Larry Linville explained the art of making Frank Burns so slimy

"I pulled out every box in my head marked nerd, moron and slime."

The Everett Collection

In one of the most far-fetched plots from the first season of M*A*S*H, Frank Burns gets his blood drained and donated while he sleeps.

Next, when the patient who receives the stolen blood tests positive for hepatitis, Hawkeye spends the rest of the episode trying to verify whether Burns' blood is the source of the diagnosis while keeping Burns away from operating on the patients or getting too close to Margaret — just to be safe (and ridiculous as possible).

The audience knew that keeping Frank away from Margaret would prove a challenge, as the couple's shocking affair kicks off right at the start of the show with an iconic game of footsie.

In 1975, the actor who played Frank Burns, Larry Linville told The Shreveport Journal that he thought Margaret looked to Frank as a father figure. He said portraying this slightly squeamish romantic dynamic with Loretta Swit was probably tougher than you might think.

"You know Loretta and I are running right down a razor blade," Linville said. "We have to stay on the edge [of true romance] and that calls for a lot of controlled acting."

Linville said he was up for the challenge, not just because M*A*S*H was a major role in his career, but also because he thought it was important to help people recognize slimeballs like Frank Burns, so they can turn and run the other way.

"Frank is the type of character I personally despise," Linville said. "It's a matter of ego, but I think I’m doing a service by delineating this type of person. You know, so you'll be able to recognize him."

He went so far as to label Frank Burns "a dangerous piece of work" during an interview with UPI in 1995.

"I pulled out every box in my head marked nerd, moron and slime," Linville told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1986.

Playing Burns required a balancing act that Linville had to do where he said he felt like, "You either had to look like a total fool or just be repulsive."

At the time that he created Frank Burns, Linville was a married man. From 1962 to 1975, his wife was Kate Geer, the actor daughter of Will Geer (The Waltons). Joining this acting family, Linville shared the screen with both his wife and his father-in-law in his career.

After their divorce, Linville remarried several times, seemingly falling into romances as easily as Frank Burns fell into Margaret's arms. During the show's run, he would wed twice more, in 1977 to Vana Tribbey and in 1982 to Melissa Gallant.

It wasn't until his fourth marriage to Susan Hagan in 1986 that Linville started getting coy during interviews, showing a bit of that ferret-faced Frank Burns spirit.

At least once when asked outright by The News and Observer whether he had any actual romantic entanglement with Swit on set, Linville refused to answer straight.

"Never kiss and tell," Linville demured.

No matter how much "slime" Linville put into Frank Burns to make him despicable, though, the character ended up being directly responsible for attracting the actor's fifth wife to him.

Linville told The Edmonton Sunday Journal in 1994 that he met the last woman to become his wife Deborah Guyden at a Halloween costume party. He went dressed as Frank Burns, and he apparently performed "surgery" at the party, because when he left, he had Deborah's heart.

Finding roles and finding love both proved ultimately to be finicky for Burns, who said even though his career and personal life has dealt with some seesawing between successes and failures, he was content with the decisions he made that led him to M*A*S*H and all his greatest loves.

"I've been a millionaire four or five times, married five times," Linville said. "If I had wanted big bucks, I would have gone to Harvard Law School and learned how to screw other people out of their money instead of my own. I'm very pleased with that decision."

It's easy to see why Linville's M*A*S*H costar Mike Farrell came to this conclusion in his memoir, Just Call Me Mike: "In real life, Larry Linville was as personally intense as Frank Burns."

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71 Comments

JKMallaber 10 months ago
Larry was too good at making Frank the way he was, and turned him from a character to a caricature.
clovergirl 10 months ago
I always thought of the character of Frank Burns as a "little sh*tweasel".
Adanor 10 months ago
Five marriages?? Oh my goodness!!
Runeshaper 10 months ago
Sounds like a very intense guy!
Bapa1 10 months ago
I said it once, and I'll say it again. The character Frank Burns was played as being an absolute idiot. I know it's tv, but a person with a medical degree, cannot be that stupid.
daDoctah Bapa1 10 months ago
On the other hand, somewhere out there is a doctor whose grades in medical school were the lowest in his class.
kmarsh12 daDoctah 10 months ago
Half of all doctors graduated in the bottom half of their class.
TazMDevil Bapa1 10 months ago
If you have spent over 20 years getting answers to your health problems like I have you'd feel different. Frank Burns was a genius compared most "doctors" I've met.
daDoctah TazMDevil 10 months ago
I've spent years being told by every doctor that I need to lower my blood pressure. With each new one, I ask if they'll prescribe bloodletting using leeches like doctors used to do in the old days, and not one of them has taken me up on the idea.
Bapa1 daDoctah 10 months ago
How do you know my doctor?
Chris 35 months ago
I'm sorry but messages regarding salaries and job opportunities killed one of my favorite NFL posting-sites - very sad one day I went to post and no site, and no more contact with friends and foes I had made virtually over 3 years of bickering about the greatest NFL team to lace up the cletes - the Dallas Cowboys of course.. ;) The ads got out of control, angered posters and no more site....
MC1707 Chris 10 months ago
What does this comment about the NFL have to do with MASH as a TV show?
Hogansucks1 37 months ago
“Good work, Igor- very good! In the morning, he will be one of my brides”. ( voiced in a Dracula 🧛‍♂️ accent). 😂 🤣
Hogansucks1 Hogansucks1 37 months ago
Hawkeye’s remark to Trapper in the midsts of taking Frank’s blood in the middle of the night! 😁. Funny stuff- Love it!!
kent4567 37 months ago
I would like to buy a mash tee shirt
Deleted 37 months ago
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Hogansucks1 37 months ago
Very gifted actor!
JHP 37 months ago
My fav rightie - on TV:)

elbis 37 months ago
It's hard to tell the difference between Frank Burns and any GOP politician. They seem be clones of him.
Slime balls every one of em.
I say this just after the final Senate vote on stimulus relief #3.
brainfog12 elbis 37 months ago
Just where do you think all this money comes from? A tree? Wake up and smell the river! Washington collects all this money from hardworking taxpayers and then magnanimously redistributes it to everyone. Thanks for revealing your true colors you socialist!
elbis 37 months ago
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Hogansucks1 elbis 37 months ago
“Pioneer Aviation” - “Pioneer Aviation”. 😂
clovergirl brainfog12 10 months ago
Then sign away your Social Security, Medicare, etc., if you really feel that way. Nobody will force you to collect on it. Don't condemn what you benefit from, unless you like being a hypocrite. All Joe did was divert that money from the rich who pay very little in, yet are first to stick their noses in the trough, and give it to the people who did the real work, not a bunch of corporate do-nothings.
AgingDisgracefully 37 months ago
Nerts.
“It’s nice to be nice too the nice” 😂
ncadams27 37 months ago
I think Frank’s character shows his insecurities rather than being a slimeball. He was a surgeon (least competent - but not incompetent) and second in command but no one looked to him as a leader. He was not made chief surgeon despite his more years of seniority and rank nor was he chosen to be the commanding officer after Henry’s departure. Frank felt his positions as doctor and Major should have been sufficient to make him respected and he didn’t know how to earn it. Look at his interactions with the nurses (other than Margaret) and enlisted men - they don’t even seem to recognize him as an officer, instead mostly ignore him. I think he was this way in civilian life and assumed the military would “force” people to respect him. This is what he couldn’t figure out and made him act the way he is.
ChristopherLinville 37 months ago
As far as the characters go, I think most people are forgetting when Frank left the 4077th, when Hawkeye and B.J. were packing his things, Margaret came in to retrieve a picture Frank had stolen of her in a bikini. B.J. suggested she leave it to drive Frank crazy, but she refused saying Frank wasn't all that bad. Further, when it was said that Frank was no Donald, Margaret replied, "in many ways Donald is no Frank either." This clearly showed that Frank and Margaret's relationship was much more than the other characters or the audience would ever know. As far as Larry goes, he was really quite a talented actor. Not only is that type of character, cartoonish, moronic, slimy, difficult to play, Larry despised Frank and really was not like him at all. You can see Larry's abilities here and there in different episodes. Most notably in the few times that Frank was written to be human and relatable. In the episodes where Frank talks about his home-life or his childhood, even though he usually says something so zany, over-the-top or bizarre, meant to be comedic, there's still probably a part of you that kinda feels sorry for him. That's all Larry. Anytime you think you kinda pity the ferret-faced weasel, that contradiction is a testament to Larry's acting ability.
Just curious if you are a relative or just a clever username ? I actually respected the actor immensely as it had to be difficult to play the most hated man on set, day in and day out. It must be draining and theirs no way some of that dislike didn't carry over into his real life interactions with cast. In the limited interviews and roles as other characters I still got the feeling that some of Frank was actually genuine Larry (or vice versa). If you do truly know him can you please state whether this is true or not as it seems to be the most pressing, unanswered question about his character.
Hogansucks1 marklaprise 37 months ago
He put his heart & soul into that character, a very talented actor Larry was!
BuckeyeBeth 37 months ago
I grew up on MASH. I will always have a soft spot for those early episodes with Trapper, Henry & Frank. I can't say the earlier episodes are my favorites but then again I can't say the later episodes are either. The early episodes were much more comedy/cartoonish, The latter episodes with Winchester and Potter were more serious. The show grew and seemed to mature as time went on. Every time I think the early goofier seasons are my favorite, then I think of the later episodes and I realize they hold a different but equal charm for me.

As far as "did they, didn't they?" rumors with Loretta Swit. All I can say is I've read before that several actors have admitted giving very cryptic or not so truthful answers to reporters because after years of the exact same questions they just get tired of saying the exact same thing in answer. They admit they do it to either spice up the interview or to just goof around with the journalist. Also at the same time we need to remember that a lot of these journalist will print the actors have said something that they absolutely never said.

I remember reading (maybe watching) an interview with Alan Alda just after Larry passed away. Alan talked about how Larry was just the most absolutely nicest person you would ever want to meet while working on MASH. That he would do any goofy thing for the show and he was also the most generous actor when something needed to be rewritten. When I think of Larry that is how I like to think of him. A very "un-Frank" nice guy.🙂
JHP BuckeyeBeth 37 months ago
Henry looking for the poker winnings in the swamp

He points to the stove pipe - shakes it and then I still laugh so hard - and then in a later ep Hawkeye gets the same treatment (maybe the "Edwina" ep?)
BuckeyeBeth 37 months ago
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