Nurse Kellye Of 'M*A*S*H' Still gets Fan Mail For Breakthrough Role
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It can be a real revelation to go back and watch a sitcom you loved when you were young. Sure, maybe some stuff seems corny, but other things pop with new meaning, and some characters might seem more important to you than they did before.
A blogger named Kath Read went back to a favorite of mine, the sitcom drama "M.A.S.H." And she found that while she still loved Hawkeye and Hot Lips, it was Nurse Kellye who stood out to her this go around. Her tribute went viral and the actress who played the character, Kellye Nakahara, was overwhelmed.
KELLYE NAKAHARA: My husband was so proud that somebody finally wrote what he's always thought.
MARTIN: We called Kellye up and asked her what she remembered from the early days of "M.A.S.H."
NAKAHARA: I just was so thrilled to be on that set. I loved the smell of the tents. I loved the people. So I would have a great time with the writers and talk to them and the crew, who I loved. And really, we became such great friends that I think I was in every scene because I put myself in every scene...
NAKAHARA: ...And nobody told me to get out. One of the scenes is me tap dancing, and it was really hilarious because I would think I was tap dancing and trying to practice tap dancing - which was awful - in my boots all the time while waiting for a scene to start. And all of the things that I really was off-screen, they put into my character. You know, a very, very competent person who was positive and upbeat and sweet.
MARTIN: I want to read an excerpt from this essay about the barriers that you were breaking with this character. From the essay, it says (reading) how many other women that look like Kellye Nakahara can you name in any television series, let alone one from the '70s and '80s who's always there and is always shown as smart, competent, compassionate and professional? How many chubby women of color characters can you name that aren't the butt of a joke or portrayed as klutzy or incompetent or oversexed or silly?
Did you have an awareness of being exceptional in that role?
NAKAHARA: First of all, I don't think of myself as short.
NAKAHARA: Number one. Number two, I don't think of myself as chubby. I think of myself as just a person with soft corners. What she was to me was a genuine person who wasn't being looked at in the same way as the glamorous girls that were coming through the compound.
And when she just stood up to Hawkeye and told him off, she made it clear that there's so much more to me than you think there is. And I got mail. I still get mail. I have people coming up to me that say, as far as being Asian, you're the first role model that I had of an Asian that wasn't portrayed as an Asian, just as a person.
And I think that was - it took a long time, I think, for that to come around. I hope that it's starting to change now. But I think it's taken a long time.
MARTIN: All these years later, how do you look back on that time and that character?
NAKAHARA: It's just amazing. It's mind-blowing. I had a great time. I don't think I was ever sick.
MARTIN: (Laughter) No sick days.
NAKAHARA: I took that one Hawaiian vacation and I wrote to the cast while I was on the vacation. Then after the show was over, we had potlucks at my house. And I thought, this is really hilarious. Here in Pasadena, down this little old street with craftsman houses, and I said, there comes Alan Alda with his pasta salad. This is hilarious.
NAKAHARA: What must my neighbors think? But no - and then my mother would be there and she would scold them. She would say to Harry Morgan, you know, you really shouldn't wear shoes like that. They're not good for your feet.
NAKAHARA: So it was just so much fun.
MARTIN: Kellye Nakahara. You know her better as Nurse Kellye from "M.A.S.H."
Kellye, thank you so much for talking with us and sharing your reflections.
NAKAHARA: Thank you so much. That was a lot of fun. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.