M*A*S*H‘s most decorated nurse, Colonel Reese, was actually inspired by the veteran character actor Mary Wickes. The third season M*A*S*H episode “House Arrest” brought the most renowned nurse in the war to the Swamp. From there, Colonel Reese tried to seduce Frank Burns. There could have been no character actor to choose for the classic tv role but Mary Wickes.
According to the book Mary Wickes: I Know I’ve Seen That Face Before, the episode was written just for Wickes by the show’s producer Gene Reynolds. Her casting was a suggestion from the M*A*S*H writing team of Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum. They came up with the idea to cast her. Fritzell and Greenbaum worked before with Wickes on a TV episode of The Gertrude Berg Show that gave Wickes her only Emmy nomination. The writing team never forgot how hilarious she was. “They said, ‘We’ve got a part and we have to use Mary Wickes,’” Reynolds said. “They wrote the part for her.”
Apparently, after Wickes read the script, she doubled over laughing. She said the character of Colonel Reese was “Hysterical. She really was a funny, funny character.” Wickes certainly had the experience to know a good part when it came along. By the time Wickes made her debut on M*A*S*H, she had worked in more than 300 stage shows and appeared in over 30 films.
Wickes’ M*A*S*H role was part of an already distinguished acting career
Her film career began in the 1930s. After studying law, she quit her pre-law degree and pursued a career as an actress after discovering acting in community theater. “I never thought I’d be an actress,” Wickes said in a 1975 interview. However, the acting bug bit her at a very early age. She remembered a role making her emotional at age 7. “I remember crying when a play was funny because I was so happy,” Wickes said.
She was a reliable comic character actor who refused to do roles with excessively foul dialogue. She would not be the one to make crass jokes. “I can get as much with a look as with an innuendo,” Wickes explained to The Daily Leader in 1976. “I’m good enough now. I never say to someone, change that. I just say, get someone else. Mary Wickes can’t tell dirty jokes. I enjoy some that are funny, but I can’t tell them. It’s not me. But I don’t expect people to rewrite for me. Not at all. Just get someone who will do what they want done, but don’t ask me.”
After her scene-stealing M*A*S*H role, Wickes continued to land substantial parts in Hollywood. In the 1990s, she scored a major role in the Academy Award. winning comedy, Sister Act. She played a nun alongside Whoopi Goldberg in the crowd-pleasing hit.