M*A*S*H fans adored Radar O’Reilly. And the kids loved the corporal played by Gary Burghoff.
What wasn’t to love about Corporal Walter Eugene O’Reilly, aka Radar? He was the show’s soul. And, after the pilot, his character became more naive and vulnerable. He was the farm boy from Iowa who joined the Army fresh out of high school. And, with war all around him, Radar slept with a teddy bear, drank grape soda and read comic books.
On M*A*S*H, Radar always heard the helicopters carrying wounded soldiers before the doctors and nurses realized it. And he anticipated problems before his bosses.
M*A*S*H executive producer Gene Reynolds said of Radar:
“Beautiful character, very funny. Marvelous actor, very gifted actor. And he was, for us, he was like a little boy in the camp. Kids could identify: I could be Radar. Then identified with M*A*S*H through Radar.”
Gary Burghoff already identified with kids, pre-M*A*S*H. His first career break was playing Charlie Brown in the 1967 off-Broadway production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. If you can pull off one of the best-known cartoon characters in history, surely you also can make an Army clerk kid-friendly.
Radar was based on a real person, too. The character was inspired by Don Shaffer, who served with Richard Hooker. He wrote the book that spawned both a movie and a popular TV show. Shaffer also was born in Iowa and was nicknamed Radar.
Jamie Farr also was a standout character on M*A*S*H. He was Max Klinger, the cross-dressing corporal trying to get a Section 8 psychiatric discharge from the Army. Farr said he loved working with Burghoff.
“Gary Burghoff was an absolute delight,” Farr said. “He brought that little charm to Radar. He brought a little something special to the show that none of the other characters had.”
Burghoff was the only actor to make the jump from the movie to play the same character on the TV show. Radar, in the movie version of M*A*S*H, was a bit of an operator and a scammer. But Burghoff wanted to change Radar and give him a less conniving soul.
Burghoff was nominated for six Emmys for best supporting actor during his time on M*A*S*H. He won the Emmy in 1977. But he suffered burnout from playing the character. He left the show in 1979, although he returned the next year for a two-part sendoff to Radar.
In an interesting twist, Burghoff began painting, post M*A*S*H, specializing in wildlife.
At a showing in New York in 2004, Burghoff said he wanted to present the animals he painted with a vulnerable kind of innocence.
”I’m hoping to make the viewer see the beauty and soul of the animal,” he said.