Monster M*A*S*H

Major Frank Burns

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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
Job/Role in unit: Ranking Former Chief Surgeon at the 4077th M*A*S*H
Home Same as birthplace
Hair Color: Black
Eye Color: Brown
Height: 6'0"
Weight: 185 lbs.
Family/Personal Information
Born:  ?
Birthplace: Fort Wayne, Indiana, U.S.
Spouse: Louise
Relatives/Children: Unnamed father
Unnamed mother
3 daughters
First appeared in: "MASH (film)
Last appeared in: "Margaret's Marriage" (Season 5)
appeared in:
M*A*S*H (TV series)/MASH (film)
Played by: Robert Duvall (film)
Larry Linville (series)

Major Franklin Delano Marion "Ferret Face" Burns is a surgeon at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital who is acting commander of the hospital in the absence of Lt. Col. Henry Blake or Col. Potter. His romance with Major Margaret Houlihan is well-known throughout the camp, though the two act as if it is a secret.

His character is portrayed by Robert Duvall in the film and Larry Linville on the show.

Although he and Margaret are both strict regulation-worshipers, Burns, unlike his paramour, is portrayed as inept, and at times, without a clue, at his job. Several times a patient of his has been spared death only because of a chance second glance by one of his colleagues.

About FrankEdit

A native of Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he was born and raised, Franklin Delano Marion Burns was born June 13, although what year is not revealed (this is debatable, because in the Season 2 episode "For Want of a Boot", his birthday party takes place in the winter). In one M*A*S*H episode, Burns claims he was in practice for 12 years.

In another episode, Burns sneered at Hawkeye because while Hawkeye was in a General Hospital, Frank had a thriving three year private practice in Fort Wayne with a $35,000 house and two cars. Other episodes also tell that Burns also has a 30 foot yacht, a country club and a men's lodge memberships and is involved in a kickback prescription racket and has an ongoing affair with his receptionist twice a week in the Golden Goose Motel. He also falsifies his Income Tax returns and dabbles in the Stock Market. He once claims to Houlihan he can't marry her because he can't afford a new wife and an ex-wife although the real reason he won't divorce his wife is because the house and stocks are in her name! A running gag is his greed-Hawkeye remarks about how Burns is crazy for money-he married for money, he became a doctor for money-if there was money in dying he'd throw himself under a truck! In one episode Burns cancels a transfer request only because he thinks he can get rich finding gold! Major Fred C. Dobbs (TV series episode)

He engaged in cheating other members of MASH by secretly listening to baseball games on a hidden radio and then tricking others into making bets he could win-until Hawkeye, B.J. and Radar tricked him with his own game. Burns is also shown to be quite stupid at times: in the Bug Out episode after he complains that a watch be bought from a Korean runs backwards, the Korean replies, "Try other wrist" - and Burns does just that! Another time in the Dear Mildred episode when for once he and Major Houlihan decided to surprise Col Potter with a heartfelt gift - a wooden bust of the Colonel - Burns tries to bargain down the Korean's price of $6, - but being Burns-he bargains up to $7.50!

After Linville left the show the writers tried to substitute Major Winchester for Burns-in one episode Change Day (TV series episode) was even written to make Winchester trying to make a "killing" in Military script-but at the end he is foiled by Hawkeye and BJ {Burns being foiled by Hawkeye would have been much funnier-especially as Winchester shows he is actually a more caring person than Burns ever was; likewise in "A War for All Seasons (TV series episode) shows Winchester losing bets because of the Dodgers big loss in 1951; Burns would have made a better comic foil !}

Several times he tried to steal objects-an alarm clock and a ring from Major Houlihan; a Korean national treasure; a pistol from a visiting colonel-and never succeeded.

A running gag is that besides his greed, Burns is also inept-he was a Scoutmaster until he accidentally set fire to himself and is basically incompetent with firearms: he wildly shot his pistol and missed in the dark in the mess tent when he and Hawkeye investigated a noise; he shot a lamp out while the rest of MASH personnel were playing a poker game; he accidentally shot BJ Hunnicut in the leg while cleaning his pistol and shot himself in the leg as well while trying to return a stolen pistol to a gun bin, {Both wounds were just scratches}. Twice Burns is awarded the Purple Heart medal-once for throwing his back out while dancing with Major Houlihan and once for getting an eggshell fragment in his eye. Both times he doesn't keep the main medal-one goes to a hospitalized underage soldier who's going home and the other goes to a Korean baby whose mother was wounded just before birth.

At least once he tried to steal a Purple Heart from a patient. Another running gag is that when he is happy or asleep he lets out a hysterical screech of a laugh. Frank can sleep through anything. One time Hawkeye and Trapper "milked" him for a pint of blood while he was asleep. Another time, after a "night out on the town" encouraged by Colonel Potter, a drunken Frank drank up all of Hawkeye and BJ's liquor and won all their money in a poker game and then was toe tagged by BJ and Hawkeye and was accidentally shipped up to the front where he continued to sleep, uninterrupted, until the next morning. Interestingly this episode shows that Major Burns -although drunk on Bourbon- confess to Kellye Nakahara that he has had his eye on her while dancing with her in the officers club; she is surprised to hear that; of course then Burns passes out dead drunk!

His skills as a Surgeon are also debatable with MASH 4077's record of 98% survival rate-since at least two patients have to be saved from infection after being operated on by "Ferret Face" (Burns' nickname). Another time he almost cut a surviving kidney from a patient (after refusing to look at the x-ray, which revealed that the patient only had one) and nearly allowed a comatose patient to die. Hawkeye claims his feud with Burns began when Hawkeye remarked Burns created more widows and pallbearers than salmonella. Burns himself admits the local funeral director gives him thank you cards every Christmas. Trapper John claimed Burns couldn't cut a Salami without bungling it and BJ wrote that Hawkeye claims Burns became a doctor only after washing out of embalming school. With four surgeons at MASH 4077 this means each one contributed to save 1/4 of all patients to save about 98% -with an incompetent like Burns the survival rate for patients would have only been about 75% only about 3/4 would have been saved.

Burns himself admits he flunked the medical exam twice and only passed by buying the answers for $400.00 and that he failed being a male nurse when he couldn't fold hospital bed sheets; he graduated 122nd out of 200. Besides being a surgeon, Burns is also in charge of: food procurement, garbage detail, latrine digging squad, giving lectures to enlisted personnel on why the Korean War is being fought every Friday {One early episode shows an exhausted Hawkeye who is so tired from lack of sleep that he actually accepts Burns stupid and idiotic explanations of why the US troops are in Korea{!} Dr. Pierce and Mr. Hyde (TV series episode), and also the Camp's physical fitness officer; despite having anemia, high blood pressure, a bad back, and a hernia operation. Several times Burns gets knocked out cold after being hit by Klinger, Zale, Hawkeye, BJ, and Major Houlihan.

His favorite general is Douglas MacArthur, and his favorite senator is Joseph McCarthy; who ironically was as crazy as Colonel Flagg. In one episode Hawkeye and BJ tried to keep a North Korean POW doctor after Burns is mistakenly taken POW by two disguised North Koreans; the two infiltrates are so tired of Burns' idiocy that they let him go- claiming that is the best thing they can do for their side!

Emotionally Burns can act, at times, very unstable and childish when he doesn't get his way-twice he had fits of petulant anger when Hawkeye became Chief Surgeon of MASH 4077 and when he lost permanent command to Colonel Sherman T. Potter; once when he became so worried about losing Houlihan - he decided to become a "hero" {Blood and Guts Burns} that he nearly blew himself up with a hand grenade and went wondering around in the dark with a M1 carbine. In his last performance Burns has a nervous breakdown when Houlihan leaves to get married and goes down to Seoul and gets drunk and tries to romance women he thinks are Houlihan, resulting in a court martial and being put under psychiatric observation-which in MASH 4077's fictional world means all charges are dropped and he goes home a Lt. Col in charge of a Veterans Hospital in Ft. Wayne Indiana! The only person he has real affection for is his mother-apparently his father was unfaithful to her.

Unfortunately, the character of Frank Burns was made perhaps too two dimensional, often lacking any degree of human complexity or nuance. He was portrayed as inept and evil at times, which, unfortunately, perhaps for Larry Linville, the actor who played Frank, served the comedy of Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds, as well as the series' Nielsen ratings well. One wonders how such a dumb and morally shallow person was able to make it through medical school, as well as have medical practice and to be able to work in a M*A*S*H unit where the survival rate was so high. Larry Linville called the latter a "technical contrivance". Even with this, he was still described in one episode as "a fair to competent surgeon, and still able commander", albeit an acting one.

A goof in the series is him being shown as a Major; according to the US Army Almanac 1959 {p.149} a Major's rank could only be achieved after 14 years service; in fact he would probably have been a 1st Lt. {3 years}; likewise the rank of Lt. Colonel could come only after 21 years service. The picture of his mother seen in "The Swamp" is a stock photograph that also appears in a Tarzan movie

Relationship with othersEdit

Frank is also known for his pompous, closed-minded, and sometimes unfeeling nature. (Winchester also displays some of these qualities, but in his case, this was just a shell to mask his kind heart. With Frank, it wasn't).

As a commander Burns tends to throw his weight around camp, especially around the enlisted (usually towards Radar, who he usually refers to as "pipsqueak" and "shavetail") and new soldiers. This "high-horse" attitude makes him disliked among most of the crew, except Margaret; particularly by Col. Potter, who does not like him "personally or professionally." Frank's behavior often makes him the target of various pranks and jokes by Pierce, Trapper, and/or Hunnicut.

Frank is not above manipulation or thoughts of conspiracy. One time, he manipulated Klinger and his buddy and at times nemesis Sgt. Zelmo Zale into a boxing match so that he would step in and stop the fight once Potter got involved, making it look like he was doing a good deed. This came back to bite him in the rear when Hawkeye and B.J. learned of Frank's intentions and told the two fighters of Frank's devious scheme. All Frank got for his troubles was two punches to his face, which knocked him out. When Burns tried to bring up both Klinger and Zale up on charges only to learn he could get twenty years for promoting a fight

Another incident came when Colonel Flagg attempted to use Frank and Margaret's strict following of the rules to get them to help him in another paranoia scheme. Frank did his best to suck up to Flagg, only to, in a rare show (if not the only show) of genuine goodness, turn away from him along with Margaret once they see how far Flagg was willing to go for the sake of his paranoia.

Frank is also a bit of a coward, as shown in the episode "Dear Radar," in which the monthly foot inspections were being held, Frank refused to let Pierce and B.J. look his feet over, forcing Pierce to hold the man down before he let them do their job. Despite his bullying and Gung-ho patriotism Burns shows himself to be a panicky coward under pressure of either fire from the enemy or at the prospect of having to care for overwhelming casualties.

At times, Potter also loses his temper towards Frank, who oftentimes attempts to suck up to him in order to stay off of the Colonel's bad side....which never succeeds!!

Final M*A*S*H appearanceEdit

Burns is crushed when he discovers Margaret is about to be married to Lieutenant Colonel Donald Penobscot, and after their marriage takes off for Tokyo, he has a breakdown. He is eventually promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and put in command of a veterans' hospital in his home state of Indiana. After Linville left, the show became less satirical and more serious in drifting away from the Larry Gelbart/Gene Reynolds service-comedy episodes era into the Alan Alda/Burt Metcalfe creative era of the series.

Research notes/Fun factsEdit

  • In "Bottoms Up" Hawkeye and Winchester get revenge on BJ for his nasty practical jokes; it would have been funnier if it had been Burns who was the target of the jokes and Trapper John was "exposed" At the end!
  • 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 he would often 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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