Gary Burghoff cements his link with Theatre 80

Gary Burghoff signed his name in the slab of wet concrete as Theatre 80’s Lorcan Otway oversaw the process. Photos by Stacie Joy

BY LORCAN OTWAY | The “Sidewalk of the Stars” at historic Theatre 80, on St. Mark’s Place, will now include another star, and one who is very close to the Theatre 80 family’s heart.

Gary Burghoff signed our concrete on the porch of his secluded cabin by a lake in Connecticut. It was both generous of him and typical of the humble, good man who we all recognize clearly in his portrayal of Radar in “M*A*S*H.”

He did not want a gathering of folks to compliment him on his career, with film clips and applause, but he liked the idea that his fans could touch his handprints in thanks for the gift of his performances.

Burghoff next put his handprints into the concrete.

I remember the days I first met Gary very well. I was 12 and he was 19. He had been cast in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown,” before the play was written. It was to open in the theater my father and I had built.

He recalls the audition in the wonderful book he’s written, “Gary Burghoff, To M*A*S*H and Back.” He remembers that a blizzard had knocked out the power in the building; it also might have been that Jules Fisher had designed a lighting grid requiring us to increase our capacity by 300 percent, so we may have had the power off to put in new main lines to the street.

Standing onstage with the lights out, freezing, Gary said into the blackness, “Are you sure Sonja Henie started this way?” Sitting in the house was the always impeccably dressed twentysomething producer Arthur Whitelaw. His laugh was the first sign that Gary had gotten the part, which would change his life, and enrich ours.

Admiring the finished addition for the St. Mark’s theater’s “Sidewalk of the Stars,” from left, Con, the theater’s concrete man; Gary Burghoff; Lorcan Otway; Bob Dio, and Genie Otway.

I sat in the back of the house with Dad for the weeks after that and watched as the remarkable team that created that show built “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.” Gary and Riva Rose, Bill and Skip Hinnant, Karen Johnson and Bob Balaban sat on the stage with comic books — flipping through looking for cartoons that they proposed to make up the play.

My family watched as members of that cast created wonderful art for so many, beginning with that show which has played around the world.

As we recently caught up, Gary recalled how Theatre 80 had a special feeling, beyond the great acoustics and intimate relationship between the actors and audiences. The closeness of the audience was a special part of playing our house for him, though. He recalled looking down into the first rows and seeing Judy Garland, Burt Lancaster, Paul Ford and Richard Rodgers. However, a big turn in his life came after seeing Otto Preminger in the audience. It led to his being cast in a film by Otto’s little brother, Ingo, “M*A*S*H.”

Gary Burghoff on the porch of his Connecticut lakefront home.

After he signed the concrete slab, Gary took our whole team out for lunch. The get-together had been arranged by Bob Dio, a friend of Gary’s with whom I am working on the film of my book, “The Girl in the Safe.” Our chief concrete man at 80 St. Mark’s, Con, my wife Genie and the great Lower East Side photographer Stacie Joy made up the rest of the sidewalk team. During lunch and afterward, Gary talked with us about “M*A*S*H” and his role.

Radar was a remarkable role for Gary and for America. He and William Christopher (Father Mulcahy) together provided a foil to the wisecracking leads, a contrast of a gentle humanity to their antiwar message. In today’s deeply divided U.S.A., that humanity and humility is, perhaps, the reason “M*A*S*H” still speaks to so many viewers of all political persuasions.

His place in the Theatre 80 firmament has been cemented.

Bob Dio said of the day, “I know Gary Burghoff feels Theatre 80 was and is an extension of his own family because he said it to me. After six years as a struggling actor in New York City, Theatre 80 and the premiere of ‘You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown’ launched him into a wonderful acting career with celebrity status. It’s a wonderful tribute to him that his concrete impression will be forever immortalized on the ‘Walk of Fame’ at Theatre 80.”

Our family at Theatre 80 are profoundly happy to be able to bring a bit of Gary back home to St. Mark’s Place, and hope that seeing Gary’s handprints will remind our neighbors of that gentle presence on our stage for years and years to come.

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