BOOTLEG FILES 771: “W*A*L*T*E*R*” (1984 television pilot).
LAST SEEN: On YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived commercial reissue value.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Unlikely.
In 1979, Gary Burghoff decided it was time to step away from his Emmy Award-winning role as Corporal Radar O’Reilly on the long-running television series “M*A*S*H*.” Burghoff was the only actor in the 1970 film version “MASH” to transition to the television series, and after a decade he became tired of playing the character after seven seasons.
After leaving “M*A*S*H*,” 20th Century Fox offered Burghoff a solo series for the character. Warner Bros. offered him a $4 million contract for a series where he would play a character that was Radar in all but name. He turned down both offers, but soon found himself in the same dilemma that faced his “M*A*S*H*” co-stars McLean Stevenson and Larry Linville once they exited the series – he was stymied in his attempts to find a comparable role that would keep him in the spotlight.
After a few desultory small roles in made-for-television films and forgettable guest shots on sitcoms and game shows, Burghoff accepted an invitation to revive the Radar O’Reilly part for a two-episode appearance in “AfterMASH,” a 1983 post-script series that tracked the lives of “M*A*S*H*” characters Colonel Blake, Corporal Klinger and Father Mulcahy. But rather than integrate the Radar character back with his former comrades, “M*A*S*H*” co-creators Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds decided to create a new series focusing solely on Burghoff’s role.
A pilot episode was shot under the title “W*A*L*T*E*R*,” a reference to Radar’s birthname – in the show, he insists on being called Walter and not Radar. But the pilot took on a strange and confusing approach to the presentation, and it also didn’t help that the meek little Radar was in a new job as a big-city police officer.
“W*A*L*T*E*R*” takes place in St. Louis in 1954, and the episode opens in an apartment that Radar shares with his cousin Wendell, played by Ray Buktenica. Wendell is a cop and managed to get his short and timid cousin a job on the police force. As they are getting ready for work, they begin watching a television interview that Radar did with a journalist who tracked down the former members of the M*A*S*H* 4077 unit.
The two cops are unable to watch the full interview because they are late for work, but they arrive at the station to find the interview is still being televised. The pair and their fellow officers watch some of the interview in the precinct squad room before they order to go on patrol by their loud and ill-tempered sergeant (Nobel Willingham, who seemed to be channeling Ned Beatty’s “Network” character).
During the broadcast interview segments, there are flashbacks to the incidents that brought Radar from his hometown in Iowa to St. Louis: the failure of his family’s farm and his reluctant sale of the property, a marriage that abruptly ended after the honeymoon when his wife dumped him for another man, and a weak suicidal journey to buy sleeping pills and aspirin at an old-fashioned drug store – the sleeping pills were to ensure self-inflicted death while the aspirin was because sleeping pills gave him a headache.
Radar’s suicide plans are erased by the drugstore clerk, a perky blonde with a nasally voice played by Victoria Jackson – she was a few years removed from “Saturday Night Live” fame and was struggling to find value in a clichéd part. She takes a liking to Radar, but he is a bit too dense to decipher her emotions.
Wendell and Radar are on foot patrol downtown when they find a crowd in front a television store watching the interview through the store window – and, yes, this must have been the longest interview in television history. From here, the cops get involved with a pair of quarreling burlesque strippers and a teenage pickpocket – Radar oohs and aahs the buxom beauties and treats the kid to an ice cream at the drug store while giving him a paternal “I want you to stay clean” speech rather than sending him to jail.
Does any of this sound funny? It ain’t, and a heavy laugh track punctuating the actors’ tired delivery of lame lines only reinforces the dearth of mirth. Burghoff seems to be an auto-pilot through the whole endeavor while his cast mates mildly overplay their roles in a half-hearted attempt to bring energy to the enervated proceedings.
CBS took one look at “W*A*L*T*E*R*” and nixed the possibility of a full-blown series. But since the network was contractually obligated to show the pilot, it was dumped into the line-up of July 17, 1984, as a “CBS Special Presentation.” While audiences in the Eastern and Central Time Zones were able to see “W*A*L*T*E*R*,” viewers in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones missed it because the network opted to run live presentation of the Democratic National Convention instead.
“*W*A*L*T*E*R*” was never made available in any home entertainment format, and unauthorized video postings can be found on YouTube. Burghoff would never have another opportunity to headline on a television series – his career would soon be highlighted by guest roles in films and television programs and starring in small regional theater productions.
In 2004, Burghoff was headlining in a production of “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” at a theater in Waterbury, Connecticut, when he gave an interview with the Hartford Courant where he admitted a reconciliation with the role that defined and limited his career.
“I look at [playing Radar] as a blessing,” Burghoff said. “It’s awfully nice when people thank you for the pleasure and laughter you’ve brought to their lives.”
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