It’s hard not to feel sorry for Larry Linville. Someone on Teespring is selling a sticker that says, “Frank Burns Eats Worms.” He ended up leaving one of the best-rated, most critically acclaimed shows on television because there was nowhere for his character to go, and he was tired of it. And then his career didn’t go much of anywhere after, because everyone remembered him as that single character. He was someone you loved to hate, and unfortunately he had a face that was perfectly suited to that character. That he was married five times is a little astonishing.
He is one of those people whose lives took a violent left turn into acting; young Lawrence Lavon Linville studied aeronautical engineering before applying for a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and boy would I love to have a better explanation of all that. His classmates at the time included David Warner, Ian McShane, and John Hurt, so that’s impressive. By all accounts, he was a warm, friendly man who was loved by his costars. If anyone had anything bad to say about him, I for one have never heard it.
He both left M*A*S*H halfway through the show and also stayed far longer on it than people have stayed on entire series. He did 120 episodes. The show ran so long, and seasons were so many episodes at the time, that there are any number of people who did an episode or two a season that adds up to more than an entire modern season of a show. Alas for Linville, what with one thing and another—four alimony payments, for example—his residuals ended up being just enough each month to pay his car insurance.
It’s easy to despise Frank. Where he became interesting was in slowly becoming a figure of pity. The more you learned about Frank Burns, the more you understood him, but it wasn’t in a Tragic Back Story kind of way. Frank didn’t have an inciting incident. Frank was a weasel who enjoyed being a weasel, but he had also been made that way by a father who wouldn’t let him have a nightlight when he was young. “Well, I had a Popeye night light when I was little. My dad took it away. He said it was dark twelve hours out of every 24 and he wouldn’t put up with a son who was a coward half the time.” BJ is depressed and horrified, and Frank doesn’t even see what’s wrong.
When he appeared on The Rockford Files a couple of years after leaving M*A*S*H, he played a character who might well have been something of a self-aware Frank. Frank knew he wasn’t liked and assumed the problem was with everyone else; Dr. Eric Albach knew he wasn’t liked and knew the problem was with him. Larry Linville, at least, was liked. He and David Ogden Stiers never appeared together on the show, but they did go to Korea together to ceremonially close the last MASH unit in the country. It seems appropriate.