Childhood & Early Life
Gary Rich Burghoff was born on May 24, 1943, in Bristol, Connecticut, to Rodney and Ann Burghoff. He was raised in a Victorian house in Forestville, where he shared a room with his brother, David, who was 6 years elder to him.
Even at age 6, young Gary was inspired by nature and the environment. His tender mind, despite all its innocence, knew the difference between progress and destroying nature in the wake of it. He spent his early childhood in the midst of brooks and meadows, with turtles, wild plants, rabbits, squirrels, and pheasants.
In 1949, on his way to ‘Greenhills School,’ he moved seven fully grown geese, who appeared to be thirsty, from a neighbor’s house to another neighbor’s fish pond, only to ensure that the birds had water to drink.
Burghoff became aware of his mother’s talents and accompanied her to rehearsals quite early in life. He was fascinated by singers, tap dancers, musicians, and other stage performers. This fascination made him overcome whatever physical shortcomings he had. He studied tap dance despite being born with a club foot. Similarly, he learned jazz drumming despite having several deformed fingers in his left hand.
His family decided to move to Delavan, Wisconsin, during his sophomore year, and in 1962, he graduated from ‘Delavan-Darien High School.’ While in high school, he was already making rounds of the Milwaukee night clubs as a drummer with the ‘Bud Wilber Orchestra.’
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He moved to New York after his graduation. There, he joined ‘HB Studios,’ one of the city’s original acting studios. He trained under great teachers such as Sanford Meisner, James Tuttle, and Charles Nelson Reilly. He worked at ‘Saks Fifth Avenue’ and played at jazz clubs with his band ‘The We Three.’
During the early 1960s, Burghoff performed with various theater groups in New York. He performed as ‘Og’ in ‘Finian’s Rainbow’ at the ‘Long Wharf Theatre.’ He worked in stage productions such as ‘Babes in Arms,’ ‘Bells Are Ringing,’ ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘Tea and Sympathy,’ and ‘Look Homeward, Angel.’
On March 7, 1967, Charles Schulz’s comic strip characters came to life at ‘Theatre 80’ in East Village. Burghoff played the title character, ‘Charlie Brown,’ in the musical comedy ‘You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.’ It became a phenomenon. The show witnessed more than 1,500 performances in two different locations: New York and Los Angeles.
In the next couple of years, Burghoff made his TV debut and appeared as a guest performer in shows such as ‘NET Playhouse’ (1967) and ‘The Good Guys’ (1969). In 1968, he went back to playing the drums for a band he had formed with Lynda Carter, ‘Relatives,’ in Las Vegas. He performed with the band for a brief period of 3 months.
Director Robert Altman noticed Burghoff in Los Angeles during one of his performances as ‘Charlie Brown.’ Altman immediately offered him a screen test and altered Burghoff’s life forever. In 1970, he made his debut in Altman’s ‘Academy Award’-winning black comedy ‘M*A*S*H,’ as ‘Corporal Walter Eugene O’Reilly. ‘The film won the ‘Palme d’Or’ at the 1970 ‘Cannes Film Festival.’ The film also received five nominations and won the award for the ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ at the ‘Academy Awards.’ Even though it missed the ‘Best Film’ award at the ‘Academy Awards,’ the film received the ‘Golden Globe’ for the ‘Best Motion Picture’ in 1971.
Inspired by the success of the film, director Larry Gelbart and ‘20th Century Fox’ created one of the highest-rated TV shows in the US. Despite the fact that the original star-studded cast included Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Robert Duvall, Burghoff was the only one Gelbert asked to join as a series regular.
The series ‘*M*A*S*H’ ran on ‘CBS’ from 1972 to 1983, but Burghoff wanted to leave the show after its seventh season, as he was completely burned out as an actor by then. The last episode of the seventh season, ‘Goodbye Radar,’ was initially conceptualized as Radar O’Reilly’s final appearance on the show. However, ‘CBS’ later requested Burghoff to return for a two-part series farewell.
Burghoff received accolades for his nuanced performance in ‘M*A*S*H’ over the years. He received ‘Emmy’ nominations for 6 consecutive years, between 1973 and 1979, in the ‘Best Supporting Actor’ category. Unfortunately, he was not present at the ceremony to receive the award in 1977. Alan Alda accepted the award on his behalf.
Contrary to what his co-stars from the show believed, his life on TV was far from over. He appeared in a number of game shows such as ‘Match Game’ (for 140 episodes), ‘Buzzer’ ‘Tattletales,’ ‘Hollywood Squares,’ and ‘Showoffs.’ He also made a few guest appearances on TV shows such as ‘Fantasy Island’ (1980), ‘The Love Boat’ (1981), and ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ (1981). He also appeared in the M*A*S*H spin-offs ‘AfterMash’ (1984) and ‘W*A*L*T*E*R’ (1984).
In 1999, he became the obvious choice for the ‘PBS’ series ‘Pets: Part of the Family,’ due his unconditional love for animals. He remained active in regional theater, too, and toured 120 theaters in the US and Canada, performing Neil Simon’s ‘Last of the Red Hot Lovers,’ between September 1999 and May 2000.
He wrote his autobiography, ‘To M*A*S*H and Back: My Life in Poems and Songs.’
Family & Personal Life
Burgoff got married to Janet Gayle in 1971. Their daughter, Gena, was born in 1975. His family life suffered a lot due to his busy schedule, and by the time he decided to leave M*A*S*H, it was too late for any kind of reconciliation. The marriage ended in 1979, and Burgoff returned to his childhood home with his 4-year-old daughter.
He turned to his spiritual side after leaving the show in 1979. He married Elisabeth Bostrom in 1985 and had two sons with her. However, Elisabeth and Burghoff grew apart because of his overpowering religious beliefs. They divorced in 2005, and Elisabeth moved to California with their children.
He spent a lot of time making oil paintings. His first creation was a painting called ‘Eye to Eye,’ based on a childhood encounter with a red fox in a forest, in which they were not afraid of each other and sat with their eyes locked in a gaze.
He invented the "Chum Magic,” a fishing equipment that attracts fish toward the user's boat.
He is also an amateur wildlife painter and a philatelist.