David Ogden Stiers, who played the snobbish but sympathetic surgeon Winchester on television’s “M*A*S*H” and later delighted a generation of children with voice roles in Disney movies, including as the clock Cogsworth in “Beauty and the Beast,” died March 3 at his home in Newport, Oregon. He was 75.
He had bladder cancer, his agent Mitchell Stubbs wrote in a tweet announcing the death.
Stiers, who once declared that “villains are a slice of heaven,” lent his large stature and booming voice to King Lear, scheming scientists and occasionally sympathetic physicians in more than 150 plays, movies and television programs, including the Stephen King series “The Dead Zone” and eight Perry Mason courtroom dramas.
He performed as the alcoholic magician Feldman the Magnificent in the 1974 Broadway musical “The Magic Show,” appeared in five Woody Allen films (beginning with the 1988 thriller “Another Woman”) and eventually established a second career in music, working as a guest conductor for orchestras and helping found a symphony in Newport, his home for more than two decades.
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But he was best known for his work on “M*A*S*H,” which premiered on CBS in 1972. The series offered comedic and caustic commentary on the Vietnam War, which was then in its closing stages, through its depiction of Army surgeons in Korea 20 years earlier.
Stiers had initially believed his TV destiny was to play a truculent character on the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” where he appeared in three episodes as a station manager who berates the program’s title character. “I hoped to be the man who fired Mary at the end of the series,” he once joked to Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. “I’d have been the most hated man in America.”
Instead he was recruited to “M*A*S*H,” where beginning in 1977 he replaced the arrogant and AWOL Frank Burns (Larry Linville) as second-in-command of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital.
As the tall and balding Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester, he was frequently at the receiving end of pranks by surgeons Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda) and B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), though his medical expertise, dry humor and flashes of generosity and kindness made him a more three-dimensional comic foil than his predecessor at the hospital.
Stiers, a Juilliard-trained Midwesterner, deployed a Boston Brahmin accent that he developed without the help of a voice coach, and supplied Winchester with a love of Wagner and Mussorgsky that mirrored his own affection for classical music.
In one 1980 episode, Winchester devoted himself to a patient’s leg wound before realizing that the soldier was a concert pianist, with a hand injury that had largely been left untreated. Setting aside his usual pomposity, Stiers’ character helped the soldier return to the piano by giving him the sheet music of Ravel’s “Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.” “Each of us must dance to his own tune,” he declared at the end of the episode.
Stiers was nominated for two straight Emmy Awards for outstanding supporting actor in a comedy, and received a third nomination for his supporting role in the 1984 miniseries “The First Olympics: Athens 1896,” in which he played U.S. Olympic Committee founder William Milligan Sloane.
For years after “M*A*S*H” ended in 1983, however, Stiers lamented that he was known for Winchester rather than for any of his subsequent work. He referred to the television program as “the four-letter word” or “the green show,” and seemed to prefer being identified by younger fans who recognized his voice from Disney movies.
In addition to his 1991 roles as the narrator and fussy timepiece in “Beauty and the Beast,” Stiers played Governor Ratcliffe and the clueless manservant Wiggins in “Pocahontas” (1995), the friendly archdeacon in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996), a skeptical Smithsonian Institution board member in “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (2001) and Jumba Jookiba, the self-described “evil genius” of “Lilo & Stitch” (2002).
“The joy is to see that mouth drop open as they try to put the voice of that tiny clock [in ‘Beauty and the Beast’] with this tub of lard — me,” Mr. Stiers told the Orlando Sentinel in 2002, describing a typical encounter with his young fans. “It isn’t adoration; it’s a moment of learning. And that, to me, is a little slice of heaven.”
He was born in Peoria, Illinois, on Oct. 31, 1942. His father was an accountant for the manufacturer Georgia-Pacific.
Stiers graduated from high school in Eugene, Oregon, before beginning his acting career at the California Shakespeare Festival in Santa Clara. He studied acting and voice at the Juilliard School in Manhattan and made his Broadway debut in December 1973, performing with actor and producer John Houseman’s group the Acting Company in revivals of four plays. Months later, he appeared alongside Zero Mostel in “Ulysses in Nighttown,” a play adapted from James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses.”
Stiers made his final Broadway appearance in a 2009 revival of “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” — he played Gen. Henry Waverly, whose grandfatherly nature made him a far cry from Winchester — and in recent years contributed his voice to animated movies such as the English-language version of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” (2001).
In 2009 he announced that he was gay, telling the blog gossip-boy.com that he had kept his sexuality secret in part to continue receiving work from studios such as Disney. He had never married, and said he wished “to spend my life’s twilight being just who I am.”
He had no immediate survivors, said Stubbs.
Stiers maintained a prolific output after the end of “M*A*S*H,” appearing in films such as the Oscar-nominated 1988 drama “The Accidental Tourist” and the comedies “Better Off Dead” (1985) and “Doc Hollywood” (1991). But he also became increasingly focused on music, a childhood interest that he pursued in earnest after remarking at a news conference that if he wasn’t acting he’d like to be conducting.
“The thing I love about the arts — music, theater, museums, galleries — is that everybody wins,” he told Canada’s National Post newspaper in 2002. “You are touched and hopefully moved, and it is unique to each person. Even though you may have listened to the same performance, what you heard could be vastly different from what anyone else heard.”
If someone unfamiliar with music was coming to the symphony only to see a former “M*A*S*H” star conduct, he added, that was all right, too.
“If it’s a father who brings his children to see that three-named actor from that show, I’m fine with that.”