M*A*S*H (1972-83) is one of the most beloved shows to ever air on television – and how could you not like it? The characters are great, the writing is both captivating and funny, and it manages to portray war in a way the average civilian can understand. Of the characters on M*A*S*H, Cpl. Walter Eugene “Radar” O’Reilly was arguably a fan favorite, which begs the question: why did he exit in season eight?
M*A*S*H was a television smash
It’s hard to talk about the history of TV without mentioning M*A*S*H. Based on the novel by Richard Hooker and serving as a spin-off for the 1970 movie, the CBS comedy-drama presented a view of the Korean War many weren’t privy to.
The show followed the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and its staff as they tended to the wounded in South Korea and faced the ever-present dangers of being in a war setting. The ensemble cast – Alan Alda, Wayne Rodgers, Mike Farrell, Loretta Swift, McLean Stevenson and Gary Burghoff, to name a few – featured a host of personalities who, when put together, created what can only be described as TV magic.
One of the highest-rated shows in American history, M*A*S*H was nominated for over 100 Primetime Emmys during its run, winning 14. It also received the Golden Globe for Best Television Series (Musical or Comedy in 1981 and a Peabody “for the depth of its humor and the manner in which comedy is used to lift the spirit and, as well, to offer a profound statement on the nature of war.”
A beloved character
Radar O’Reilly is portrayed by Gary Burghoff in M*A*S*H – both the movie and the TV series. That doesn’t mean, however, that the iterations are the same. In fact, you could say the latter presents a more realistic depiction of a young man sent to war.
Growing up on a farm in Ottumwa, Iowa, Radar is relatively naïve when he enters the US military. He initially tries to join the Marine Corps, but is turned away because of his poor eyesight and opts to enlist in the Army, with the aim being to receive an assignment with the Signal Corps. Instead, he’s given a spot with the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
While in Korea, Radar is charged with manning the camp’s public address system and radio station. He has a rough go at it in the beginning, with his teddy bear being a primary source of comfort during this time. Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) takes him under his wing, giving Radar the chance to get his bearings and learn the ropes, and he ultimately becomes the person who holds everything together.
It’s during his deployment overseas that he comes to earn the name “Radar,” due to his impeccable hearing and how perceptive he is.
‘Good Bye Radar’
Audiences said goodbye to Radar O’Reilly in the two-part episode titled “Good Bye, Radar,” which aired as part of M*A*S*H‘s eighth season. They were the fourth and fifth, with the character absent during the first three episodes, having been sent to Tokyo, Japan for some much-needed rest.
When it’s time to return to the 4077th, Radar finds he’s been bumped from his original flight. While an inconvenience at first, he winds up meeting a nurse at the airport, and the two hit it off. They spend some time together before going their separate ways, saying goodbye with a kiss.
Back in Korea, Radar, understandably exhausted from the journey, finds himself having to deal with Cpl. Maxwell Klinger (Jamie Farr), who keeps badgering him with questions because the camp is without a working generator.
To make matters worse, Radar’s later approached by Col. Sherman Potter (Henry Morgan), who informs him that his Uncle Ed, who’d been helping his mother on the family farm, has died. Aware she can’t run it by herself, Potter orders Radar to fill out a DA-7 Hardship Discharge, so he can return home to Iowa as soon as possible.
Throughout all this, Klinger continues to question Radar about the generator, leading the latter to approach Potter and tell him that he can’t be discharged, as it’s obvious that he’s still needed at the camp. Potter disagrees, as does Capt. Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce (Alan Alda), who tells him that no situation in war is worth someone refusing a discharge.
Predictably, Radar doesn’t believe the pair and only realizes that he can, indeed, leave the 4077th when Klinger finds a solution to the camp’s generator problem. Before setting off, he leaves his teddy bear on Hawkeye’s cot.
Why did Gary Burghoff leave M*A*S*H?
Gary Burghoff made the decision to leave M*A*S*H and the character of Radar O’Reilly behind in 1979, following the series’ seventh season. He cited two reasons for his decision: a desire to spend more time with his family and burnout.
“Family, to me, became the most important thing,” he shared. “I was not available as a father because of my work. That doesn’t stop when the work stops. Whenever you go out as a family, you’re always torn from family to deal with public recognition.”
Additionally, M*A*S*H producer and writer Burt Metcalfe revealed in an interview with the Television Academy Foundation that Burghoff had sleep issues, which meant he was often late to set. “He wasn’t as happy in the show as other people were and he was really anxious to move on and play something different,” he said.
Despite his reasons for leaving the show, fellow cast member Mike Farrell attempted to persuade Burghoff to stay, going so far as to bring up the less-than-successful post-M*A*S*H careers of McLean Stevenson and Larry Linville. For Farrell, Burghoff leaving was a great loss for the series.
“Gary Burghoff may well have been the best actor in the company, it’s always seemed to me,” he later said. “His focus, his ability to find those little gems of behavior that made everything absolutely true were a marvel to behold.”
Gary Burghoff’s post-M*A*S*H career
Following M*A*S*H, Gary Burghoff continued to regularly appear on TV, largely on game shows. He did score some one-time scripted roles, such as Donald M. Flanders in The Love Boat (1977-86) and Gordon Hughes in Fantasy Island (1977-84). There were also a handful of film roles, including B.S. I Love You (1971) and Casino (1980).
Burghoff later reprised the role of Radar for two episodes of AfterMASH, a spin-off that aired from 1983-85. He also filmed the pilot for a show centered solely around the character, but it was never picked up by CBS.
Outside of acting, Burghoff has worked as a professional jazz drummer and taught himself to paint. He’s even become an inventor, creating a new type of fishing tackle and pole, as well as a handle to lift up toilet seats.