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 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.

Burns often fancied himself a superior surgeon, but his actions invariably revealed his incompetence. By his own admission he flunked out of two medical schools before managing to graduate, and he only passed a first-year exam by buying the answers. Additionally, Burns stated that the local undertaker used to send him thank-you cards and gifts at Christmas. On many occasions a patient of his has been spared death only because of a second glance by one of the other surgeons. But even with this, Burns still considered himself better than the others largely because of his own affluence while the other surgeons were sharpening their skills in their respective positions while making meager incomes; Burns often bragged of his lucrative practice and numerous material possessions back home. He once claimed to Margaret that he couldn't marry her because he couldn't afford 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 his wife's 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 tent 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 liaison 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.

Burns' sub-par surgical skills bring the unit's outstanding survival rate of 98% into question; with four surgeons at the 4077th, in order to maintain their stellar survival rate, Burns was often relegated to lesser cases- to wit, patients that did not have life-threatening injuries.

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 definitely not limited to:

  • "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."

Burns was known his love of money; Hawkeye once observed Burns' avarice 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 was large amounts of gold to be discovered nearby, but it was later revealed that this was only a prank orchestrated by Hawkeye and Trapper.

Burns, initially with Margaret's support, often longed to command the 4077th, and would go to great lengths to achieve this end, mostly through letters of complaint about Col. Blake to Army brass, though every attempt ultimately failed. The most prominent example of these attempts was during The Trial of Henry Blake, in which Burns and Margaret brought formal charges 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 initially refused to drop the charges until Hawkeye and Trapper threatened to tell Burns' wife about his affair with Margaret, at which point Burns 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 that he was passed over, Burns went off by himself to sulk. Though Potter eventually 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' ineptitude as a surgeon was matched only by his incompetence 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). 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.

Emotionally Burns can act, at times, very unstable and childish when he doesn't get his way; examples include when Col. Blake selected Hawkeye as Chief Surgeon instead of him, and also when Burns lost permanent command to Potter. After finding out that Margaret got engaged, Burns almost went crazy and decided to fashion himself as a "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".

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 being in command. 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, who 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 is not above manipulation or thoughts of conspiracy. He once manipulated 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 agenda.

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.

Final M*A*S*H appearance Edit

After five seasons Larry Linville decided to leave the series, citing the fact that there was little to nothing else they could do with the character. When the writers scrambled to replace 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]


  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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