Frank Burns
M*A*S*H character
Vital information
Rank: Major (O-4), U.S. Army Reserve, later promoted to Lt. Colonel (O-5) when transferred to a VA Hospital in Indiana [alleged]
Job/Role in Unit: Former Ranking Surgeon and Second-In-Command at the 4077th M*A*S*H
Home: Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S.
Hair Color: Brown
Eye Color: Hazel
Height: 6'0"
Weight: 185 lbs.
Family/Personal Information
Born: ????
Birthplace: Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S.
Nationality/Race: American
Spouse(s): Louise Burns
Relatives/Children: Unnamed father
Unnamed mother <r>unnamed Brother
3 daughters
First appeared in: "MASH (film)"
Last appeared in: "Margaret's Marriage" (Season 5)
Appeared on/or in: M*A*S*H (TV series)/MASH (film)
Played by: Robert Duvall (film)
Larry Linville (series)

Major Franklin Delano Marion Burns (aka "Ferret Face") was ranking surgeon and second-in-command at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. Early on in the series he had an ongoing affair with Major Margaret Houlihan which was a poorly-kept secret throughout the Army, though the two were convinced that nobody else was aware.

His character was portrayed by Robert Duvall in the 1970 film and Larry Linville during the first five seasons of the TV series.

He and Margaret were both firm believers in military discipline and regularly espouse Army regulations to everyone around them, but unlike Margaret, Burns was maladroit, and at times even clueless at his job. His ineffectiveness earned him the nickname "Ferret Face," which was given to him by his brother and first used by Trapper John in season 1.

About FrankEdit

A native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, Frank Burns was born June 13 (which is debatable as he is thrown a birthday party in the winter in For Want of a Boot), although the year he was born is not revealed. In one M*A*S*H episode, Burns claims he was in practice for 12 years.

By his own admission Burns flunked out of medical school twice before finally graduating, but then only because he paid money for the answers to the exam. In one episode, he claims to have studied 7 years before graduating 120/200 in his medical class. Burns himself also admits he failed at being a practical nurse when he couldn't fold hospital bed sheets and that the local funeral director sends him thank-you cards every Christmas.

Frank does not get along well with the other surgeons. Hawkeye remarks he doesn't like Burns because he is a mean person and a lousy doctor (38 Across); Trapper John claimed Burns couldnt cut salami with out bungling it ; BJ wrote that Hawkeye claims Burns became a doctor only after washing out of embaling school. Once the MASH 4077 doctors got a good laugh at Burns' expense when they saw a home movie of his wedding. Even then, Burns was so inept he couldn't even hold a knife correctly to cut his own wedding cake, causing Hawkeye to quip "Watch the cake die of malpractice!" (There Is Nothing Like a Nurse).

Burns often fancied himself a superior surgeon, but his actions invariably revealed his ineptitude; on many occasions a patient of his has been spared death only because of a second glance or follow-up action by one of the other surgeons. As such, in order to maintain their stellar 98% survival rate, Burns was often relegated to lesser cases- to wit, patients that did not have life-threatening injuries. Even so, Burns was still prone to making bad calls which did not sit well with the rest of the doctors. For example, in the film version when Burns unjustly accused an corpsman of killing his patient, Trapper later punches him in retribution. In the series, Burns decided on a whim to cut a kidney from a patient until Trapper notices in the X-Ray that the patient only had one kidney left.

Even with his numerous surgical shortcomings, Burns still considered himself better than the others largely because of his own affluent practice back home as the other surgeons were making paltry incomes while still sharpening their skills. Burns often bragged about his numerous material possessions, and once claimed to Margaret that he couldn't marry her because he couldn't afford both a new wife and an ex-wife, although the real reason he refused to divorce his wife was because the house and stocks were in her name. [ Burns had meet his future wife Louise Burns when she was a nurse at his office; although they have three daugthers it is clear from Franks remarks married her for her family wealth; likewise Frank hopes to be named in father-in-law's will. ]

To maintain his livelihood back home, he went to great lengths to prevent word about his affair with Margaret getting to the wrong people; to this end he destroyed every love note that Margaret ever wrote to him. When Margaret tells Frank that she saved everything he ever wrote to her, he panics inwardly; one night while she was on duty in Post-Op, Frank sneaks into her quarters to find his notes and dispose of them, but in the futile process he winds up completely trashing her tent (This was a continuity error; in Hot Lips and Empty Arms, Margaret returned all of Burns' love notes to him).

Frank's attempts to keep his ongoing tryst with Margaret a secret ultimately fail when his wife Louise writes him demanding a divorce after she gets word of his affair from another soldier. Frank is able to call home from Colonel Potter's office and successfully begs Louise to call off the divorce claiming that Margaret was just a "war horse" and an "army mule" who meant nothing to him. Frank is satisfied with himself until he gets a chair thrown at him by Margaret, who heard the whole conversation on the phone in Radar's office.

But Margaret was not Frank's first affair. Under delirium, he once admitted to hooking up with his housekeeper (Soldier Of The Month), and in The Novocaine Mutiny, Hawkeye brings up the fact that Burns has an ongoing affair with his receptionist twice a week at a hotel. Besides Margaret, Burns tries to hit on two other nurses: once when he was drunk he danced and tried to romance Nurse Kellye (Der Tag), and then after Margaret's engagement claimed that he had his eye on a little red haired nurse younger than Margaret (Margaret's Engagement).

Despite his own affairs, Burns' hypocrisy led to paranoid measures; he actually hired a private detective to spy on his wife to see if she was cheating, and then hired a second private detective to watch the first detective to be sure she wasn't cheating with him (Post Op). In one episode he claims he wants her to be the same woman he married, yet he becomes almost hysterical when he finds out that she is a volunteer political worker for the G.O.P.; is beginning to wear "slacks" and actually spent a day at Indianapolis with her friends (Dear Sigmund)

Burns had a penchant for malaprops, for saying things that were twisted around onto themselves, for letting information slip that was not meant to be revealed, or for making statements that simply made no sense at all. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • "I believe that marriage is the headstone of American society."
  • "Individuality is fine, as long as we all do it together."
  • "Anybody who needs psychiatry is sick in the head."
  • "Courage is something you just can't be afraid to have."
  • "I'm only paranoid because everyone is against me!"
  • "Major Houlihan and I are intimate with each other at all times."
  • "I never give a dime to charity. I believe every man has a right to be poor."
  • "I've always felt people volunteer better by force."
  • "Beats me how some people treat this war as some kind of picnic, when it's really an honor to be able to serve in the Army. Of course we're not here on our own, we're here with the United Nations, which I personally have nothing against except that it's full of foreigners, which is what did in your League of Nations, y'know?"
  • "Unless we each conform, unless we obey orders, unless we follow our leaders blindly, there is no possible way we can remain free."
  • "It's nice to be nice to the nice."

Burns was known his love of money; Hawkeye once observed Burns' incorrigible greed saying that he "married for money" and "became a doctor for money", and then quipped that "if there was money in dying he'd throw himself under a truck in a minute". Examples of these include:

  • In Major Fred C. Dobbs, Burns cancels his and Margaret's transfer requests when he heard that there were large amounts of gold to be discovered nearby, but it was later revealed that this was only a prank orchestrated by Hawkeye and Trapper.
  • In Mail Call...Again, Burns lies to his wife about his affair with Margaret and claims his house and stocks are in her name; he also hopes to be named a beneficiary in his father-in-laws will.
  • In Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Burns cheated on baseball bets with the rest of the camp after he already knew the game's outcome. Hawkeye, B.J. and the others turned the tables on Burns by broadcasting a phony baseball game and Burns got stuck having to pay off his bets.
  • In Souvenirs, Burns illegally bought a priceless Korean vase for $27.75 and tried to smuggle it back home, but Hawkeye and B.J. switched the vase for a bedpan. Burns also tried to keep a ring from Houlihan-and had a choice of either paying $15.00 or loose 15 teeth to erase an inscription to his wife! After he left MASH 4077 Houlihan found a swimwear picture of herself and her alarm clock in his footlocker (Fade Out, Fade In, Part 2)
  • In Post Op, Burns claims that he came across a patient with an unknown disease..Burns named the disease "Burns Blight" and was all set to get a royalty grant..when the patient got well

Despite his affluence, Burns cheats on his income taxes by presenting fake statements of income and also has a lucrative prescription kickback racket, along with an expensive house, two cars, a yacht and a mens club (The Order of the Moose).

Burns, with Margaret's support, longed to oust Colonel Blake and take over command of the 4077th, often going to extensive and underhanded measures to achieve this end, mostly through letters of complaint about Blake to Army brass. But every attempt, no matter how devious, ultimately failed. The most prominent example was The Trial of Henry Blake, in which Burns and Margaret brought formal charges of treason against Blake for giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Hawkeye and Trapper knew the truth and were ready to testify in Blake's defense, but Burns had them placed under house arrest until Radar and Klinger helped them to escape. The truth was that Blake had donated medical supplies to a North Korean clinic run by American nurse Meg Cratty, who also testified in Blake's defense at the hearing. The presiding officer was ready to dismiss the case, but Burns refused to drop the charges until Hawkeye and Trapper threatened to tell his wife about Margaret, at which point Burns abruptly changed his mind.

After Blake was discharged, Burns assumed command of the camp until word came down from I Corps that the 4077th was to get a new commander (in the person of Col. Potter). Deeply upset at being passed over, Burns went off alone to sulk. Though Potter soon endeared himself to everyone else in the camp including even Margaret, Burns remained resentful and often insulted Potter behind his back, and sometimes unintentionally right to his face; his attitude earned him the nickname "Head Twerp" from Potter.

Burns' inability as a surgeon was matched only by his inutility as a soldier; in his younger years he was a Scoutmaster until he accidentally set himself on fire. His clumsiness also carries over to firearms: one example, while he was cocking a gun he was admonished by Hawkeye to be careful; Burns answered "I can handle a firearm with the best of 'em," and immediately shot out the light in the Swamp. Worse yet, he accidentally shot B.J Hunnicutt in the leg while cleaning his pistol (The Abduction of Margaret Houlihan) and then later shot himself in the leg twice while returning a general's stolen pearl-handled pistol to a gun bin, a pistol that he himself stole, though Radar was blamed (The Gun). In both cases, however, the wounds were superficial. In Rainbow Bridge, Frank stupidly brings a gun to a prisoner exchange which very nearly results in the surgeons being shot.

Burns is twice awarded the Purple Heart citation: one for throwing his back out while dancing with Margaret, and the other for getting an shell fragment (an egg-shell fragment) in his eye . Both times he doesn't keep the main medal; one went to a hospitalized soldier whom Hawkeye exposed for being underage and ordered sent home, the other to a Korean newborn baby whose mother was wounded just before giving birth.

Burns' physical prowess leaves much to be desired. Aside from his own medical issues (anemina, a hernia, and a bad back), he has been punched out by Hawkeye, Trapper, Klinger, Zale, and more than once by Margaret. His official duties include: Sanitary inspection officer [kitchen]; garbage detail officer; latrine detail officer; food procurement officer, and physical fitness instructor. He also gave boring, pointless lectures to the enlisted personnel every Friday on why the War is being fought. In Deal Me Out, Burns' gung-ho patriotism once angered a patient (John Ritter) so much the man armed himself and briefly took Burns hostage in the shower.

Burns was once described by Larry Linville, who played him on TV, as a man with "a mind that had stripped its gears". Burns was given to emotionally unstable and childish outbursts, especially when he didn't get his own way. Examples include when Blake selected Hawkeye as Chief Surgeon instead of him, and also after learning that he was to be replaced as camp commander by Colonel Potter. After finding out that Margaret had gotten engaged to Donald Penobscott while on R&R, Burns very nearly went crazy and decided to fashion himself as a commando-type hero and nearly blew himself up with a hand grenade. After he rounded up a Korean family and brought them back to camp as prisoners, Potter remarked that Burns was "heading for a Section Eight". Radar saved Burns when he put a call to through to Burns' mother, during which he revealed that his "friend" (Margaret) pretended to like him in the same way that his father pretended to like him. (Margaret's Engagement)

There were times when Burns shows humanity, but these are very few and far between. Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • When Hawkeye reopens a patient who developed serious complications. After he finds the culprit, a tiny piece of shrapnel lodged beneath the patient's sigmoid colon, Burns admits "anybody could have missed that".
  • After the orphan boy Kim wanders into a minefield Burns is concerned over Kim's safety, even though it was his and Margaret's carelessness that allowed the child to wander off in the first place.
  • Colonel Flagg attempted to use Frank's (and Margaret's) pedanticism to get them to help him in one of his outrageous schemes. Frank and Margaret were initially compliant, but eventually reconsidered once they realized how far Flagg was willing to go for the sake of advancing his own agenda.
  • In The Abduction of Margaret Houlihan, Burns is actually concerned over Houlihan's disappearance

Relationship with others Edit

Frank was disliked by everyone else in the camp, including eventually Margaret after she became engaged to Col. Penobscott. He eventually acknowledges this when Radar arranges for him to talk to his mother via the phone after he goes over the deep end after Houlihan gets engaged (see above). While Burns was known for his intolerant and callous nature, his replacement, Major Winchester, outwardly displayed similar qualities, but unlike Burns, Winchester was an excellent surgeon as well as fair-minded, kind-hearted and generous (though he often hid these traits from others).

Although Frank was disliked and treated with contempt by Hawkeye and Trapper, he was on at least one occasion shown some degree of regard when he lamented that he was having a lousy birthday. In order to cheer him up, Hawkeye and Trapper staged an argument (which later turned into a real one) as a birthday present, which lifted Frank's spirits considerably. Radar also shows some compassion when he arranges for Burns to talk to this mother when Margaret gets engaged and he goes on a bender, with Radar telling Potter that "sometimes a boy just needs his mother".

During the few times he commanded the 4077th, Burns micromanaged camp operations, and often barked out orders in contradiction to other people's actions just for the sake of asserting his command. One example of this was in Welcome To Korea, when Burns asks Radar if he brushes his teeth. When Radar replies he always does right after breakfast, Burns replies "I want it done before!".

Burns was often dismissive of the other officers and was very condescending and at times downright abusive to the enlisted personnel, especially Radar, whom he derisively nicknamed "pipsqueak" and "runt"; one time he told Radar to keep out of the conversation "unless there's a call for Philip Morris", which naturally offended Radar.

There was also no love lost between Burns and the Korean locals. Burns had a twisted sense of logic, constantly referring to Koreans as "foreigners", completely ignoring the fact that being in Korea he himself was the outsider. Burns was often the first to accuse locals of theft whenever something of his turned up missing, and often made it a point to admonish the others in camp when they would give or loan money or goods to the locals; in Burns' defense it should be pointed out that some of his accusations did turn out to be correct.

Frank was not above manipulation or thoughts of conspiracy. He once goaded Klinger and his nemesis Sgt. Zelmo Zale into a boxing match so that he could step in and stop the fight once Potter got involved, making it look like he was doing a good deed (and impress Margaret). When Hawkeye and B.J. learned of Frank's scheme and told Klinger and Zale, all Frank got for his troubles was a knockout punch to the face by both Klinger and Zale at the same time. Burns later tried to bring up both Klinger and Zale up on charges only to learn that he himself could face charges for promoting a fight.

Despite Burns' bullying and over-the-top loyalism, his true colors showed through when the real pressure was on; he turned into a panicky coward when the camp was under enemy fire, faced with a deluge of wounded, or inundated with any other situation that he couldn't handle.

Final M*A*S*H appearance Edit

Citing his belief that there was little left that could be done with his character except for brief moments of comic relief, Larry Linville decided to leave the series at the end of the fifth season. When the writers scrambled to replace Frank Burns, they decided on a different kind of character. In the season 6 episodes Fade Out, Fade In: Part I and Part II , David Ogden Stiers was added to the cast as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, an aristocratic Bostonian who, unlike Burns, was an outstanding surgeon.

Burns is crushed when he finds out that Margaret has become engaged to Lieutenant Colonel Donald Penobscot; further exacerbating his hurt feelings was Margaret's incessant praise of her new fiancé in Frank's presence, which for once caused Hawkeye to actually feel sorry for Frank. After the newlyweds take off for Tokyo on their honeymoon, Burns has a nervous breakdown, goes AWOL, gets drunk in Seoul and attempts to romance several different women he believes to be Margaret, finally being caught by MPs when he accosts a general and his wife in a steam bath. To Hawkeye and the others' delight, Burns is permanently sent stateside for psychiatric evaluation, but then Frank himself calls the 4077th and tells Hawkeye that all the charges were dropped, that he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, and put in charge of a veterans hospital back home in Fort Wayne.

Research notes/Fun factsEdit

  • In Fade Out, Fade In, the version of his acquittal and promotion is Burns' own story to Hawkeye, but in The Novocaine Mutiny, which shows Frank is not above twisting the truth to make himself look good, it is within the realm of probability that these are just Frank's own fantasies; it remained unknown if he ever recovered from his nervous breakdown, if he was actually promoted, or if he and his wife divorced.
  • In The Trial of Henry Blake, Frank says that his family came to America in 1927. Since the Korean War ran from 1950-1953 and Frank appeared to be much older than 26 at the time, it would suggest that he himself was an immigrant.
  • A commentator on Ken Levine's blog recalled how Larry Linville once dealt with criticism that the Frank Burns character was too much of a caricature and unrealistic. Linville had said that whenever he met with groups of veterans who were fans of M*A*S*H, he would ask them which character they thought was the most realistic. Invariably, the veterans would choose Frank Burns, because they also had that "SOB" in their outfits.[1]


  1. Pat Reeder, October 20, 2007 (10:31 a.m.), comment on Ken Levine, “Charles Emerson Winchester,” The World as Seen by a TV Comedy Writer ... by Ken Levine (blog), October 18, 2007, (8:22 p.m.), URL.
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