M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell played doctors very well. When he was just starting out as an actor, guest-starring as a physician helped him pay the bills.
And surely playing a doctor helped him for the role that defined his career as surgeon B.J. Hunnicutt in M*A*S*H.
But he played a very flawed doctor during a November 1972 Bonanza episode called The Hidden Enemy. As Dr. James Wills, he was charged with saving lives in Virginia City. Instead, he accidentally killed a young patient during surgery. That’s when it’s revealed that the good doctor was addicted to morphine. Prescription drug abuse is an issue no matter the historical time frame.
And, coincidentally, Wills had a backstory of service. He was a surgeon in the Civil War. Maybe it was a M*A*S*H foreshadowing? Or maybe it was one of those TV coincidences.
The Bonanza episode also had other significant guest stars in the episode, including Tim Mattheson, Gary Busey and David Huddleston.
Mike Farrell’s M*A*S*H Break Came Four Years After Bonanza
Farrell’s break on M*A*S*H came in 1975 when he was 36. But in his early career, he definitely had a type. He played an Army doctor in Combat! He was a young physician in The Interns. And he also did a guest star turns as a doctor in Marcus Welby MD, Medical Center and The Bold Ones.
“Another few years on M*A*S*H and I’ll be ready to hang out my shingle,” Farrell joked with a reporter from the Sacramento Bee.
But Farrell’s first significant doctor part of his career came in M*A*S*H. That’s when Wayne Rogers, who played Dr. “Trapper John” McIntyre, abruptly left the show at the end of the third season. M*A*S*H producers needed to scramble to find a replacement for a very popular character. Rather than trying to make B.J. Hunnicutt into Trapper John 2.0. Farrell’s character was allowed to be someone far different. Hunnicutt was a family man and conflicted about serving in Korea as his children grow up without him.
BJ Named for Cameraman. He Couldn’t Be Trapper John 2.0
M*A*S*H executive producer Gene Reynolds told The Hollywood Reporter that they named Farrell’s character after one of the show’s cameramen.
Farrell also didn’t want to play another Trapper John. He told the Sacramento Bee he would’ve declined that role.
Aside from playing a doctor on TV, Farrell also brought authenticity to a series about war. He served two years in the Marines before he turned to acting. And, the show had a family feel to it. Farrell’s first wife, Judy, appeared in eight episodes of M*A*S*H, including the powerful series finale.
Farrell still feels emotional when he thinks about M*A*S*H, especially the filming of the final episodes.
“We went through this thing knowing this will be the last time I’ll ever stand here,” Farrell said of filming the final M*A*S*H episode. “This is the last opportunity I’m going to have to say goodbye to these characters.”
Farrell then stopped and laughed a bit as he recalled the director’s orders.
“At one point, I think it was the director, who said I’ve never had to tell actors to not cry so much in my life. Stop. Crying.”
And maybe we should thank Bonanza for helping to push Mike Farrell towards M*A*S*H.