"I'd vouch for this man's character, but he hasn't got any."

[~Hawkeye about Frank (Welcome To Korea)]

Major Franklin Delano Marion Burns was ranking surgeon and second-in-command at the 4077th MASH. He was portrayed by Robert Duvall in the 1970 film and by Larry Linville through the first five seasons of the TV series.

In the original 1968 novel, Frank Burns was a Captain, and though he had no surgical experience, he was brash and arrogant, which frequently caused friction with the other surgeons. Duke, and later Trapper, get into a fistfight with Frank after he blames an orderly for the death of one of his patients.

In the 1970 film, Frank was pious, claiming to be a man of God, but still blaming others for his own mistakes. The most prominent example was taken directly from the novel when Frank wrongly accused an orderly named Boone of killing his patient; Boone is crushed, but Trapper John (Elliott Gould) punches Frank in retribution.

In the TV series Frank was not much better: He was very high-strung, hypocritical and unpleasant to be around. Similar to his literary character, he was a self-exalting second-rate surgeon. He was also a firm disciplinarian who regularly espoused Army regulations to everyone else, but he was also maladroit, and at times even feckless in his duties. His ineffectiveness earned him the nickname "Ferret Face," which was given to him by his brother, but first used in the TV series by Trapper John in Season 1.

Frank was once described by Larry Linville, who played him on TV, as a man with "a mind that had stripped its gears".

About Frank[edit | edit source]

Frank is married with three daughters and lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He once mentioned that his family came to America in 1927 (though he never said where they came from) . At the time of the Korean war (1950-53), Frank would have to be at least 40 years old; it was established that he struggled to get through medical school, and then was in practice for twelve years; this would suggest that Frank himself was an immigrant. (The Trial of Henry Blake)

Frank's birthday was supposedly June 13, which is debatable, as he is thrown a birthday party in the winter in For Want of a Boot.  His birth year is never mentioned.

Frank's wife[edit | edit source]

Frank married his wife Louise some time before he came into the Army; in There is Nothing Like a Nurse, the other surgeons watch a home movie of Frank's wedding. They cannot help but notice that Louise is scowling through the entire film. Very few people attended the wedding, and most of the ones that did were also scowling or frowning. In the home movie Frank is depicted as being henpecked by his wife; as they leave for their honeymoon Louise gets behind the wheel and orders Frank to get in the passenger seat, which he sheepishly does. (When the nurses return, a similar situation happens with Frank and Margaret causing Hawkeye and Trapper to laugh again.)

Affair with Margaret Houlihan[edit | edit source]

Robert Duvall as Frank Burns in the 1970 film.

In the 1970 film, when Major Margaret Houlihan arrives at the 4077th as the new head nurse, she and Frank almost immediately hit it off sharing a common tendency for strict military discipline as well as a mutual disdain of all the un-military hijinks that have flared up since Hawkeye, Duke and Trapper John arrived in camp. They decide to join forces and write a letter of complaint to General Hammond, and as they finish, they begin a romance that does not last long. Later the same night when Frank visits Margaret to check up on her, the two soon begin having sex, oblivious to Radar secretly placing the PA microphone underneath her cot so Trapper, Duke and the others could listen to them in the office. When Trapper decides that the rest of the camp needs to hear the two going at it, they broadcast their rendezvous over the loudspeakers until Margaret hears her own voice feeding back, at which point she abruptly stops and quickly rushes Frank out of her quarters. The next day in the Mess Tent, when Hawkeye quietly taunts Frank about what Margaret is like in bed, Frank leaps over the table and physically assaults him before he is restrained. He is last seen in the film being shipped out wearing a straitjacket.

Throughout the first four seasons of the TV series Frank and Margaret had an ongoing affair, which was a poorly-kept secret throughout the Army, though the two convinced themselves that nobody else knew. Frank 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 is on duty in Post-Op, he sneaks into her quarters to find his notes and destroy 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 his love notes to him.)

But Frank's attempts to keep his ongoing tryst secret ultimately fail when his wife Louise, after finding out about Frank's affair from another soldier, writes him demanding a divorce. Frank is able to call home from 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.

Other women[edit | edit source]

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 Frank had an ongoing affair with his receptionist twice a week at a hotel. Besides Margaret, Frank tries to hit on two other nurses in camp: once when he was drunk, he danced with and tried to romance Nurse Kellye (Der Tag), and then after Margaret got engaged, he claimed to have his eye on a little red-haired nurse, whom he pointed out was younger than Margaret (Margaret's Engagement).

Despite his affairs, Frank's paranoia led to hypocritical measures; he 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 one to make sure he wasn't cheating with her (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 worker for the Republican party, is beginning to wear "slacks," and actually went on a day trip to Indianapolis with her friends (Dear Sigmund).

As a surgeon[edit | edit source]

In every incarnation of the character, Frank Burns fancied himself a superior surgeon, but his surgical actions did little more than amplify 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, Frank was often relegated to lesser cases; to wit, patients that did not have life-threatening injuries. But even with this, Frank was still prone to making bad calls that did not sit well with the rest of the doctors. For example:

  • In Deal Me Out, Frank, once again citing Army regulations, refused to operate on a seriously wounded CID officer unless and until another CID man showed up and observed during surgery to make sure the patient did not blurt out any sensitive information. When Frank casually mentioned this to Hawkeye and Trapper, the two promptly went to OR and did the surgery, during which Trapper noted that the patient could very well have died had they not intervened.
  • In the film, when Frank unjustly accused an corpsman of killing his patient, Trapper subsequently punches him in retribution.
  • In the series, Frank decides to remove a damaged kidney from a patient, until Trapper notices in the x-ray that the patient had only one kidney left.
  • In another episode, Frank decides to "go after the appendix" of a patient for no particular reason, only to have Henry, who was assisting him, say that the appendix Frank was going after was his pinky finger.
  • In another episode, B.J. was being the gas passer while Frank was operating, but when the patient loses his pulse, Frank immediately gave up and started to walk away. An offended B.J. took over and frantically attempted to revive the patient; initially, Frank, who took to monitoring the pulse, smugly told B.J. that it wasn't working, until it did, and to his surprise the patient was revived, but Frank showed no gratitude to B.J. for his intervention.

Frank once admitted that he flunked out of medical school twice before finally graduating after paying money for the answers to the exam. In one episode, he claims to have studied 7 years before graduating 120th in his medical class of 200. He also admitted that he failed at being a practical nurse when he couldn't fold hospital bed sheets. Frank claims he was in practice for 12 years and that the local funeral director sent him thank-you cards every Christmas.

Anything for money[edit | edit source]

Even with his many surgical shortcomings, Frank still exalted himself over the others, largely because of his own thriving practice back home while the other surgeons were making paltry incomes as they were sharpening their own procedural skills. Frank often bragged about his 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; the truth was that he refused to divorce his wife because the house and stocks were in her name, and also because he was in his father-in-law's will, indicating Louise's family has all the money.

Frank's love of money knew no boundaries. Despite his affluence, Frank cheated on his income taxes by presenting phony statements of income; he also has a gainful prescription kickback racket, along with an expensive house, two cars, a yacht, and a membership to a men's club. Hawkeye once observed Frank's 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, Frank 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, Frank lies to his wife about his affair with Margaret and claims his house and stocks are in her name, and also confirms with her that he's still a beneficiary in his father-in-law's will.
  • In Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Frank cheats on baseball bets with the rest of the camp after he already knew the game's outcome. Hawkeye, B.J., and the others hoodwinked Frank by broadcasting a phony baseball game in which the outcome was completely different from the actual game, and Frank got stuck having to pay off his bets.
  • In Souvenirs, Frank 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, returning the vase to its rightful owner.
  • In Post Op, Frank claimed 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.. until the patient recovered.

"I'm in charge here!"[edit | edit source]

Frank, with Margaret's support, longed to oust Colonel Blake and take over command of the 4077th, often going to extensive and underhanded (sometimes unethical, and even illegal) measures to achieve this end, mostly through letters of complaint about Henry to Army brass. But all of their attempts failed.

The most prominent example was The Trial of Henry Blake, in which Frank and Margaret brought formal charges of treason against Henry for giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Hawkeye and Trapper knew the truth and were ready to testify in Henry's defense, but Frank 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 Henry's defense at the hearing. The presiding officer was ready to dismiss the case, but Frank refused to drop the charges until Hawkeye and Trapper threatened to tell his wife about Margaret, at which point Frank abruptly changed his mind.

His official non-surgical duties included:

  • Sanitary inspection officer [kitchen]
  • Garbage detail officer
  • Latrine detail officer
  • Food procurement officer, and
  • Physical fitness instructor
  • Lecturer; He gave lengthy, boring and pointless speeches to the enlisted every Friday on why the War is being fought.

As commander[edit | edit source]

After Henry was discharged, Frank assumed command of the camp until word came down from I Corps that the 4077th was getting a new commander in the person of Colonel Sherman Potter. Deeply upset at being passed over, Frank went off alone to sulk. Though Potter soon endeared himself to everyone else in the camp, including Margaret, Frank 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.

During the few and brief times Frank commanded the 4077th, he 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 Frank asks Radar if he brushes his teeth; when Radar replies he always does right after breakfast, Frank replies, "I want it done before!" He often abused his authority as many of his orders, ridiculous as they were, came very close to being unreasonable and even unlawful.

Frank's primary concern was maintaining a rigid military bearing and lording his authority over the others while doing nothing about camp morale; in Welcome to Korea he implies to Father Mulcahy that he could not care less about camp morale and is interested only in his maintaining his own well-being, even at Margaret's expense.

In contrast to Frank's bullying and over-the-top patriotism, his true colors showed through when the real pressure was on. In times of dire emergency, including when the camp was under fire, being faced with a deluge of wounded, or any other problem that fell outside of his comfort zone, Frank turned into a panicky, dithering coward.

As a soldier[edit | edit source]

Frank's inability as a surgeon was matched by his worthlessness 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; Frank answered "I can handle a firearm with the best of 'em," and immediately shot out the light in the Swamp. Worse yet, he accidentally nicked B.J. in his leg while cleaning his pistol (The Abduction of Margaret Houlihan) and then later grazed 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 Rainbow Bridge, Frank (on Margaret's suggestion) foolishly brings a gun to a prisoner exchange which very nearly results in the surgeons being shot. In Deal Me Out, Burns' gung-ho patriotism angered one patient (John Ritter) so much the man armed himself and briefly took Burns hostage in the shower.

Frank's physical prowess leaves much to be desired. Aside from his own medical issues (anemia, a hernia, a bad back, and a very low threshold for pain, once saying "A hemorrhoid can put me into a coma"), he has been punched out by Hawkeye, Trapper, Klinger, Zale, and more than once by Margaret. Frank is twice awarded the Purple Heart: 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 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 (the baby was also wounded in utero).

Frank was given to emotionally unstable and childish outbursts, especially when he didn't get his own way. Examples include when Henry selected Hawkeye as Chief Surgeon over 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, Frank almost went completely crazy and decided to fashion himself as a commando-type hero and almost 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 Frank was "heading for a Section Eight", but Radar saved him when he put a call through to his mother, during which Frank revealed that his "friend" (Margaret) only pretended to like him in the same way that his father pretended to like him (Margaret's Engagement).

Relationship with others[edit | edit source]

Frank did not get along well with the other surgeons. Hawkeye remarks he doesn't like him because he is a mean person and a lousy doctor (38 Across); Trapper John called him a "medical moron", saying he "couldn't cut a salami without bungling it"; B.J. wrote that Hawkeye claims Frank became a doctor only after washing out of embalming school. As the surgeons watch Frank's home movie of his wedding and reception, they can't help but laugh at Frank's inability to hold a knife correctly even to cut his own wedding cake; Hawkeye quips "Watch the cake die of malpractice!" (There Is Nothing Like a Nurse).

Aside from being dismissive of the other officers, Frank was condescending and very abusive to the enlisted personnel, particularly 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. On numerous occasions when Frank would enter the Swamp, which he often referred to as "officers country", when he found Radar there talking with Hawkeye or Trapper (or B.J.) Frank would often yell at him to get out, or chase him out of the tent, which never sat well with his Swamp mates. Accordingly, he was disliked by everyone else in the camp, including eventually Margaret after she became engaged to Donald. He eventually acknowledges this when Radar arranges a call to his mother after he goes off the deep end when Margaret gets engaged (see above). While Frank was known for his intolerant, callous and hypocritical nature, his replacement, Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, outwardly displayed similar qualities, but in contrast, Winchester was an outstanding surgeon as well as generous and kind-hearted (though he often hid these traits from others).

As mentioned before, Frank also had a hypocritical streak. In George, when Frank finds out that a wounded and bruised soldier, Private George Weston, is gay (or as he mentions to Henry, "One of them"), Frank is ready to report Weston and have him dishonorably discharged. Hawkeye and Trapper later get into a mock argument during which Trapper "confesses" that he bought the answers for a med school examination; when Frank admits that he did the same thing, Hawkeye and Trapper, revealing their ruse, confront Frank about his piousness, and persuade him to drop his actions against George.

There was also no love lost between Frank and the Korean locals. He had a backward sense of logic, constantly referring to Koreans as "foreigners", completely ignoring the fact that being in Korea he himself was the outsider. Frank 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 to the locals. In Frank's defense, however, it should be pointed out that some of his accusations were correct.

There were times when Frank did show some humanity, but these moments are very few and far between. Examples include:

  • When Hawkeye reopens a patient who developed serious complications. After agonizing over it for days, he finally 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 Kim to wander off in the first place.
  • Colonel Flagg attempted to use Frank 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.

Although Frank was disliked and treated with contempt by his tentmates, he was occasionally shown some regard.  In The Most Unforgettable Characters, when Frank laments about having a lousy birthday, Hawkeye and B.J. decide they're going to give him a birthday present by staging an argument between them (which soon becomes all too real), which lifts Burns' spirits considerably until Radar unknowingly intervenes and begs the two to make peace.

As evidenced by his (and Margaret's) repeated attempts to oust Henry from command, Frank was not above manipulation or thoughts of conspiracy. He once goaded Klinger and 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. Frank was about to bring Klinger and Zale up on charges until he found out that he himself could face charges for promoting a fight.

"Goodbye, Ferret Face"[edit | edit source]

Frank is crushed when he finds out that Margaret has become engaged to Colonel Penobscott; 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 him. After the wedding at camp, the newlyweds take off for their honeymoon in Tokyo, and Hawkeye, B.J. and Potter arrange for Frank to take some time off in Seoul.

In Fade Out, Fade In, Frank is uncharacteristically late returning to camp from R&R, and Potter soon gets a series of phone calls from an MP sergeant in Seoul telling of Frank's attempts to molest several different blonde women he believed to be Margaret, but he repeatedly evades the MPs until he is finally caught after accosting a general and his wife in a steam bath. Army brass decide that Frank should be held for psychiatric evaluation, and then sent back stateside-- permanently.

Upon hearing that Frank is gone for good, the doctors are ecstatic, with B.J. remarking that "this reduces the enemy to just North Korea". Potter proposes a toast to the now-departed Burns, and Hawkeye tries to think of something "tender and sentimental" to say as a final tribute, but all he can come up with is, "Goodbye, Ferret Face", and after Hawkeye, B.J., Potter, and Radar share a drink, they all start whooping and throwing papers in the air in celebration.

But Frank is the one who seems to have the last laugh: Before leaving Korea, he calls the 4077th and tells Hawkeye and B.J. that not only were the charges dropped, but he was reassigned to command a VA hospital back in Fort Wayne, and also promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

  • (Given his mental state at the time, it is possible, even probable, that Frank's story was contrived. The fact that he was given to self-aggrandizement in previous episodes should be considered, most notably his phony version of events that led to The Novocaine Mutiny.)

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 that the fifth season of the series would be his last. When the producers and writers scrambled to replace Frank, 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 joined the cast as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, an aristocratic Bostonian who, unlike Burns, was an outstanding surgeon.

Frank-isms[edit | edit source]

Frank had a penchant for malaprops:

  • "I believe that marriage is the headstone of American society."

...for saying things that were twisted around onto themselves:

  • "Anybody who needs psychiatry is sick in the head."
  • "Individuality is fine, as long as we all do it together."
  • "I'm only paranoid because everyone is against me!"

...for letting information slip that was not meant to be revealed:

  • "Major Houlihan and I are intimate with each other at all times."

...and for making statements that simply made no sense at all.

  • "I've always felt people volunteer better by force."
  • "Unless we each conform, unless we obey orders, unless we follow our leaders blindly, there is no possible way we can remain free."
  • "I never give a dime to charity. I believe every man has a right to be poor."

Research notes/Fun facts[edit | edit source]

During the first 5 seasons, Major Burns is absent from 4 episodes:

  • The Moose (Season 1, Episode 5)
  • Adam's Ribs (Season 3, Episode 11)
  • Hawkeye (Season 4, Episode 19)
  • The More I See You (Season 4, Episode 23)
  • 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 S.O.B. in their outfits".[1]

References[edit | edit source]

  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 or Archive URL
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