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Burt Metcalfe, Who Left His Mark on ‘M*A*S*H,’ Is Dead at 87


Burt Metcalfe, who because the showrunner of “M*A*S*H” for the last six of its 11 seasons made a critical casting decision as he began his tenure and helped write the two-and-a-half-hour final episode, contributing ideas he had picked up on a visit to South Korea, died on July 27 in Los Angeles. He was 87.

His death, at a hospital, was attributable to sepsis, said his wife, Jan Jorden, who played a nurse in several episodes of “M*A*S*H.”

Mr. Metcalfe had been an actor and casting director before becoming a producer of “M*A*S*H,” the sitcom concerning the staff of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in the course of the Korean War, a show widely considered top-of-the-line series in television history. He joined for its first season, in 1972, on the request of Gene Reynolds, a friend and an architect of the show together with the author Larry Gelbart. When Mr. Reynolds left after the fifth season, Mr. Metcalfe succeeded him as the chief producer running the series.

“He was in a position to successfully guide the show due to his personality, which was unusual,” Alan Alda, who starred within the series because the surgeon Hawkeye Pierce, said in an interview. “He was unselfish, he was gentle, and he was concerned with the humanity of the characters.”

Mr. Metcalfe didn’t need to change much of what had been built by Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Gelbart, who left after the fourth season. For example, he continued Mr. Reynolds’s practice of interviewing doctors and nurses who had served within the Korean War and who provided a wealthy supply of potential medical story lines. Mr. Alda, who wrote and directed most of the episodes, said he had pored over interview transcripts in search of a phrase that might encourage a story.

When, at a conference in Chicago, Mr. Metcalfe interviewed doctors who had served within the war, one told him that the series had made him “a hero” to his family. “They watched the show and my son says to the neighbor kids, ‘My dad is Hawkeye,’” Mr. Metcalfe quoted the doctor as saying in an interview with the Television Academy in 2003.

He said that under his direction, without what he called Mr. Gelbart’s “comedic intensity,” “M*A*S*H” had a more serious bent.

“We delved more deeply into the characters’ personalities in ways we hadn’t done before,” he told the academy. “We got criticism in later years that it was becoming more serious and fewer funny.”

Before the sixth season, Mr. Metcalfe’s first as showrunner, he faced the duty of replacing Larry Linville, who was leaving the show after his run because the officious, rules-obsessed ninny Major Frank Burns. Mr. Metcalfe, who had originally forged Mr. Linville, said he wanted an actor who could play a way more formidable surgeon with a superiority complex. He found him one Saturday night when he saw David Ogden Stiers play a ruthless station manager on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and he hired him to play the pompous surgeon Charles Emerson Winchester III.

“When David Stiers was dying, I wrote him an email,” Mr. Metcalfe said in 2020 on “M*A*S*H” Matters,” a podcast hosted by Ryan Patrick and Jeff Maxwell, who played the food server Igor on the series. He told Mr. Stiers, he said, that hiring him to play Winchester “was one of the best decision I manufactured from all the choices I needed to make on ‘M*A*S*H.’” Mr. Stiers died in 2018.

Burton Denis Metcalfe was born on March 19, 1935, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. His father, Louis, was a vending machine distributor who died when Burt was 3. Burt moved along with his mother, Esther (Goldman) Metcalfe, a secretary, to Montreal, where he developed a love of acting. He performed comic sketches and imitations in front of his aunts, uncles and cousins; while attending a children’s theater school, he was asked to seem in half-hour radio dramas.

Burt and his mother moved in 1949 to Los Angeles, where he finished highschool. In 1955, he received a bachelor’s degree in theater arts on the University of California, Los Angeles.

Over the following decade, Mr. Metcalfe was a working actor, appearing as a guest star on “Death Valley Days,” “The Outer Limits,” “Have Gun — Will Travel,” “The Twilight Zone” and other series; as an everyday on the sitcom “Father of the Bride” within the 1961-62 season; and as a surfer named Lord Byron within the 1959 film “Gidget.”

Feeling bored, he moved into casting in 1965. This eventually led Mr. Reynolds to ask him to seek out actors for 2 pilots: “Anna and the King,” an adaptation of the musical “The King and I,” and “M*A*S*H.”

Each pilots were picked up, but “Anna and the King,” through which Yul Brynner reprised his stage and screen role, was canceled after 13 episodes. Mr. Metcalfe became an associate producer of “M*A*S*H” along with overseeing the casting; he became a producer within the fourth season, during which he directed his first three episodes (he would direct a complete of 31). He became executive producer when Mr. Reynolds left to run the production of “Lou Grant.”

A few years before “M*A*S*H” ended, Mr. Metcalfe went to South Korea to check with civilians about how they’d been affected by the war. One story — a few mother who had been with a gaggle of South Koreans attempting to escape from a North Korean patrol, and who smothered her baby to avoid jeopardizing their safety — stuck with him.

Mr. Metcalfe contributed that story to the script for the series finale. In that episode, Hawkeye has a nervous breakdown on a bus ride with members of the 4077th and refugees after telling one in all the refugees to quiet her chicken in order to not alert the enemy, only to comprehend later, under psychotherapy, that she had actually smothered her baby.

Mr. Metcalfe was nominated for 13 Emmy Awards, including 4 for steering.

Along with his wife, he’s survived by Emily O’Meara, whom he considered his daughter. His marriage to Toby Richman resulted in divorce.

Soon after “M*A*S*H” concluded, Mr. Metcalfe became the chief producer of the series “AfterMASH,” a sequel through which three characters from the unique — Corporal Klinger (played by Jamie Farr), Colonel Potter (Harry Morgan) and Father Mulcahy (William Christopher) — worked at a veterans’ hospital in Missouri. It was canceled after 30 episodes.

Mr. Metcalfe joked on the podcast that his decision to rent Mr. Stiers “was only a preface to creating numerous bad decisions on ‘AfterMASH.’”

He later became an executive at Warner Bros. and MTM Enterprises. He retired within the Nineteen Nineties.

“TV had modified by then,” Ms. Jorden said in a phone interview. “He said it had develop into meaner. And shows like ‘M*A*S*H’ only come around once in a lifetime.”

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