Interview with the late Wayne Rogers: M*A*S*H star finds success in many settings [classic article]

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If Wayne Rogers was not an actor, he would probably be running the world, president of Harvard, head of the World Bank or something of that nature.

Most people know him from his days as “Trapper John” on the hit TV show “M*A*S*H. But, a former naval navigator with a history degree from Princeton, Rogers is as well-versed in quantum physics as he is in the ways of Hollywood.

Perhaps his greatest talents lie in the world of finance, however. He is a co-chairman and co-CEO of Swifty Serve, the nation’s largest privately held convenience store chain with 500 stores; the Broadway producer of such hits as “Rent;” the owner of several banks; a vineyard owner; and a player in the bridal business. He also has advised many top financiers and appeared as an expert witness before the House Banking Committee. Bankrate spoke to Rogers about his life outside the spotlight.

Bankrate: You have achieved amazing financial success in many areas. What are some of the common characteristics of investments you have made?

Wayne Rogers: The common denominator is earnings. I’m basically financial. I may not understand a given product or know who’s running the company. But you don’t need to go to Harvard Business School to understand when x becomes 2x. My first glance is to look at the capitalization of the company.

B: You seem to have highly developed left and right brain skills. You’ve been a naval navigator. You must be topnotch with math and physics. Were you ever tempted years ago not to go into acting?

WR: No. I happen to think they are not as diverse, as every creative process is common to all things. You’re always trying to solve a problem or puzzle of some kind. When an actor creates a character, he is creating certain moments. You’re imagining the life of the character — he had to have a life and history. Someone once said, “Acting is the ability to act truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” As for physics, I love to read it. But it’s the platonic side of my interest. I wouldn’t want to spend all day in a lab for a living. I read Whitehead and Bertram Russel, mathematicians and philosophers. There is no certainty in the atomic world. Behavior is random. The laws of physics are macro, not micro in nature. You see, laws are probability. My good friend, Alan Alda, is doing a play based on physics, “QED.”

B: Speaking of Alan Alda, have you two ever thought of doing further collaborations, like Lemmon and Matthau?

WR: Well, we talk about it, but it’s not something either of us ever pushed. We were offered a film at one point, but we didn’t like the script. We don’t do anything active to make it happen.

B: Do you come from a wealthy background?

WR: No. My father was an attorney, but he died when I was a boy. He left my mother some money. I went to school on scholarship.

B: Did you have to help support the family?

WR: No, but as you have correctly perceived, my mother and father instilled in us a work ethic. I wasn’t wanting for anything, but as a kid, I shoveled coal for 10 cents an hour. Everybody did that. You did what you did. When I came to New York, I worked at Schraft’s and was a lifeguard in Long Island. I drove a cab. I shared a cold-water walkup on 13th and 30th with Peter Falk. The rent was $37 a month.

B: How did you get involved in large-scale investments? Did M*A*S*H money provide the seed capital?

WR: It was attrition in the following sense: I bought an old apartment house out of bankruptcy. You could prepay the interest back then, with a tax deduction of 40 cents on the dollar. The attorney on that deal asked me to take on partners for other deals; there was a coterie.

B: Have you had any businesses that didn’t fare so well?

WR: Oh, hell yes. I was in the sunglass business; it was a disaster. There was fraud involved. I had a powerful partner; they were crooks, fined by the IRS. Alix Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist did an exposé on these people. I have mostly not chosen the wrong businesses, but the wrong people. Let me tell you, a lot of successful people are not honest: Don’t confuse success with good ethics.

B: Your wife was a producer of “Good Morning America.” Do you feel it’s important to have a spouse who’s an active helpmate, and what have you learned from her?

WR: No, but it’s helpful to have an interest in the business. It helps to feed the personal life; it lends respect, which is as important as love.

B: What sacrifices have you had to make in order to be successful?

WR: My first marriage. My [ex] wife told me this. I was raised that with success and a work ethic, to be a good provider, everything would follow. It’s not true — I neglected my home life! She told me, “You don’t really know the family.” When you are starting out and you are the instrument of your earning ability, you put everything into the work. I got very close to the kids after that.

B: Do you manage your own money?

WR: Yes. I do have some money managers, cross-pollination. I just spoke to a guy with a family business, a commercial bank. So, I told him to put me in for two or three hundred grand. I’m partners with Lou Wolf, who’s been written about in Forbes. He owns Starwood Hotels.

B: Do you have any favorite stocks?

WR: We are going through a churning process. The actual business that I would pick, it’s not important. Two or three years ago, you could have shorted Polaroid and made a fortune. Who would have believed it? A business like Polaroid? But I think that we are going into a bigger recession than is reported now. The job layoffs are not fully felt yet. I invest, not trade. I look at the past two or three years and say, “OK, historically, what’s happening?” I have some tech stocks, but not the dot-bombs. They represent good value. I’m a value person; I am a great believer in strong management.

B: What’s a splurge for you?

WR: I don’t really have any. I’m somewhat conservative. I love to cook. No collections, boats, planes. A car is to get from A to B. I have a 1987 Benz that I bought from Barbara Eden, it was a gray-market car. I have a 1978 Oldsmobile. I do have houses in New York, Utah, Florida. I have one in Beverly Hills that I probably should sell. But I live in my houses.

B: What’s something that you think is a complete waste of money?

WR: I’m concerned about waste! I love leftovers, especially my lasagna! It’s infinitely better the next day. I try desperately not to waste things. I even pick up papers outside when I walk the dog. I turn out lights. You know, Parisians are so proud, they wash their own streets. Americans feel like someone else should do it, the Department of Sanitation. We don’t have the same pride.

B: I notice that you don’t really do commercials, infomericals or talk shows. Do you feel they’re tacky?

WR: Oh, no! Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin were friends! I used to love to do their shows. I know Jay, I say, “Hello,” when I see him in a room. I don’t know the other one. They’re looking for someone who’s “au courant.” They’re not looking for some older actor, like me. I’m serious! They have a lot of pressure from the networks. But if you have a show on, you have to support your show. I’d go on.

Merv Griffin’s shows used to be all about his friends, the Gabor sisters and their inside jokes . . .

Merv owned his show, same with Carson. They could put on whoever they wanted. They had personalities that carried the show. They used to call me personally: “What are you doing next week?” I tell you, one time I was hosting “The Tonight Show,” I had to do the opening jokes. In rehearsal, they put the jokes on cards. I read them, but I wasn’t too sure about them. Pat McCormick, the head writer, said, “$100.” I asked, “What do you mean?” He said, “You pay me $100 dollars for every joke that works.” Well, people were rolling on the floor! The guys in the wings were laughing, giving me the finger. I lost $2,000 that night! They knew the audience.

B: What advice do you have for people wishing to achieve your level of success?

WR: Well, this is what I told my sister’s graduating class. One, whatever you choose, do it for its own sake. Not for parents, friends, and least of all, money. You’ll be satisfied. Two, have real passion. Three, leave a little on the table for the next generation.

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