NEW YORK, Aug. 14 -- Larry Linville never meant to be prancing around a stage playing a repressed, middle-aged, dahlia-growing bachelor and his irrepressible, flamboyant, worldwise, elderly aunt in 'Travels with My Aunt.' But then, neither did he plan to spend four years of his life playing the pompous, hypocritical, Hot Lips-loving, butt of jokes Maj. Frank Burns in TV's 'M*A*S*H.' What he meant to do was be a jet pilot. 'I grew up during World War II on an Air Force base near Sacramento, ' he said recently between peformances. 'My father was a crew chief in charge of putting weapons on board the planes to fight the Japanese. 'I started flying at age 11 and studied aeronautical engineering, but I flunked the Air Force physical because I am colorblind. I had done a little acting, but when people suggested I could be an actor, I said, 'I could be abused and starve to death without being an actor.' 'But then Life magazine came out with a cover story about Trevor Howard and when I read that he had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, I decided to apply.' Given a full scholarship, he attended the prestigious academy with Sarah Miles, Tom Courtenay, David Warner and John Hurt and went on to perform with Ingrid Bergman, Arthur Hill and Colleen Dewhurst in Eugene O'Neill's 'More Stately Mansions' and with Nicol Williamson in John Osborne's 'Inadmissable Evidence.' Linville, 56, has taken over the dual roles in 'Travels with My Aunt' at the off-Broadway Minetta Lane Theater from stage star Jim Dale, who opened with the show in April.
The play, adapted from Graham Greene's hit film by director Giles Havergal, has four men playing 22 roles, including women and a dog. The script calls for switching characters in mid-sentence, a challenge to even Linville's extensive theatrical training and experience. He said family memories were a help. 'I based the character of Aunt Augusta on my own mother and aunt,' he said. 'They were 14 years apart in age and both had wicked senses of humor.' 'When I was in Neil Simon's 'Rumors' on Broadway, my mother flew in from California to see me. She had never been in New York and after the show she insisted she wanted to see Times Square. 'I tried to explain that it was midnight and that Times Square was full of unsavory people, but she said, 'I have to see it,' so we went. There were all the transvestites and hustlers trying to sell my mother $40 Rolex watches from inside their raincoats and she just walked up to a transvestite and asked, 'Where do you get your shoes, dear?' 'In the end she bought the Rolex for $20 and when we couldn't get a cab, all these characters she had befriended formed a human chain in the street and commandeered one for her. 'Mother said, 'New York is wonderful. It's just like in the movies. '' For Linville, the most difficult moment of the play is a quick emotional switch he has to make at a graveside scene where Aunt Augusta and her nephew Henry have gone to visit his father's grave many years after his death. It is then that he has to make clear -- without saying it directly -- that Henry's father was the great love of Augusta's life. She makes just one comment about a woman who also claims to have been in love with Henry's father: 'She doesn't know what love is.' Switching back and forth between Henry and Augusta requires not only changes in speech patterns and vocal quality but in body language. 'Henry is all angles fit together,' he said. 'He never even crosses his legs until the end of the play. Augusta is like a big cat, all curves with one foot pointed out.' As for the challenge of taking over a role established by another actor, Linville said he had seen Dale in the two roles and admired his performance. 'But I do it differently,' he said. 'I see Augusta more as a teacher who is attempting to tailor this man who is a great bloody bore and make him into what she would want for a son. At 75 she decides to become a mother.' As for the role he created and for which he is most famous, he describes Major Burns as 'a dangerous piece of work.' 'You either had to look like a total fool or just be repulsive,' he said. 'It was a nice balancing act.' He can watch that balancing act almost any night on the ubiquitous reruns that probably will go on in perpetuity. 'That was 24 years ago and I can look at it any night on TV and I'm 32 years old,' he said with a gratified smile.