Gary Burghoff - "Radar" from "M.A.S.H" / jazz drummer / painter
WonderCon - Oakland, CA - April 2001
 
A consummate artist - be that an actor, director, painter, musician, etc. - is one who is forever looking to improve upon his or her craft and to move ahead into different ventures within future projects. Gary Burghoff is one of those types of artists, and as well, all of the above and more. It would be hard-pressing to put one label on Gary Burghoff. Is he best known for as the voice, as well as the stage version of Charlie Brown? Perhaps he is most known as "Radar" O'Reilly from M.A.S.H., both on television and the silver screen. However, then we should take into account the fact that Gary is also an accomplished musician - a drummer, who has played with the likes of Maynard Ferguson amongst other greats. Then there is the wildlife paintings, animal activism, and hosting a new television show about animals. The fact is that Gary Burghoff is a renaissance man - one who loves whatever it is that he sinks his heart and efforts into and is serious about it.
 
Gary recently appeared at the WonderCon comic book convention in Oakland, CA (April 18 - 20, 2001). We had the chance to meet with him and the rare opportunity to speak with him about his career and involvements. A serious man, not as indecisive nor aloof as some of his previous characterizations onscreen, Gary is someone who knows what he wants and what he doesn't. He was very gracious in his talking with us and seemed happy to share some insights to his, perhaps, lesser-known projects that some of the public may not be as aware of. There are quite a few surprises in this wearer of many hats.

K2K: Outside of being more popularly known for your acting, what are some of the other interests of yours that you are known for?
GB: I'm known for my inventions, my fishing tackle inventions. Chum Magic. I have several patents on fishing tackle inventions, one called Chum Magic. It's a salt water fishing item that actually attracts fish to your boat. We got major publicity worldwide in 1991. I'm a wildlife artist and my work is represented in galleries all over the country.
 
K2K: Do you do oil paints or watercolor?
GB: I like oil and watercolor. I sell limited edition prints of my work, and the originals too.
 
K2K: Are you only represented in galleries or online too?
GB: Galleries. I'm represented online but I don't do that. Someone else does it. Mostly galleries and shows. I do shows all over the country. Of course, I'm a jazz drummer.
 
K2K: What bands have you performed with?
GB: Maynard Ferguson, Al Hirt - God rest his soul - Pete Fountain, just to name a few.
 
K2K: Are you still playing now?
GB: No, I don't play so much anymore. Time frame, I don't understand that. I am a drummer, so...
 
K2K: Who are some of your influences?
GB: In drumming, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. That's my era. Shelly Mann.
 
K2K: What about your preservationist work?
GB: Just prior to "M.A.S.H." I got tired of complaining about environmental problems and the obstacles in restoring animals in their natural habitat. I volunteered to become licensed by the State of California to take in injured animals. That's what I was doing before "M.A.S.H." started. For two years I donated my life to caring for injured and ailing wild animals.
 
K2K: Do you still have any connections to any animal causes now?
GB: Well, sure. My PBS show "Pets: Part Of The Family." Now it's on almost 300 stations around the country. That's a conscious-raising kind of show which features everyday people experiencing wonderful things that animals are doing in their lives, how animals are improving their lives, and their bond with their domestic animals. I feel that that's making a great contribution. We were just nominated for two Emmy awards. Other than that, the public response has been so heartwarming and real. People like to know that they're not the only ones who care. It's revealing how much of the best in human nature is really out there and functioning. You don't find too many shows on television that show that.
 
K2K: How did you get started in acting?
GB: When I was very young, even at four years old, I wanted to be an actor. When I finally graduated from high school and my parents could let me do it, I went to New York and studied with three master teachers - Sanford Meisner, James Tuttle, and Charles Nelson Reilly - who taught me very strong stage techniques and the Stanislovsky method. When I did the feature film, "M.A.S.H.," well... first I did "You're A Good Man Charlie Brown," the Peanuts musical which launched my career. In New York. I played the original Charlie Brown in "You're A Good Man Charlie Brown" Off Broadway, which became extremely successful.
 
K2K: Is that how you got your gig with the voicing of the TV show?
GB: Absolutely. That launched my whole career. Then the motion picture "M.A.S.H." How's that at a first attempt at movies? Then the television series. How's that for my first television series? So, that's basically what was the progression of it. Then twenty years of theater post-"M.A.S.H.," including Broadway.
 
K2K: Do you feel that "M.A.S.H." has ever been a burden to you as too many people think of you as "M.A.S.H." and not as much else?
GB: It's not that they think of me as "M.A.S.H.," it's just that I think the burden comes when they see me as some sort of a strange... connecting as "Radar." They see me AS "Radar" instead of a skillful actor who created that character out of my own life's experiences which, hopefully are universal experiences. That bothers me a little bit. Also, of course, Hollywood is full of unimaginative producers who say, "Well, no one will ever accept him as anything but that.", which is absolute nonsense. People who come to see my plays accept me as any character. They know I'm an actor.
 
K2K: Do you only perform on Broadway now or all over?
GB: I perform all over. I just did a national tour of Neil Simon's "The Last Of The Red Hot Lovers" in 110 theaters. A 20,000 mile tour. That's why I look so tired.
 
K2K: When was your Charlie Brown theater performance?
GB: "You're A Good Man Charlie Brown" opened in theater - St. Mark's is the name of the theater - in 1967.
 
K2K: And "M.A.S.H.?"
GB: The motion picture was shot in 1969 and it came out in 1970.
 
K2K: What was it like working with Charles Nelson Reilly?
GB: Charles is a wonderful man.
 
K2K: Is he wacky or more straight-laced in person?
GB: Charles is the most generous, giving, loving man. He is very straight when he's working. He's very professional as a director and as a teacher. He's very campy, of course, as an actor. That's what he does. But he's very straight. A lovely human being.
 
K2K: Have you worked with him on projects?
GB: Yeah, he directed me on Broadway in "The Nerd" [in 1987], and he directed me in Brian Park's "Whose Life Is It Anyway." That was my dramatic debut at Burt Reynold's Theater in Jupiter, Florida.
 
K2K: Do you prefer comedy or drama? What's your preference?
GB: I just don't like to be pigeon-holed. People probably don't understand this, but I started out doing Shakespeare in high school.
 
K2K: Radar to Shakespeare.
GB: From Shakespeare to Radar is what it is. So, I want to be very broad in my theatrical experience. Right now I'd love to do a drama because nobody's ever seen me [do that]. It used to be that when someone was so heavily identified with comedy, it was relatively easy for them to get a dramatic role because there was so much going on. There were so many dramatic scenes on early television. They could get those roles and add that departure role that would distinguish them as also a dramatic actor. You can't get those anymore. There's not enough production going on.
 
K2K: Do you prefer theater, TV, or film?
GB: As an actor, I really had always wanted to be a film actor.
 
K2K: Have you directed?
GB: I've directed, yes. I've directed both film and theater.
 
K2K: Of all your performances that you've done in any medium, what is your most favorite?
GB: I have favorite moments, I don't have favorite characters.
 
K2K: Do you have any favorite moments that come to mind?
GB: No.
 
K2K: Have you always been Charlie Brown?
GB: I've never been Charlie Brown. I'm the actor who played Charlie Brown. See? That's what I mean. (laughs)
 
K2K: Right. OK. You got me on that one. Have there been any other actors performing as Charlie Brown?
GB: I was the original. Then there were replacement actors who played after me.
 
K2K: I have an opinion about acting today. Too many roles are created now for the personality of a particular actor, not allowing an actor to attempt portrayal of another type of character.
GB: You know... As a tribute to... a Writer's Guild tribute to Larry Gelbart, who was our head writer on "M.A.S.H.," I thanked him for writing 'from' me and not 'for' me. Larry was always looking for other qualities that were in me and then he would incorporate that in the character. That's writing 'from' the actor. When you write 'for' him, you see a few surface qualities and you start adding some extra stuff to the surface qualities. It's shallow.
 
K2K: Did you enjoy being "Radar?"
GB: Oh yeah! Oh sure.
 
K2K: What you were talking about earlier about people identifying you with him - I think it's because "Radar" was such a likable guy.
GB: He needed to be a likable, innocent guy because that was the void he needed to fill on the show. Everyone else was sophisticated and very well read, you know what I mean? And also, doctors who saw horror, the horrors all the time in the operating room, they needed a guy who was so innocent and fresh-off-the-farm, who would be horrified by all of this. In fact, I consciously went to Larry Gelbart and said, "That's what you need." "Radar" was not this character in the film. He was kind of a sarcastic, sardonic, almost reclusive character.
 
K2K: Settle a rumor. Do you have an island in San Juan?
GB: No. Not true. Alan Alda is supposed to have an island in the Virgin Islands. I don't know where all these rumors come from. How true can they be?
 
K2K: What do you like to listen to, musically, in your own time?
GB: Swing. I like Count Basie.
 
K2K: Do you like the musical resurgence that came back with swing, ska, and big band?
GB: I just wish that there was much more of a variety of this. The American musical experience is very, very broad and I'd like to hear that on radio, instead of just the same [stuff]. I don't want to hear the same rap, the same hard rock, the same... I'd like to hear a station that plays classical, rock, just good music of every type. I mean, I'd like to hear one station that plays that variety. I think they're foolish not to. I think American tastes... they dummy down to it. I never respect that.
 
K2K: Have you read the book, "The Dumbing Of America"?
GB: No, I haven't. Why do I need to read the book? I've lived the life, you know, working with television networks. "M.A.S.H." fought dummying down the material. They believed that the average I.Q. of the average American was above, not below their dogs. [The networks] were dummying down to the age of 9.
 
K2K: What do you prefer to watch?
GB: American Movie Classics, I bet. I like... I want to learn something every day. I watch shows, like on PBS, like "Lewis & Clark" and historical pieces. I'm fascinated by history. I guess I want to live the rest of my life in a constant reality check rather than fantasizing all the time.
 
K2K: Any upcoming projects?
GB: Yeah. I'm going to go home and sleep for a month.
 
K2K: You ought to be well-rested by then.
GB: I don't plan my life out. I don't. I try to live day to day. I'm directing a play this summer at Mount Gretna theater in Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania. I'm doing a tribute. I'm starring and directing in it. So that's it. I don't have anything else planned. I know I'm doing art shows and a whole bunch of other things. I'm doing a project for the American Diabetes Foundation, with Harry and with Jamie Farr, coming up soon for National television to promote diabetes understanding. I do a whole bunch of stuff, but I take it one day at a time.
 
K2K: How often do you paint? When inspired?
GB: Yeah, well you always have to... I don't knock them out like machinery.
 
K2K: Some people are inspired while some just do it for therapy.
GB: No, I can't do that. I have to have a feeling about something that I want to share with somebody else. Some experience with the environment that maybe makes a person... maybe not think, but identify with. "Oh yeah, I know that experience. That is beautiful, isn't it." To take them away from the steel and asphalt for five minutes.
 
K2K: Do you paint anything other than wildlife? What do you do for a whim?
GB: I like to paint my children. My pets. I paint whatever I like. If you don't love it, you can't paint it.
 
K2K: Favorite artists?
GB: My favorite painters, starting with illustrators, would be Maxfield Parrish, because of his use of light and color. Verneer was a wonderful painter because of his sense of mystery. Andrew Wyeth because of use of reality. He was not really a reality painter. He used reality to create a...
 
K2K: He had a starkness about him.
GB: Yeah, that's it. He used reality... he painted a starkness, stark aspect of reality, in order to make some wonderful expressionistic points. Others are Renoir, Monet. The great impressionists. And of course, Van Gough. I think I am most influenced by Van Gough. Really, in what you asked me. But in modern art? To me, any modern art borrows from nature and from past artists. And that's not to put them down. They've done some wonderful, beautiful things. We are always borrowing from nature.
 
K2K: Since you're here at WonderCon, do you like any comic art or the fine art painters or illustrators?
GB: Well, I think it's like in the case of music - Good art is good art, no matter what genre it is. So I like... I'm sorry, but I can't name any comic book artists. Charles Schulz was pretty good. He is sorely missed.
 
And with that it was time to wind it up as people were waiting to meet with Gary Burghoff. It was a privilege to chat with him and very nice of him to grant the time. So the next time that you see a "M.A.S.H." rerun, let it be a reminder to check out some of the other many projects that Gary has worked on, or has coming up. Don't forget, too, to check out "Pets: Part Of The Family" on your local PBS station as well as their website.
 
Written by Philip Anderson / Photo by Erik Gilbert

Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.

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