“To every man’s son,” General Addison Collins says to Hawkeye, raising a glass in a toast to lost soldiers.
On M*A*S*H, General Collins appeared in “Say No More” an episode that builds up to this loaded toast. Throughout the episode, we watched as Collins loses his son in Hawkeye’s O.R. and after this toast, the general’s tragic experience changes how he views the pins he pushes into his maps marking soldier camps.
The character actor tapped to play General Collins was John Anderson, whose stern features added grit to movies and TV shows for decades.
And he says it all kicked off when he got his butt kicked by Marshall Matt Dillon in what many might say is the most famous fight in Gunsmoke history.
For the 1958 Gunsmoke episode “Buffalo Man,” Anderson played a vicious bully named Ben Siple, known for never losing a fight and always picking one.
When he got cast in the role, Anderson had some bit TV roles under his belt, but he had yet to do anything that really turned any heads. That is, not until he agreed to take a few punches in Dodge City.
“It was a dream,” Anderson said, according to Western Clippings. “The show was a big hit and the role I was playing was a very showy villain with heavy make-up, just a crazy man.”
When you watch the Gunsmoke fight scene, it’s even more intense than M*A*S*H‘s somber yanking of emotions that we watched in “Say No More.” In fact, on Gunsmoke, there wouldn’t be quite another fight scene in which Matt Dillon gets so heated for another two seasons, when “Big Tom” pushes the marshal to fill in and compete in a prizefight.
As Ben Siple, Anderson antagonizes James Arness by laying hands on a woman who the marshal promised to protect. The ensuing scrape found Anderson overcoming Arness, and Arness overcoming Anderson, with both towering men flailing and flung about a circle of wide-eyed onlookers.
The way the fight scene is edited is such a master class in creating a stunning audience experience that film classes have studied the sequence pretty much since the day it aired. The American Cinema Editors saw the fight and turned it into an educational film, and if you look on YouTube today, you’ll see it’s still common for a film student’s first editing assignment to be to reimagine this famous scene.
When it first aired, the eyes in the audience were just as wide as any film editor’s. Anderson said he’s pretty sure nobody forgot that performance.
“It really opened doors,” Anderson said. “I just ran from one show to another.”
After taking a beating from Matt Dillon, Anderson appeared on The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Bonanza, Perry Mason, and many other shows, including just about every Western. He also appeared in memorable movie roles, like playing “California Charlie” in Psycho.
Gunsmoke welcomed Anderson back 11 times after “Buffalo Man,” and he appeared nearly just as many times on The Rifleman.
“Johnny Crawford was almost like a son to him because he played in so many Rifleman episodes,” said Anderson’s longtime friend, actor Marsha Hunt. “When Johnny was a little boy, they really formed quite a bond of friendship.”
You can say that Crawford definitely looked up to the character actor, and not just because Anderson was six-foot-two.
“When I was shooting Rifleman, I enjoyed working with him,” Crawford said. “He seemed like a very serious actor, and I always admired him. I thought he was so unique … very professional, prepared. He was an inspiration to work with.”
Hunt called Anderson a bright, caring person, which resonates with his character arc toward the end of his emotional M*A*S*H episode.
His final scene on M*A*S*H sees him clinking glasses with Hawkeye, then picking up the phone to bark orders that represent a change of heart for the shrewd general. In his career, Anderson was drawn to playing the types of characters where you just didn’t know what to expect them to do next, for better or for worse.
“I did the craziest, nuttiest guys in the world and I had a ball doing it,” Anderson said.