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: 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
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 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 well known throughout the Army, though the two were convinced that nobody else knew.

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

Although he and Margaret were both firm believers in military discipline and regularly espouse Army regulations to everyone around them, Burns, unlike Margaret, was portrayed as inept, and at times even clueless at his job. His ineptitude 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 (this is debatable, because in the Season 2 episode "For Want of a Boot", his birthday party takes place in the winter), 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. 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 by one of the other surgeons, but 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. But 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. Burns himself admits he failed at being a practical nurse when he couldn't fold hospital bedsheets and that the local funeral director sends him thank-you cards every Christmas.

But 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. 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.

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 Radar's phone.

But Margaret was not Frank's first affair. Once under delirium he admitted to hooking up with his housekeeper, and in "The Novacaine 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 with Nurse Kellye, and then after Margaret's engagement claimed that he had his eye on a little red haired nurse [younger than Margaret of course].

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! 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 to cut his own wedding cake, causing Hawkeye to quip "Watch the cake die of malpractice!"

Burns had a penchant for malapropisms, 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'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.

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 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 one hilarious episode Burns cheated on Baseball bets with the MASh 4077 personal after he already knew the games outcome; Hawkeye, BJ et all turned the tables on Burns by broadcasting a fake baseball game and Burns got stuck having to pay off his bets; in another episode Burns illegally bought a priceless Korean vase for $25.00 and tried to smuggle it back home, but Hawkeye and BJ switched the vase for a bedpan. Despite his affluence, Burns cheats on his Income Tax by presenting phony statements of income and also has a lucrative prescription kickback racket, along with an expensive house, two cars and a yacht.

Burns, with Margaret's support, longed to oust Colonel Blake and take over command of the 4077th, often going to extensive measures to achieve this end, mostly through letters of complaint about Blake to Army brass. But every attempt, no matter how underhanded, ultimately failed. The most prominent example was during 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 arrested and confined to the Swamp in their skivvies until Radar and Klinger helped them to escape. The truth was that Blake gave 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 by himself 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 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.) In both cases The wounds however were just scratches. Burns is twice awarded the Purple Heart medal: one for throwing his back out while dancing with Margaret, and the other for getting an shell fragment in his eye (an egg-shell fragment). 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. {note in real life receiving the same medal twice would have resulted in a gold star the second time -not an additional medal] Burns' physical prowess leaves much to be desired; aside from being anemic as well as having 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: Sanatary 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 personel every Friday on why the War is being fought.

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 by Potter. After finding out that Margaret had gotten engaged to Donald Penobscot 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 father cheated on his mother the same way Margaret "cheated" on him. When Margaret left on her honeymoon, Burns showed just one bit of humanity when he whispered "Good-bye Margaret".

Relationship with others Edit

Frank was disliked by everyone else in the camp, including eventually Margaret after she became engaged to Col. Penobscot. Burns was known for his intolerant and callous nature. (His replacement, Major Winchester, displayed similar qualities, but unlike Burns, Winchester was inwardly fair-minded, kind-hearted and generous- and an excellent surgeon).

During the few times he commanded the camp, Burns micromanaged camp operations, and often contradicted other people's actions just for the sake of exercising his own authority. In Welcome To Korea, Burns asked Radar if he brushes his teeth; Radar replies he always does right after breakfast, to which 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.

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 intentions 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 he himself could face charges for promoting a fight.

Another incident came when Colonel Flagg attempted to use Frank and Margaret's pedanticism to get them to help him in one of his ridiculous schemes. Frank and Margaret initially did their best to suck up to Flagg, but in a very rare show of genuine goodness, they both turned away from him once they saw how far Flagg was willing to go for the sake of his own agenda.

Despite his bullying and gung-ho patriotism, when the real pressure was on, Burns' true colors showed through; under enemy fire or faced with a deluge of wounded, Burns was a panicky coward.

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 "Fade Out, Fade In: Part II" , David Ogden Stiers was added to the cast as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III, an aristocratic Bostonian who, unlike Burns, was an excellent 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 fiancee 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 to their frustration, all charges were dropped and Burns is promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and put in charge of a veterans hospital in Fort Wayne. (Hawkeye and the others learn all of this news via phone from Burns himself, so there is speculation that Burns might have been telling a tall tale).

Research notes/Fun factsEdit

  • 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]
  • Ironically although he played the part of the fool, once Linville left, the series ceased being a comedy and became a dark soap opera
  • In real life..if Burns was so painfully incompent as a surgeon...MASH 4077 would not have had a 97% success rate...more like 75%! Examples of Burns incompetence include: two patients almost had strokes due to Burns bungling pre-op [The Novacine Mutiny]; in another episode because of a kidney disease epidemic a patient nearly died because Burns had the patient given too much fluid. Hawkeye in The Novacaine Mutiny claims his feud with Burns began when he remarked Burns created more widows and phallbearers than samanella [food poisoning]; Trapper John sneered Burns couldn't cut a salami without bungling it and B.J claimed in a letter home that Hawkeye remarked Burns became a doctor only after washing out of embaling school
  • In the movie version burns and Houlihans affairs show them going all the way; in TV series version tones it down..Burns and Houlihan restrict themselves to hugging and kissing one another.
  • In episode 8 of season 2 "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 was an immigrant.


  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.