Chuck Frederick column: Duluth can remember him from 'Iron Will,' too
A child of the 1970s, I knew him immediately. Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III, larger than life, straight from TV's "M*A*S*H."
And just a few feet away from me on the set of the Disney movie, "Iron Will." It was my big chance that winter of 1993. We were outside Duluth's Historic Old Central High School. Second Street had been closed off and covered with snow to play the part of the starting line for a dogsled race that was at the heart of the movie. I was a race official. (OK, an extra — but a featured extra who ended up spending a month and a half on set.) And the esteemed actor David Ogden Stiers, far from his "M*A*S*H" days, was J.W. Harper, sponsor of the dog derby. We were both on the viewing platform high above the starting line. It was my big chance for an autograph or a picture or just a moment in the glow of a star.
And Stiers responded to my stammering starstruck request for a photo with all the charm and polite dignity you'd expect from a Broadway-seasoned, Juilliard-educated artist: "Thank you so much for asking," he said, "but I do not do that."
What I did next, or tried to do, I'm not particularly proud of. I waited until Stiers wasn't looking and then I held my camera low and pointed it in his direction. Before I could press the shutter button, though, his booming voice filled the frosty air.
"Put that (expletive) camera away before I shove it down your ... ." You get the idea. He didn't even turn his head.
We all learned quickly during the making of "Iron Will" that David Ogden Stiers didn't make small talk, didn't pose for photos, and didn't sign autographs. And whatever you do, do not ask him about his days on "M*A*S*H." Constant questions about the iconic TV show, he told an interviewer once, were tarnishing the otherwise-good memories he had of that special time in his life. So he preferred — no, he insisted on — avoiding the topic altogether.
Which was why I bristled for him late Saturday when the news started breaking of his death from cancer. He was 76. Every headline referred to his role on "M*A*S*H."
As hard as we tried, on the set of "Iron Will," Stiers' connection to the TV show just couldn't help but come up. We all knew him from that role. And most of the "Iron Will" sets were at remote trailside locations — with meals eaten by the cast and crew almost always at long tables inside even longer temporary tents. Just like on "M*A*S*H."
Even the star of "Iron Will" made the faux pas. Mackenzie Astin's room was next door to Stiers' at the hotel at Fitger's, and he joked to Stiers one day that he knew now what it must have been like for B.J. and Hawkeye, the Winchester character's tentmates on the show.
"Yeah, that didn't go over well," Astin told me by phone this week from Baltimore, where he lives now.
Like so many others, Astin will always remember Stiers as "witty," "bright and honest," "learned," and "a finished and polished human being with incredible tastes."
"I mean, he was a conductor and a composer," Astin said.
And he didn't miss much. Astin was 19 during the making of "Iron Will" and occasionally smoked in his room. He thought he was being subtle and cool about it. But one day he bumped into Stiers on the plush stairway at Fitger's.
"Ah, Mackenzie," the older actor said, as the story was recalled. "I am on my way to the local television studio to record a public-service announcement about the importance of staying in school and staying away from drugs. Would you like to come along to talk about staying in school?"
Message received, reinforced by the subtlety and cleverness of its delivery.
"That story still makes me smile so much," Astin said. "He was able to say, 'I know what you're doing,' without actually saying it. That's how he was."
How he was also included being an excellent actor, according to Astin. There's a scene at the end of "Iron Will" in which Stiers' character fights back tears and can't help but applaud as Astin's gutsy character finishes the grueling dogsled race.
"How he played that, I've stolen from that in my own acting over the years," Astin said. "You see all those emotions in his face, in just a few moments on screen. For me it was a great lesson."
Stiers' death was a shock to Astin: "If you're lucky in this industry and are able to work for a number of years, you get to know a lot of people. To see his name as having passed away, that was one of those that made me stop and say out loud, 'Oh no. Oh no.' He'll always have a really dear place in my heart. And his passing reminds me how important it is to check in with folks in your life who maybe you haven't seen."
That day in in Duluth outside Old Central, I made a point of apologizing to Stiers. We bumped into each other a lot after that.
One day, filming near the railroad tracks in Gary-New Duluth, wardrobe had given me a Sunday-best, jet-black, three-piece suit to wear. I noticed it had Stiers' name stitched into the collar. So I asked him about it. He seemed relieved that's what I was asking. And after racking his brain — he does have 167 acting credits at IMDb — he told me all about wearing the suit in a television film called "The Final Days."
Another time, shooting in Cloquet, Stiers was to hop off a train in such a hurry that he forgot his coat. I was to jump down after him and hand it to him on a dead run. We practiced several times, and I noticed Stiers counting his steps each rehearsal. He instructed me to do the same so we wouldn't have to look down to see the marks in the snow where we were supposed to stop running. Our characters wouldn't be looking down, he explained; they'd be looking ahead with rapt attention at the mushers hurrying out of the checkpoint.
Our final day of shooting, in Two Harbors, the sun glinted with blinding brightness off the mostly man-made snow that was made even brighter by foam or whatever the super whiteness was that the movie people sprayed all over. Stiers saw me squinting and offered me a pair of "Blues Brothers"-style Ray-Ban sunglasses to wear. At the end of the day, I went to give them back. He wouldn't take them.
"Those aren't mine," he said, "I believe those are yours, Charles."
I smiled, and I can't help remembering now another story I heard about Stiers during his stay at Fitger's. A hotel employee complimented his tie one day. Stiers stopped, untied the neckwear, took it off, and handed it to the employee. "This is your tie," he announced. After that, in what became a running joke, hotel employees complimented anything and everything they saw Stiers wearing.
I'm sure they will always remember him fondly.
Just as Duluth can always remember that Stiers was not unlike most of us: complicated and contrasted. He made his living in front of a camera, yet hated having his picture taken. He clearly was generous, yet former News Tribune arts writer Dominic Papatola claimed Stiers banned him from the "Iron Will" set after Papatola called him a "portly character actor" in a story. He was a guest conductor of the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra, yet who can ever forget his head-to-toe butternut-squash get-up in the movie, "Doc Hollywood"?
I finally did get my picture. But only because a couple of times during the movie I was fortunate enough to be positioned near him — near David Ogden Stiers, not Maj. Charles Emerson Winchester III.