My fellow Oregonian, David Ogden Stiers, a two-time Emmy nominee, who joined the cast of M*A*S*H in 1977 as the arrogant but charming aristocrat Charles Emerson Winchester III, died yeaterday.
Not from New England at all, he was born in Peoria. Stiers threw himself into the world of the theater, his training ranging from The Julliard School, to doing Shakespeare in regional theatre. He was also in improv comedy troupe with Rob Reiner and WKRP In Cincinatti’s Howard Hesseman, a range of skills and tones that served him well when he signed on for M*A*S*H in the show’s sixth season.
Slipping into the tony Boston sensibilities of Charles Winchester III, Stiers quickly fell into the popular show’ s rhythms, setting himself at reliably comic odds with Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce. Unlike his predecessor, the more openly buffoonish and corrupt Frank Burns (Larry Linville), Winchester showed his character’s more rounded edges on a regular basis, as Stiers navigated between withering condescension, emotional death, and the show’s still-lively air of prankish mischief. M*A*S*H has been experiencing a popular renaissance, as it marks 35 years since the series finale that drew an astounding 106 million viewers.
The actor said he kept his gayness under wraps for years because he feared coming out of the closet would hurt his career. Stiers:
“I would say that many of my fears were in modern times self-invented. I’ve been working internally on whether they were the problem, or if I just continued using them as an excuse.”
He said he thought staying quiet about his sexuality would keep his income secure. Stiers:
“I enjoy working, and even though many have this idealistic belief that the entertainment industry and studios like Walt Disney are gay friendly, they weren’t always. For the most part they are, but that doesn’t mean for them that business does not come first. It’s a matter of economics. … A lot of my income has been derived from voicing Disney and family programming.”
Stiers also added that the flamboyant nature of some of his animated roles contributed to his decision to hide his sexuality:
“Cogsworth, the character I did on Beauty And The Beast could be a bit flamboyant onscreen, because basically, he is a cartoon. But they didn’t want Cogsworth to become Disney’s gay character, because it got around a gay man was playing him.”
“I wish to spend my life’s twilight being just who I am. I could claim noble reasons as coming out in order to move gay rights forward, but I must admit it is for far more selfish reasons. Now is the time I wish to find someone, and I do not desire to force any potential partner to live a life of extreme discretion with me.”
Stiers had a long career on stage, in television and on film, frequently working in the films of Woody Allen, includung: Shadows And Fog, Mighty Aphrodite, Everybody Says I Love You and Curse Of The Jade Scorpion. But his greatest success has been in the world of voice-over work. It was his voice that earned him his first screen credit: the announcer in George Lucas’ THX 1138 (1971).
Besides Beauty And The Beast (1991), Stiers lent his voice to eight Disney features, appearing in Pocahontas (1995), Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001), and Lilo & Stitch (2002), the latter as the enjoyably sociopathic mad scientist, Dr. Jumba, who sets off the film’s entire plot. He also voiced a character in the English version of Spirited Away, distributed by Disney.
Ironically, it was the flamboyant nature of some of those roles that he says contributed to his staying closeted.
Stiers ad-libbed the last part of Cogsworth’s famous advice to the Beast on what to give Belle:
”Well, there’s the usual things: flowers… chocolates… promises you don’t intend to keep…”
Cogsworth is played by Sir Ian McKellen in the live action remake of Beauty And The Beast, the Number One film of 2017.
Dedicated to his love of classical music, Stiers was the associate musical director for the Newport Oregon Symphony Orchestra and the Ernest Bloch Music Festival. He also guest-conducted over 70 orchestras around the world, including the Oregon Mozart Players, the Vancouver Symphony, the Virginia Symphony, the Oregon Chamber Players, plus orchestras in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago and Toronto.
Stiers was 75-years-old when he was taken by bladder cancer.