 1970's, being Little House On The Prairie's Harriet Oleson and The Mary Tyler Moore Show's Ted Baxter. All three had early season appearances where they were human, vulnerable, and quite savvy about how they could be and seemed to others. This subtlety became a quick casualty of the needs of a weekly episodic television show. While Burns and Oleson may well have ultimately crossed the Moral Event Horizon, Baxter's worst moment only came when he lied about sleeping with series' lead Mary Richards. When compared to the other two listed actually causing people's deaths and acting contemptuously about it, he gets off easy.

Burns was the central character in MASH's arguably worst episode, Major Fred C Dobbs, in which, in order to avoid the chaos caused by Burns' and Houlihan's demanded transfer, Pierce and McIntyre tricked the pair into thinking there was gold in the campgrounds. Cited by critics and the show's own staff as their weakest entry, the need for a good villain was demonstrated by the out-of-character actions of Henry, Hawkeye and Trapper in keeping Burns around. Once again echoing each other, a similar episode appeared on The Mary Tyler Moore show with Ted Baxter. That episode actually exceeded the one with Burns, since WJM-TV had no wartime need to keep Baxter around.

Like many show alumni, Burns was referred to, but never appeared, on the very brief sequel series, AfterM*A*S*H*.


  • The television version of Frank Burns was portrayed by Larry Linville (1939-2000). When asked who he based the Burns character on Linville would often say he based Burns on every idiot he had ever known. Linville was admired for creating a classic combination of neuroses in one meltdown of a man. "A dangerous little man with a scalpel" was not a jibe from Burns' nemesis Hawkeye Pierce, but the opinion of Linville himself.
  • As with Colonel Flagg and his actor, Edward Winter, Linville was well-liked by his castmates and the writers. He was especially close to Gary Burghoff (Radar O'Reilly). Unlike Burns Linville was a highly intelligent man who knew the intricacies of Egyptian pyramids and once built his own airplane.
  • Linville decided not to renew his contract at the end of the 5th season. He left the series when he could see no way to have Burns break out of being a caricature in any way that made sense. Also with Burns and Houlihan no longer being a couple Burns bore the brunt of the insults. Linville became so tired of being the butt of all the jokes he stopped attending dailies.

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