Feb. 28, 1983, represents a watershed moment in the history of American pop culture. On that night, the nation seemingly shut down to watch the final episode of CBS’ groundbreaking military comedy M*A*S*H. The series would wrap its 11-season run with a two-hour finale that would unite 106 million in front of their TV screens with the same purpose: to say goodbye to what had become a family of overfatigued doctors and nurses.
When the series launched in September 1972, CBS executives thought they had greenlighted a comedy. Series creators Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart instead gave the network seriocomic vignettes of universal truths about the human condition. “We helped break the boundaries of the boss coming to dinner and burning the roast,” series star Alan Alda (aka Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce) tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Viewers laughed at the characters’ antics in Rosie’s bar or The Swamp with Hawkeye, nestled in his purple robe, the color of royalty. They mourned losses in the operating room, sensed how tightly Radar (Gary Burghoff) clung to his teddy bear at night, and felt Maxwell Klinger’s (Jamie Farr) pride in his Statue of Liberty outfit and B.J. Hunnicutt’s (Mike Farrell) broken heart as he missed his daughter’s childhood. Remember Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan’s (Loretta Swit) shaky first attempt at a joke or when her walled emotions leaked out? Millions saw the fatigue of meatball surgery and exasperation knowing the soldiers they healed would soon return with new wounds or in body bags.
Everyone wanted a part of M*A*S*H. Stars flocked to the set. Prince Charles flirted with the nurses over lunch at the commissary. The Harlem Globetrotters dropped by. You’d be as likely to see Jane Fonda as you would Henry Kissinger waiting in the wings. Years later, Barack Obama would claim to have learned many value lessons from the show.
So, what was M*A*S*H‘s secret? The dramedy about the trials and tribulations of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit during the Korean War was really a love story. In building the landmark series, its cast and crew forged a bond of love and respect that lives to this day: a love for truth in storytelling, a love for the audience they were entertaining and a love for each other.
Someone once asked Harry Morgan (who played Col. Sherman Potter from seasons four through 11 and who died in 2011) if working on M*A*S*H had made him a better actor. He responded that it had made him a better person.
In honor of the 35th anniversary of the series finale, THR looks back at the history M*A*S*H — as told by those who built it.
Robert Altman’s feature film M*A*S*H became a surprise hit in 1970, motivating CBS to adapt it for the small screen. Whereas the movie was rated R, the network believed it could create a more family-friendly version of war.
Reynolds (co-creator, producer, director): You’re lucky to fall into a subject like M*A*S*H and the complications of war. The danger I saw was suggesting war is all fun and games. We wanted to be sensitive to the horrors of combat and the valor of the doctors, nurses and servicemen.
Alda: We wanted to reflect the lives of those people who lived through an experience that would rattle anybody. There never was a situation like that on television before.
Swit: We weren’t a commercial for the [Vietnam War]. We were dealing with serious issues with people working in insane situations.
Reynolds hired his longtime friend Gelbart to write the pilot. Gelbart was a highly respected writer for television, films and Broadway. At the time, he was living in England, writing for the BBC. His work on M*A*S*H would lead the cast and crew to label him a “genius.”
Reynolds: I spent a week with Larry in London. We’d take walks in the park for hours laying out the story, scene by scene. When we were done, I came back to L.A. and waited. Finally, after a few weeks, I called and said, “When can I look for the script?” He said, “It’s in the mail.” Then he sat down to write it.
Ken Levine (writer): Larry was the Mozart of comedy writers. It just came out of his head right onto the screen, as if he were dictating it to himself. Amazing.
Elias Davis (writer): From the beginning, he made the conscious decision to place serious and comedic stories side by side.
Alda: He used many different styles — drama, comedy, burlesque, satire — often in the same show. That gave us a surprising combination, which made it interesting to me.
Dan Wilcox (writer, producer): Larry and Gene refused to be slaves to making audiences laugh at regular intervals. They believed you could come to moments that were the meat of what war was about. It’s the only comedy I ever worked on that made me cry.
Farrell: Before I got on the show, a TV producer asked me to star in his sitcom. I read the script. It was full of the usual stupid jokes for jokes’ sake. I said thanks but no thanks. And he said. “You’re turning down a lead in a TV series? Why?” I didn’t want to tell him his script was stupid, so, I said, “Well, it’s not M*A*S*H.”
M*A*S*H premiered Sept. 17, 1972. The show struggled at first opposite ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney. Nevertheless, Reynolds and Gelbart raged against network ideas to lighten their portrayal of war, such as never losing patients, minimizing blood and using laugh tracks outside the operating room.
Reynolds: Before we ever shot anything, someone told me, “You can’t go into the operating room. When I saw the movie, four women in front of me walked out.” And I said, “Yes, but millions of them stayed.”
Dennis Koenig (writer): Gene and Larry were at a point in their careers that they were going to do things their way or not do it. Larry told me they were always packing their bags, ready to leave. They believed, What’s the point of doing the show if it’s going to be like every other one?
Burt Metcalfe (executive producer, director, writer): A seminal episode in the first season was “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (above) in which a war correspondent and old friend of Hawkeye’s comes to the 4077th, goes off to the front, and then returns and dies on Hawkeye’s operating table. Larry wrote this beautiful aria for Col. Blake to console Hawkeye with: “Look, all I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war and rule No. 1 is young men die. And rule No. 2 is doctors can’t change rule No. 1.”
Wilcox: They made you care about this guy so that not just Hawkeye lost him, but the audience did, too. That may have been the first patient we lost. Alan told me it’s his favorite episode and it’s mine, too.
Metcalfe: At the end of that season, this jerky CBS executive comes into our offices and says, “Let me tell you guys how you ruined M*A*S*H,” and cites that episode. It’s just so far from the truth.
M*A*S*H introduced dramedy to television, but not many people took notice. It was a bubble show that almost didn’t get renewed for a second season.
Alda: I used to joke that we were in the top 78 [shows on television]. It didn’t bother us, though, because we were too busy doing what we did.
Barbara Christopher (widow of Bill Christopher, who played Father Francis Mulcahy): At the end of the first season, Bill and I went to the closing-night party, but had to leave early. Alan walked us to the door and said to Bill, “It’s been such a wonderful year. What if I never see you again?”
Farr: Babe Paley [the then-wife of CBS founder William S. Paley] supposedly saved us by telling her husband that M*A*S*H could be the crown jewel for the network. By the end of the third season, Larry came up to me and said, “You know what, I think we’re the next I Love Lucy.”
Reynolds knew Alda from his theater work in New York. He never asked him to test for the role because he truly believed he had found Hawkeye.
Reynolds: He was attractive, a leading man and wonderfully comedic actor who could play the sober moments. There’s not a lot of guys like that floating around.
Alda: I was making a movie in the Utah state prison. M*A*S*H was by far the best script I’d ever read in prison. I said to my wife, Arlene, “I can’t do it because it’s going to be made in California and we live in New Jersey. Who knows, this thing could run a whole year.”
Reassured of the show’s intentions, Alda signed on as Hawkeye. Gelbart envisioned the role as an endearing jokester who uses humor to combat the insanity of war. Alda’s take on him rounded him out even more.
Swit: Alan’s approach to Hawkeye was a large child looking for companionship, a hug and a squeeze. His flirting was all talk and never predatory.
Reynolds: He voiced early on that we shouldn’t be like “billy goats,” where the women are always at the doctor’s disposal. Guys could be fresh, but you’d never see them sexually using their authority.
Walter Dishell (medical consultant): He wanted to know how you feel when you tell someone they’re going to take their leg off or die. He cared about how Hawkeye would act in these situations. “If I can’t stop the bleeding, what’s going through my head?”
Wilcox: Alan was brilliant at finding a way to play a scene so that he wasn’t directly in it. If he had an exposition in the mess tent, he spent the whole time studying his food. He’d pick up a fork, sniff at it and put it back down, meanwhile participating in the conversation.
Burghoff: I never worked with anyone so completely dedicated to a project. His creative energy was endless.
Jeff Maxwell (Igor Stravinsky): I remember his doing the “River of Liver” speech (above). I never expected him to dance on the table. I asked him afterward if he planned that and he said he hadn’t. No one else could do that.
Other actors came from television, movies and theater. Metcalfe, who would ultimately become the showrunner after Reynolds and Gelbart exited, found performers who had previously left an impression on him. Swit and Farrell came from episodic TV, Larry Linville from a play at the Mark Taper Forum. David Ogden Stiers guest-starred on Mary Tyler Moore and Morgan appeared on M*A*S*H as a whacked-out general. Other actors came from different channels. CBS recommended McLean (Mac) Stevenson. Burghoff impressed legendary film director Otto Preminger with his Broadway performance as Charlie Brown, leading Preminger’s brother to cast him in M*A*S*H. Others followed a more circuitous path.
Metcalfe: We made the pilot with a different Father Mulcahy. He was the only performer Larry wanted to change. Bill was my great white hope. He blew the audition, though. Larry wrote in a specific rhythm and if you don’t adhere to it, you destroy the humor. I managed to get him another audition.
Christopher: Larry said he wanted someone with natural idiosyncrasies.That was Bill. An interviewer told me once that Bill “is a man who likes to take an idea, and surround it with words until it surrenders.”
Farr: Klinger was a one-shot deal that came from Larry reading about Lenny Bruce in the Coast Guard. They said, “Dress for the day.” Bruce thought it’d be funny if he showed up at morning reveille wearing a dress.
Metcalfe: Wayne Rogers was one of six candidates we tested. He was by far the most colorful and won hands down. Interestingly, they’d all tested as Trapper or Hawkeye because Alan hadn’t officially signed yet. Once he agreed, we put Wayne into the Trapper role. The two of them had a wonderful chemistry together.
Farr: Gene took me to a trailer that had a women’s Army Corps uniform hanging with these high heels. I thought I was dressing with an actress. He said, “No, those are yours.” I thought to myself, “What kind of character is this?” He takes me in my high heels and hairy bow legs to stage 9. Everyone’s laughing. They gave me a couple of lines and Gene leaves. The director then tells me to play Klinger “gay.” I was out of work and $250 paid my rent. So, I did my lines. My agent calls the next day and says Gene doesn’t want to do the part the way the director designated it. I came back and played it straight.
A group of performers built an ensemble and then a community. They got together on weekends, charted a bus to attend the Emmys together, celebrated weddings and mourned at funerals.
Farrell: When I found out I got the part, my agent told me Alan wanted to have dinner with me. I said, “Oh, shit, yes.” I met him at a Chinese restaurant where we talked for hours. He was full of interest in me, wanting me to know his love for the show, his intentions and concerns. It was one of the more extraordinary moments in my wonderful career. I thought I’d fallen into paradise.
Swit: The first day we met, I can still visualize the room. I see where everyone was sitting. It was an important moment in my life. Everyone’s attitude was so fresh, positive and energetic about the project. We were all on the same page about what we were going to say.
Alda: Most of the time actors disperse and go to their dressing rooms between shots. We sat around in a circle of chairs making fun of one another, having fun. Laughing. I’ve taken that with me whenever I do a play. For me, it’s the best preparation for performing on stage because you’re already relating to each other, listening and responding.
Kellye Nakahara (Nurse Kellye): Alan and Mike would play chess all day long. We’d exchange books. I brought my mother from Hawaii to visit the set. Larry took her to lunch at the commissary. That’s all she could talk about for the rest of her life.
Farrell: Bill would read Homer, in ancient Greek, laughing, “Ho, ho, ho.” Loretta would be jabbering with us while doing needlepoint.
Swit: [Linville] was a riot. We’d go off on our own and rehearse a scene to find things we liked with each other and then go to the director. Ten times out of 10 the directors were thrilled.
Alda: If somebody had a very touching, dramatic close-up, as soon as someone yelled “cut,” there’d be a snowstorm of gauzes or we’d stand behind them, hanging clamps on them.
GOING BEYOND THE WRITERS ROOM
The writers worked in a building originally built as a schoolhouse for Shirley Temple. To accurately portray the subject matter, Reynolds, Gelbart and Metcalfe interviewed Korean War surgeons who had served in MASH units.
Metcalfe: You can have the greatest writers in the world, like we did, and never come up with some of the rich ideas we put on film.
Alda: We’d pore over those transcripts and look for a sentence or a fragment of an idea that we could build a story around.
Dishell: We drove out to the L.A. suburbs to see this guy who’d filmed his MASH unit. He said he’d never shown it to anybody because it was such a terrible time in his life. That’s where the look of The Swamp and the city signposts and other things came from.
Reynolds: We’d have guys who were over there for two years and said they had to get out because they couldn’t go through seeing guys dying all the time. I’ll never forget that line: “Guys dying all the time.” It was brutal.
David Pollock (writer): This surgeon, trying to remember when he’d done an operation, said it was the same day they got a shipment of eggs. We ended up doing a story about the 4077 receiving a shipment of eggs, which no one had eaten for months.
Wilcox: A surgeon from the 8076, Maurice Connolly, told us about a North Korean soldier brought in for surgery. He takes a hand grenade out and pulls the pin. A doctor grabs the handle and holds it in place so the spark can’t light the fuse. Everyone not doing surgery in the OR got down on their hands and knees until they found the pin and put it back in. We used that.
Alda: The interesting thing was after the second year, Larry and Gene went to Korea to visit a MASH unit. They found out that some of the stories we’d made up had really happened. We were that tuned in to what their experiences were.
In addition to the transcripts, writers went searching elsewhere for ideas.
Farr: Larry’s father, Harry, was a barber in Beverly Hills to big comedians like Milton Berle and Jack Benny. One of his customers was Danny Thomas, who was American Lebanese. Harry tells Danny his son wants to be a writer. Danny ends up buying this high school kid’s material. Larry never forgot that. Klinger became Lebanese because of Danny Thomas.
David Isaacs (writer): Ken and I wrote an episode, season seven’s “Point of View.” We watched a ton of POV movies like Lady in the Lake, where the camera was the eyes of the protagonist. We found it looked dull when the camera was talking. Someone came up with the idea that the soldier had taken shrapnel to his neck and couldn’t talk. That was perfect. Only M*A*S*H could do that.
Elias: Dave and I won a Humanitas Award for an episode about a soldier accompanying his wounded buddy to the 4077. In offering his blood to help save his friend’s life, he discovers he has leukemia. It was based on a real story of a manager tagging along with a big star for an ophthalmologist appointment. While there, the ophthalmologist asked the manager if he wanted his eyes checked, too. The manager agreed and the ophthalmologist discovered he had cancer.
Wilcox: We were working on ideas with Alan and he says, “Sometimes people can get a story out of something an actor’s good at. For example, I’m very good at sneezing.” The next day we were in the office saying, “Hawkeye sneezes a lot, what are we going to do?”
Alda: I was always thinking in terms of writing. I gave Larry a few scenes that I thought might work. He didn’t think the story was right, but encouraged me. My first script borrowed the idea from the play La Ronde, circling around, using a pair of long johns that went from one person to another.
Farrell: I came up with an idea once and asked Burt what he thought of it. He said, “That’s great, why don’t you write it?” I thought, “Oh, shit. OK, let me take a shot at it.” That was the way they operated. They encouraged without dragooning anybody.
The show had numerous battles with standards and practices.
Alda: I wrote an episode where Margaret sees a jockstrap on the table and starts going nuts. “How dare you parade that thing before me?” Standards and practices said we couldn’t show a jockstrap. I got really angry because we’d had countless episodes where we showed brassieres and women’s panties. Hawkeye had walked through a clothesline and had them slapping him in the face. Is there something holy about the male genitalia? They never gave a reason why. They just stuck to it.
Levine: Every week we got the same note, “Cut the casual profanity in half.” If we wanted eight hells and damns we’d put 16 into the script. We tried to slip one by when we had Radar say to a visiting general, “Your tent is ready your VIP-ness.” We got caught.
Wilcox: We did an episode in which Hawkeye yells, “You bastard!” at a South Korean officer who is taking a North Korean female guerrilla away for questioning and probable torture. The censor said we couldn’t say “bastard,” but we could say “son of a bitch.” We weren’t thrilled, but it was still strong language. The next year, we had a similar moment and the same thing happens. In the final season, we went directly to “son of a bitch” and the censor comes back and says, “That’s strong language, would you mind if you say ‘bastard’?”
The actors gained ownership by participating in table reads and contributing ideas.
Farrell: Gene would take us through the script, page by page, to see if anyone had any questions or suggestions. I thought, these people want to hear from the actors about the script? Oh, my God, I’m in heaven.
Swit: I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with Margaret and Frank. She was a bright, ambitious and talented nurse. She couldn’t continue to justify the relationship with the lipless wonder. So, I suggested sending her to Japan for some R&R and letting her fall in love with someone in the military she could be proud of. I said, “Can you imagine Frank’s reaction? He’d probably tear off the doors to the mess tent.” That’s exactly what he did. He also stabbed me with a scalpel in the OR.
Burghoff: Larry and I worked out how to make Radar innocent in contrast to the sophisticated doctors. That innocence became a special kind of sounding board for the insanity and horror of war.
Farr: They had Klinger falling asleep on guard duty and I didn’t like that. I said Klinger does all kinds of crazy things, but he wouldn’t jeopardize somebody’s life. They agreed with me.
Pollock: This surgeon told us a story about a field commander with a high casualty rate visiting their MASH unit. The doctors put a Mickey in his food, told him he had appendicitis and then operated on him to keep him from the front. Mike had a problem with doing that.
Farrell: I said B.J. wouldn’t cut into the healthy body of someone. It’s against the Hippocratic oath. We debated over it a long time.
Metcalfe: Mike expressed some very good points. We decided B.J. should express everything Mike’s saying. Hawkeye ended up doing the operation alone.
Isaacs: Ken and I rewrote it with Alan. We ended the show with Radar telling them there are choppers with more wounded on their way in. In other words, Hawkeye accomplished nothing.
THE BIG EPISODES
Over the course of 11 seasons, M*A*S*H consistently touched the full spectrum of human emotions. A few shows in particular stand out with cast members for what they represent, the envelopes they pushed and the emotions that surfaced from cast and audience. At the end of season four, CBS asked for a last-minute additional episode. Reynolds and Gelbart came up with “The Interview,” a black-and-white episode in which a real news reporter, Clete Roberts, interviews the members of the 4077.
Reynolds: There was an old Ed Murrow CBS documentary called “See It Now,” in which he went to Korea and interviewed soldiers fighting in the field. Larry kept reminding me, “We have to do that.” We knew we’d use it at some point.
Burghoff: Larry knew at that point that no one knew the characters better than the actors playing them. It was a supremely divine matter of artistic trust. To my way of thinking, that episode should be in a museum. It’s my favorite. Groundbreaking.
Farrell: I remember thinking how flattering that these geniuses wanted us to contribute our own take on who these people were. It was typical of these wonderful people to try and figure out how to do something unusual, new and exciting. I think it’s the best episode in the series.
Alda: We were given recorders and a list of questions. Larry took the best of that and punched it up with better lines. Then, while the camera was still rolling, Clete asked us questions we hadn’t heard before, forcing us to improvise on the spot. Some of the best stuff came out that way.
Metcalfe: One of mine and Larry’s favorite lines in the entire series came when each character gets asked if the experience has changed them in any way. When it gets to Father Mulcahy, he explains: “When the doctors cut into a patient, and it’s cold, the way it is now today … steam rises from the body … and the doctor will warm his hands over the open wound. How could anybody look upon that and not feel changed?”
Metcalfe: It still gets me today.
Col. Blake gets discharged and plans for his return home. Like many soldiers, he never makes it there, leaving the actors and viewers heartbroken during the season-three finale, “Abyssinia, Henry.”
Burghoff: I was shocked when I learned that [Stevenson, who went by “Mac”] had decided to leave [after three seasons]. He was such a tenderhearted, kind man.
Farr: I heard NBC was trying to sabotage our show. Mac was a guest host on The Tonight Show and they were teasing him with the idea that he could be the replacement for Johnny Carson.
Reynolds: He had people telling him he could be a star. Some of the stuff put forward was quite exaggerated, outrageous promises that people were in no position to fulfill.
Metcalfe: We thought he was making a mistake. The chemistry of a character, a performance — all fellow actors contribute to that success. You can’t just pick up and take that with you.
Swit: A week or two before leaving, Mac said to me, “I know I’ll never be in anything this good again, but I have to leave.” I said, “But Mac, if you know this, then why?” He said, “I want to be No. 1 of six. I’m No. 3.” I said, “Maybe that’s your billing, but you’re not.” We didn’t have numbers; M*A*S*H was the star.
Reynolds: Burt, Larry and I talked it over. We all lamented that death on the show was as impersonal as it was on the news. We thought everyone should feel a personal loss. We wanted to say a lot of boys don’t make it home.
What happened next surprised cast members and audiences alike, redefining loss on television.
Metcalfe: We said we have one more scene to shoot. Everyone got a manila envelope with a page inside. Linville [who played Maj. Frank Burns] looked at it and said, “Fucking brilliant.”
Swit:They didn’t want us to suffer through a week of rehearsal. That was gracious. Of course, Mac was as torn apart as we all were. His character dies and he was that character.
Reynolds: I think it sunk in with him when the character died, he couldn’t go back.
Burghoff: I was devastated by the cruel “finality” of it. I took Mac aside and said, “If you don’t want me to do this scene, I won’t.” I was hoping the shock of it would get him to change his mind. “No, you have to do it!” he said. “Don’t you remember the promise we all made to each other?” He was referring to always showing the reality of war whenever possible.
Swit: We all fell apart. Henry was Mac and Mac was Henry. And to hear a telegram saying he’d just been shot down over the Sea of Japan? You could hear the sobs. It just devastated us.
Metcalfe: We got so much mail. Some people thought it was great and others were very upset. “You made my little kid cry!” “You did it as vengeance!” We got a letter from a 15-year-old girl who said she understood our motives. “I feel that I have joined that all too non-inclusive fraternity of those who have lost a dear one overseas.” I thought that was such an incredible observation by someone so young. That was the response we were hoping for.
Burghoff: Gene and Larry made the right call. It greatly added to the integrity of the show.
Wilcox: A few years later, I was on set of a show Mac was on. In between takes I heard him say, “I thought I was going to be the next host of The Tonight Show. And then fucking Carson didn’t retire.” He was really good at hosting, too. But with Carson still there, he got cast adrift.
Col. Potter is given a bottle of brandy as the sole survivor and told to share it in a meaningful way. Every actor deserves their moment in the sun and after his long career in Hollywood, Morgan earned the right to this one.
Koenig: I think Harry loved being on M*A*S*H more than anybody. He’d been a working actor throughout his life and never had what he had with that show. It was great to give him something, that if I romanticize, was a capstone in his career.
Metcalfe: Harry had a wonderful quality, that when he would get emotional as the character, you could see he was doing his best not to cry. That’s a very wise emotional trick for an actor. It’s like the drunk who tries not to swagger or fall.
Koenig: I remember while they were shooting it, Metcalfe, came from the set to the writers room and said, “Harry’s just killing it down there.”
Farr: Harry was our Grandfather. We all knew that when he did that final scene he was talking to us and in a way, saying goodbye.
Swit: Harry was everything to me — my buddy, colleague, fellow actor, confessor, father figure, compadre, teacher. He represented everything in my life. We were just trashed watching him have this experience.
Farrell: I can’t tell you how many takes it took but it was one of the hardest scenes to get through because Harry was so fucking brilliant and it was so obviously meaningful to him.
Alda: I have very vivid memories of the first show I directed, which happened to include a picnic with 80 extras and a lot of stuff happening. It was very exciting for me. I remember skipping down the sidewalk of the airport terminal on my way home that weekend thinking I can do it.
Swit: I had a running gag with Jamie that if I was at rehearsal in my civvies, he’d come over to me, point a finger at my blouse and say, “Wait a minute, is that one of mine?”
Nakahara: Harry would have craft services put chicken guts into the open wounds so when we open the sheets we’d see guts in a wound that was supposed to be Styrofoam.
Farr: To repay Stiers for all his pranks on us, we had his dressing room painted orange and purple over Thanksgiving break. When we came back, we were waiting for him to rant. He said nothing. Finally, one of us asked, “What’s new?”
Farrell: David said, “Oh, I’ve just had my dressing room redecorated. Did you as well?” I responded, “No, how is yours?” He said, “Quite lovely, it’s a fabulous combination of salmon and mauve.” It was his way of letting us know he got it, but no one was going to get him.
Farrell: When Radar goes home, Peg and Erin go down to meet him. Erin sees Radar in uniform and calls him daddy. It so incredibly perfectly captured the heartbreak of being away from your child who was growing up without you. That was as powerful an episode as I was ever given the opportunity to do.
Wilcox: The nakedness of B.J.’s crying at the end. I remember watching it with a woman at Fox [who produced the show] who said she’d never seen a man cry like that on American TV. If you look at the scene, Hawkeye puts his arm around B.J. and holds him tight. At the same time, he’s looking away. He’s trying to give him privacy while comforting him, which made it even more powerful.
Swit: Margaret’s breaking down in “The Nurses” episode. That woman was so lonely and she was trying to do such a good job. And nobody appreciated her. Gene called me the next morning after shooting it and said they’d watched the dailies and my scene was last. When the lights went up everyone was sniffling. He asked the projectionist to run the scene again. The lights go out and they watched it again. The lights go up and everyone’s still crying. He says to everyone, “Is that the best thing you ever saw?”
THE SERIES FINALE
Wilcox: All the writers wanted to take part, so Alan wrote a couple scenes with everyone.
Pollock: Alan had a tape recorder. We’d work on a line and then he’d say it into his machine and have someone transcribe it.
Elias: I remember Metcalfe saying, “We’ve got to get this right. I don’t want to go out a punch-drunk fighter staggering around the ring.”
The major plot points, the ones that leave lasting impressions, came again from real-life situations.
Metcalfe: When I went to Korea, a man told me that during the war, a North Korean patrol was crossing across a bridge. Hiding underneath were 40 or 50 South Koreans trying to escape south to avoid being imprisoned or killed by the invading soldiers. A mother’s baby in the group started to cry, and she smothered it to avoid the group’s detection. It became the focal point of the whole opening of the show with Hawkeye in the psychiatric ward under the care of Dr. Sydney.
Alda: I wanted to send everybody home having been wounded in some way by the war. [The finale] emphasized the seriousness of what Hawkeye had been through.
Wilcox: People were coming to MASH units to surrender because they had food. This included a Korean dance band who played Western instruments. Winchester loving classical music, which gave us the idea to have him meet surrendering musicians and try and teach them Mozart. They’re sent away to a POW camp before he can do a concert. In the last triage, Winchester learns they were all killed in an attack. He can’t listen to his passion ever again.
Swit: When Harry and I have to say goodbye, we could hardly rehearse. I had to look at this man whom I adore and say, “You dear sweet man, I’ll never forget you” without getting emotional and I couldn’t. I can’t now even. It wasn’t words on a page. You knew what you were saying was truth.
Farrell: Metcalfe directed the finale and said he’d never been in a situation where he had to ask actors not to cry so much.
Farr: Klinger remaining in Korea with Rosalind Chao was a fabulous idea, a great twist. The man who went to every outrageous extreme to leave Korea and the U.S. Army was the only one to remain. Wow.
Pollock: The CBS correspondent who broadcast the final peace announcement from Panmunjom was Robert Pierpoint, who was still working at the network. I asked him if he had saved the tapes. He said when you’re running from foxhole to foxhole you can’t be juggling reel-to-reel tape. He thought, however, they shortwaved his reports directly back and said he would look. A few weeks later, we get the tapes. It turns out we can’t use them due to the quality. So, we transcribed it and Robert agreed to do them over.
Metcalfe: In camp, as a kid, we used stones to write out something. So, we used the white rocks from the pathway for B.J. to write goodbye, which of course Hawkeye sees when he gets into the helicopter and takes off. On a bigger note, it’s the show saying goodbye to the world.
Swit: A few episodes before, Margaret had borrowed a book of poems from Winchester. He got angry with me at one point and made me return it. In real life, we had this running gag. I would tease David all the time that no one had his private phone number. He was very much his own person, very reclusive in a way. So, in the final episode Winchester gives Margaret the book back. I open it and read the inscription. David had written his phone number inside. That’s my real emotion on camera.
The final episode set records for viewership, not to mention the most expensive kiss in TV history between Hawkeye and Margaret (based on length of time and the episode’s ad revenue per minute).
Pollock: That night we had a special showing for the staff on the lot, earlier than when it aired on TV. Afterward, we drove to our favorite restaurant in Westwood. On the way, we noticed there were no cars on the street. Everyone was home watching.
Metcalfe: In New York, the only people making money that night was pizza delivery. According to the utility commission, when the show ended, there was an enormous drop in the water pressure because people were flushing their toilets at the same time. The sheer weight of it totally surprised us.
Due to the amount of time required for postproduction, the two-hour finale was shot the summer before the premiere of the shortened last season. The real last episode shot was “As Time Goes By.” Hundreds of journalists and photographers from around the world waited outside stage 9 to capture the moment.
G.W. Bailey (Sgt. Luther Rizzo): They had 300 members of the press waiting outside, so they had us go say hello to them. Kelly and I were out there waving and she was shouting, “You’re the world press, so get the word out. We need jobs!” Someone from Fox heard us and cut us off and put us back inside.
Farrell: Swit put it so wonderfully. She said, “Every place I stood in a scene I realized I’d never be doing this again. Every person I had words with, I realized I may never have the opportunity to have this exchange again.” It was heartbreaking and thrilling because we knew we were wrapping up something we loved with people we all cherished.
M*A*S*H means different things to everyone involved in the show and at home. Most important, it means something that people hold dear to their hearts. Could such a show exist today? It’s a debatable point.
Reynolds: It could if intelligently and carefully done without being too silly or morose. But you have to get a guy like Alan, someone that has star quality and can be a comedian.
Alda: I think that’s almost an impossible question to answer. We were doing the show in a certain moment in time. The country is in some ways as divided now as it was then, but there were different currents in the culture then.
Swit: Years ago, someone commented on how M*A*S*H couldn’t be put together and sold today. So much has changed; TV, the whole concept of reality shows and the number of channels. We weren’t a military show and I don’t think I’d want to watch one about behind the lines in Afghanistan.
Alda: We’re all proud of what we did. The show was so remarkable that we all get asked about it all the time. Everybody includes it in every interview.
Burghoff: There are no adequate words to describe the honor I feel to have shared in the M*A*S*H experience.
Isaacs: I think it’s the most profound sitcom ever made. A lot of sitcoms deal with fear of embarrassment, shame, change or disclosure. Hardly any deal with fear of death and madness.
Levine: Everything about M*A*S*H is universal; the issues characters go through, the quest for humanity in the middle of this world of brutality. I think it’s something we as a culture will respond to forever.
Metcalfe: I’d like M*A*S*H to be remembered for its statement about war, though sadly we’ve learned nothing. It’s life. It’s not all perfect and hopefully never all that sad. That we could portray that is very gratifying.
Wilcox: It will be remembered for reasons people can’t articulate. It expresses things that are deeply sad and screamingly funny. We were probing areas that needed probing whether people knew it or not. Someone once said to a girlfriend of mine, “I don’t know what it is with M*A*S*H. I used to like it and now I can’t miss it.”
Swit: I’m going to paraphrase what someone wrote in a telegram when we ended the show. It said, “Dear M*A*S*H folk: You made me laugh. You made me cry. You made me feel. Thank you.” I’ve never forgotten that. That’s one hell of a legacy.
Recently Farrell caught up with the M*A*S*H family to share a story. In the process, he captured in a few short paragraphs what no writer outside the family circle ever could:
“For the first time in many years I returned to the Fox lot to work on a miniseries [FX’s American Crime Story]. On the second day, I was told to report to stage 10 and did. Once my work was completed for the day, I couldn’t resist the temptation to wander over to stage 9 to see what, if anything, being there would bring back for me. I have to say it was a magical couple of minutes. Pushing through the big door I stepped in and immediately traveled back almost 35 years. The sense of familiarity and warmth was so great I almost laughed aloud. I was overcome with memories. The smell of the place, the feelings that came to me, were completely comfortable, welcoming and embracing. Visions of all of you and so many more flooded over me. The jokes; the laughs; the deep, thoughtful conversations; the tricks; the clowning; the long days; and the good, hard, powerful work were all somehow still there. It was as though a vestige of everything we put into the show had somehow been imbued in the bones of the place. I think it has. And I am the luckiest actor in the world for having had the good fortune to be part of that company.”