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“You had to be there — and we were.”
Perhaps that statement from Loretta Swit (who played Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan) best summarizes the experiences of the entire M*A*S*H family. Many viewers wish they had been there, as a fly on the wall or perhaps one of the mini-M*A*S*H crew moving in and out of scenes. For those lucky enough to have become part of the ensemble cast of the CBS hit, the experience changed their careers and most importantly their lives, building as real a family as one can have without blood ties.
M*A*S*H fans today continue to feel a kinship to the show in ways that they do with few others. They revisit the 251 episodes of a 35-year-old series in search of artistry, laughter and an oasis of sorts amid the stress of everyday life. “The show was so remarkable that we all get asked about it all the time,” says Alan Alda (aka Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce). “Everybody includes it in every interview. I don’t mind that at all.”
Alda estimates having met more than 30 people claiming to be or know the real Hawkeye. The truth matters little in the end, for Alda’s portrayal defined the character, much as everyone else’s portrayal defined theirs. Character and actor became interchangeable and inseparable.
In a previous article celebrating the series finale of M*A*S*H on the 35th anniversary, the cast and crew reminisced with The Hollywood Reporter about the show from beginning to end. Here, in honor of the anniversary of the finale and the show’s lasting impact, THR offers a collection of things you likely didn’t know about one of TV’s most influential series.
The original set was small, cramped and filled with stars
Stage 9 served as home to the M*A*S*H family for its entire run, becoming a sought-out destination point on the 20th Century Fox lot. It wasn’t always that way, though. In the beginning, the location felt more like an afterthought. Another show produced by M*A*S*H‘s co-creator Gene Reynolds, Anna and the King, got the royal treatment. A TV version of the famous Broadway play with Yul Brynner re-creating his King of Siam role sounded like a slam dunk. “They came on right before us and lasted one season,” says Alda. “The funny thing was the studio was so sure that was going to be the hit that they gave them a big soundstage and gave us a cramped one, which we stayed in for 11 years.”
Many movie and television celebrities worked on the Fox lot. You never knew who would make their way over to Stage 9 to watch filming or just take in the 4077 set. If you didn’t see Jane Fonda lurking in the shadows, you might spy Sid Caesar leaning against a wall, taking in the moment. Some of Harry Morgan’s best friends, fellow actors like Dana Andrews and Ralph Bellamy, sometimes stopped by. Cast and crew would also invite guests, such as Lucille Ball, who came by once.
Mike Farrell (B.J. Hunnicutt) remembers his stand-in coming up and telling him Jean Simmons would like to meet him. “I said, ‘She wants to meet me?'” Farrell recalls. “I went over and had this wonderful conversation with this woman my father was in love with. I thought, ‘This can’t be happening.'”
Series writer Ken Levine remembers a receiving line for the visiting Prince Charles. “They told us what we could say and how to address him,” recalls Levine. “I walked up to him and said, ‘What advice would you give young people thinking of getting into your profession?’ People were horrified, but he laughed.”
Former President Gerald Ford, on the Fox board at the time, visited with Secret Service in tow. While Ford acted very friendly, G.W. Bailey (Sgt. Luther Rizzo) remembers the set becoming eerily quiet, a huge contrast to the lively atmosphere that typically prevailed. “It was like a funeral. No one spoke,” says Bailey. “We rehearsed and shot our scenes. Finally, the president leaves and Harry says in as loud a booming voice as he has, “How come nobody’s yelled ‘fuck’ in the last two hours?”
The show avoided “recasting” roles in favor of telling new stories
Actors leave shows all the time. The decision often either reinvigorates a cast, sounds the death knell of a series or causes a show to jump the shark. With M*A*S*H, the show lost two major characters in one year, Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson) and Trapper John (Wayne Rogers). It also would subsequently lose the priggish Frank Burns and the innocent Radar, too. Throughout it all, the show continued to evolve and thrive.
Because of the show’s military background, producers and writers could easily enough explain characters leaving — transfers, going home, death, etc. The challenge came from crafting new roles, ones that lent a unique voice and provided a journey far different from their predecessor’s. “When characters left the show, we didn’t try and replace them with similar characters or characters that would fit into that spot,” says Alda. “We had the chance to search for new ideas, new relationships.”
BJ Hunnicutt, played by Farrell (replaced Trapper John after the fourth season)
Reynolds (co-creator, producer, director): We named him “BJ” because our cameraman, a great guy, was named Bill Jurgensen.
Farrell: I told them I didn’t want to come in and be Trapper John. Gene said, “Oh, no, we have no intention of that. BJ’s going to be married, have a child and not be a womanizer the way that Hawkeye and Trapper are.” I said, “Are you kidding me? You’re making a character who is a model of fidelity on national television? I think that’d be fabulous.”
Burt Metcalfe (executive producer, director, writer): Hawkeye and Trapper were swaggering raconteurs of wine, women and song. BJ could go along with all the humor that Hawkeye projected in terms of women, but he wanted no part of it himself. He was much more sentimental. He missed his wife and baby daughter. We did a lot of shows about his terrible homesickness.
Charles Emerson Winchester III, played by David Ogden Steirs (replaced Frank Burns after the sixth season)
Metcalfe: I had been in the Navy 19 months. There was a guy there who was such a square peg in a round hole. He was very much like Winchester. We made Winchester smarter, a better doctor, glibber and a more formidable adversary than Frank.
Levine: David [Isaacs] and I did the very first Charles episode. Before we shot it, Stiers came up to the office and read a couple scenes so we could hear his voice. He tried a very thick Boston accent. We said we liked it, but it’s hard to hear the words and jokes will get lost. He said, “What if I backed off it and did this?” He maintained that accent to the end of the series.
Walter Dishell (medical adviser): Frank wasn’t very innovative as a surgeon. He didn’t have that special balance. Winchester was well-trained and by the book.
Dan Wilcox (writer-producer): We put Winchester down all the time, but he was often right. He knew good art, fine music, great food, but people wouldn’t listen to him because he was so obnoxious.
Col. Sherman T. Potter (replaced Henry Blake after the fourth season)
Wilcox: Henry Blake was not regular Army. He just wanted to go back to his practice in the states. Potter was pro military in that he believed in military order. He came to respect his surgeons so much that he was willing to cut them slack, but as originally introduced, that wasn’t how he presented himself.
Metcalfe: Potter was regular Army with a heart of gold who could better represent what a good Army officer would be like. He was older, had served in WWI and had that grizzled experience. Putting it together with Harry, we thought we had the perfect fit.
Wilcox: Dennis [Koenig] wrote Potter in a way nobody had before, with countrified elocutions coming out of his mouth. “Klinger, get on the gabber and call I-Corps.” We all loved it and started writing that way. It was a new way to handle Potter and it worked beautifully in Harry’s hands.
Koenig (writer): I loved the character and Harry so much. I just had a natural inclination to curb his lines a little bit. Not say jokes, but let him express himself in an interesting way. Potter had probably grown up in a rural environment and left early in life to be military and became a doctor. He was homespun and folksy, but also polished and worldly because of his adventures in the service.
Casting actors in roles can make or break an audience’s acceptance of a character. Metcalfe knew right away he wanted Stiers and Morgan. To play the role of BJ, he brought in Farrell, James Cromwell and Alan Fudge. They all eventually screen-tested with Alda to see what kind of chemistry they had.
Farrell: My agent calls and tells me there’s a possibility that Wayne Rogers is leaving. They want to know if I’d be willing to come over and have a meeting. I was as nervous as a kitten going to this interview because I thought this show was so incredibly wonderful. Gene, Larry [Gelbart] and Burt told me they couldn’t promise anything. They just had to prepare in the event Wayne leaves. It was a short time after that I did a screen test with Alan. A day or two later, I’m visiting my mother when my agent calls and says, “You got it.” I said something along the lines of, “I can’t talk right now,” and hung up. I ran in, hugged my mother and then ran out to my car and drove to my agent’s office. I raced in and grabbed him, screaming, into a hug.
Metcalfe was home on a Saturday night with the flu when he spotted Stiers on an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Metcalfe: He played the station manager. Near the end of the show, he has this line of dialogue he says to Mary and Lou [Grant], who are on strike: “Personally, I love you both, in fact I hope you both change your minds and come back to be part of the family again, where you’re appreciated, where you have the warmth of WJM to embrace you. If not, I’ll see to it that you both die in the gutter. Have a nice day.” I said someone who can be that lovably unlovable. That’s the guy.
Morgan had already been battle-tested when the Potter role became available.
Metcalfe: Harry had played a different character as a freelance actor on the show. He was a crazy general. He’d been terrific. We all thought so. So, I said he could do Potter. He was so versatile and just a marvelous actor. Nobody in the audience really had a sense of how good he was.
Farrell: Harry was smarter than anybody ever understood. He was very well-read and full of interesting insight. He’d been in every movie and TV series of note and some that weren’t.
Jamie Farr (Maxwell Klinger): Harry was the complete package. An actor who could do anything asked of him.
The show’s other cast: Meet “Mini-M*A*S*H”
As well as fans know the show’s stars, they also remember the faces of the performers who filled the background and interacted with the stars in the spotlight. These people made core contributions to all the episodes and the overall atmosphere. This vital part of the M*A*S*H ensemble became lovingly tagged by cast and crew as the “Mini-M*A*S*H” outfit.
Swit: We can’t say enough about how wonderful these people were. We got to know each person and face. They weren’t background. They were soldiers, nurses and doctors.
Jeff Maxwell (Igor Stravinsky): An actor on the show, Roy Goldman, named me Igor after the Frankenstein character. I played an everyman character who was intimidated by people, things and places. He didn’t do anything heroic. He was just trying to get through a difficult situation.
Bailey: I was like a distant cousin who comes to visit because I wasn’t there all the time. I only did seven or eight shows a year for three years. People still remember the character though.
Kellye Nakahara (Nurse Kellye): I was the first Asian who didn’t play one. I was just an American soldier, a nurse on the same level as everyone else. My true ethnicity never even came up.
Metcalfe: All the people who had been on the show for years would do lines here and there. We tried to be very democratic with spreading that around because they’d get a nice jump in their daily pay if they have a line or two.
Maxwell: For a while I was Alan’s stand-in. The guy before me had narcolepsy and kept falling asleep, which drove the cameramen crazy. It was a terrific experience for me because I got to be close to Alan and watch him. It made me realize how good he was at what he did. He was very helpful to me.
Nakahara: Gene and Alan liked me. All of a sudden, I was being written in as Nurse 123 and then Nurse Able, Baker and Charlie. At some point, Alan said he couldn’t keep calling me ‘Nurse 1.’ “You’re Kellye. Nurse Kellye.”
The real nurses in Korea volunteered to serve in the coldest country in the world in winter and the hottest in summer in a war in which the greatest killers were frostbite and snakebites. “It’s very hard in today’s terms to calculate the hardship of what that would have been like,” points out Enid Kent (Nurse Bigelow). Different actresses came through the door to play these real-life heroes, some in very iconic moments.
Kent: M*A*S*H was my first job in television. It was a pretty fantastic experience. I haven’t had one like that since. It was just very special. I appeared in the last episode and got the downer line. “I was a nurse at the tail end of World War II and now this. And you know something. I’ve had it.”
Jennifer Davis Whitmore (Nurse Jennifer): Everyone got a chance to do something and no one was left behind. My first TV kiss was with Trapper John. It was absolutely fun.
Judy Farrell (Nurse Judy): I did an episode where Hawkeye goes to fix a gas stove in the nurse’s tent and it blows up, making him temporarily blind. Alan decided to make it so he really couldn’t see. I ended up being the nurse who led him around, except I was always bumping him into stuff because I didn’t know how to lead a blind person around. At one point, Alan turned to me and said, “Do your children trust you?”
Sheila Lauritsen (Nurse Sheila): I’m the blond girl running up the hill in the opening credits. Gene took us to the Malibu Ranch and said, “OK girls, run.” And we did and then we did it again and then again. We were tired and sweaty. Then he tells us, “I want you to think that’s your brother coming in on that helicopter and whether he lives or dies is up to you. You’ve got to get up to that helicopter.” It completely turned us around. We just sprinted up that hill and got it in one take.
The writing staff goes from a failed show to a hit
Wilcox once heard Metcalfe say that he felt television writers could do so much more than TV asked them to do. Nowhere does this story ring truer than with M*A*S*H. Gelbart had an admired television career dating back to Sid Caesar. Most of the writing staff through the years consisted of a lot of brilliant young writers who found their sea legs and voice on a series that changed television.
In 1978 for example, during the dark ages of NBC sitcoms (Hizzoner, Hello Larry, etc.), the network launched a series called The Waverly Wonders, starring Joe Namath as a washed-up pro basketball player turned high school teacher. The show lasted nine episodes. John Rappaport, who led The Waverly Wonders writing team, got an offer the next season to become a producer on M*A*S*H. With the show in need of writing talent, Rappaport hired Wilcox, Koenig and Thad Mumford, his writers from the canceled series. The staff of The Waverly Wonders quickly became the writers of one of television’s most loved series.
Although Reynolds had stopped being a showrunner after the fourth season, he stayed with the show for several years afterward as a creative consultant. “When Gene left the show, we still went to him for story outlines and advice,” says series writer Isaacs. “He was always a part of what we were doing.”
Every Thursday night, Reynolds and the writing staff would meet at Metcalfe’s house. One of the writers would bring takeout from Greenblatt’s Deli or Popeye’s Chicken and the work would begin. The staff would bring Reynolds up to date on stories and read finished scripts to him. “He would also give me notes on episodes that had run, telling me this or that cut was too fast,” says Metcalfe. Wilcox recalls a time they showed Reynolds all these puzzle pieces of incidents and subplots for a planned two-part episode (“That’s Show Biz”) that they couldn’t figure out how to put together. “Within 10 minutes he had laid it all out,” recalls Wilcox. “I had never seen anything like it.”
And then, of course, there was Gelbart…
Wilcox: Alan says we were all in such awe of Larry. The cast got a script with a misspelled word once. They were going to correct it but hesitated because it was Larry. They felt there must be some reason for it and why only Larry could have conceived of it. Wayne and Alan shot it with the wrong word. Larry saw the dailies and said, “It’s a typo.” They had to go back and reshoot.
Swit: Larry told us whenever we felt we were going too far, he and Gene would get mail from people who had worked in a MASH unit saying it was exactly like that or even worse. So, we always felt confident about the honesty and truth.
Isaacs: Ken and I were huge fans of Larry’s episode, “The More I See You,” with Blythe Danner as Hawkeye’s long-lost love. We always complimented him on it. It was lyrical, pure Larry. Later, he gave us both a Xeroxed copy of his original manuscript, which was written out longhand on legal pads like he usually did. He signed it, “To David, I wrote this without you.”
Levine: We were writing a script on AfterMASH (a spinoff of M*A*S*H after the series ended), dictating it to a writer’s assistant. Larry’s pitching a big speech and it’s hilarious. He’s going very quickly. In the middle of it, the assistant asks Larry to slow down. She can’t get it all. And Larry says, “Just get half” and keeps going. The half she didn’t get was probably better than anything else on TV.
Bailey: Years after the show, I’m in L.A., waiting for my car and someone from behind says “GW.” I turn around. It’s Larry. He says, “I wanted to thank you for this great legacy we’ve built together.” I tell him I was a recurring character and only on the last three and a half years. He says, “What does that matter? We’re part of history. You did this with us.” He treated me like I was Alan Alda. I’ll never forget the kindness of that guy.
Episode secrets, explained
Every episode of the series has a chapter’s worth of stories that cast and crew remember fondly. They illustrate both the randomness of television production and the brilliance behind M*A*S*H.
Swit: Gene and Larry loved my playing drunk, so they’d occasionally write drunk scenes for me. One of the funniest is when Hawkeye and Trapper are sobering me up. They’re keeping my head under the shower and talking over my body and then Trapper pulls my head up. Hawkeye says, “It’s a new way of getting sterile.” Then Trapper puts my head down again. I said, “That’s crazy, but I like it.” It was just hilarious.
Reynolds: One of the best shows we did was with a sniper firing at the camp. They send up a helicopter and spray the hill. He stops firing. The doctors realize he’s wounded. They go find him and Hawkeye tells him he’s lucky he’s getting this house call. People who saw the show said it was one of the most sensitive treatments of shooting and responsibility that they’d seen. We were very proud of that show.
Gary Burghoff (Walter “Radar” O’Reilly): Larry Linville deserves special thanks for playing the fool. He was a wonderful guy whose personal feelings were the direct opposite of his character. He was extremely well-read and could discuss almost any subject. He once built an entire airplane in his L.A. apartment and then reassembled it in the desert and flew it! Without flight training!
Wilcox: Alan said he would chat with Allan Arbus [Dr. Sidney Freedman] about theories in between takes. He was doing this because he thought the Sidney character was Allan. Allan had to tell him once, “You know I’m not really a psychiatrist.”
Levine: We were always looking for names for different patients and generals. In season seven, we just went down the Dodgers roster. There’s Garvey, Cey, Hooten and Yeager. They’re all there.
Farr: One of the writers grew up following the minor leagues and remembered the Toledo Mud Hens. I don’t think there’s another team in the history of the sport called the Mud Hens. They thought that’s perfect for Klinger.
Maxwell: I remember food fights in the mess tent between shots. The food was quite good. It was from the Fox commissary. When we yelled cut we would either eat it or throw it at each other.
Alda: One of the things I liked, with Loretta’s prodding, was every time I had a chance to write for her character, we’d get away from the Hot Lips angle and find out more about who Margaret was. She became more of a real person.
Swit: I said I think Margaret should get married. And Gene said, “Oh, Loretta, that’s so permanent.” And I said, “Gene, you’re divorced, how can you say that?” Everybody laughed. I suggested Margaret finds out her husband’s cheating. She isn’t going to be a part of that, so she sheds him. She needed to grow and realize she doesn’t need another human being to complete her full, rich life. That kind of evolution really developed her.
Burghoff: There’s an episode in which Hawkeye and I are alone on a moving bus with a pregnant Korean girl who suddenly gives birth. He tries to get Radar to help with the delivery. Radar comes totally unhinged. I ad-libbed Radar’s entire reaction. I laughed out loud when I watched it recently.
Farr: The episode that really affected me was the one where Gen. MacArthur comes to camp. Everyone’s getting ready to prepare for his arrival and they’re trying to hide me. MacArthur drives by without paying any attention to anyone until he drives down the road and salutes me, dressed as the Statue of Liberty. I was in Beverly Hills the next day, walking down the street and bus drivers and cab drivers were honking horns at me and people were waving at me in the street. That was from one stupid image of Klinger. I realized we’re not just working on this little soundstage. This thing goes all over the world and people are actually watching us.
Secrets from the operating room
The writers and producers held themselves to a standard higher than even the viewing audience. Every script went through five full passes before being shot. This included delivering pinpoint accuracy with medical language and patient scenarios. For that, the writers turned to Dishell, the show’s medical adviser during its entire run.
Isaacs: Walter was a huge source of information. Forget the terminology. We didn’t know the procedures. We had a nurse, Connie, who did all the surgical field stuff within the OR. But you couldn’t get through an OR scene without talking to Walter on the phone.
Elias Davis (writer): Most of what happened with patients came from him.
Dishell: My job was to provide medical and dialogue accuracy. The writers would give me the meter. I would put in the correct terminology so it would fit. Most of the work was about trauma, which made it easier for me. I only had to figure out a disease sometimes.
Alda: I wrote an episode with Walter that had a clock on the corner of the screen (“Life Time”). The whole story took place in the time it took to watch it. We had 20 to 30 minutes to get an organ out of one soldier’s body and put it into another’s.
Dishell: I came up with the idea that someone has an injured aorta. You put a clamp across the aorta, which stops the blood flow to the lower body, spinal cord and kidney. You can only survive 15 to 20 minutes without oxalated blood. The clock in the corner told the audience how much time was available to solve the problem.
Alda: I think that’s one of the things that kept us interesting for 11 years. Every once in a while, we had the freedom, because the audience trusted us, to extend ourselves a little bit.
Changing time slots
During the course of 11 seasons, M*A*S*H aired on five different nights (save for Wednesdays and Thursdays). The show also aired at six different times, not including the occasional special time. For the fourth season, CBS bumped the show to Fridays. At the time, NBC ruled that night with Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man. CBS thought it could fight back with the 4077. While M*A*S*H managed to top Chico and the Man and the second half of The Donny and Marie Show, it dropped out of the top 10 in Nielsen ratings. Gelbart and Reynolds had reached the limit of what they could tolerate. Since the M*A*S*H troupe did everything together anyway, they asked the cast to come with them en masse to network headquarters.
Sitting down with Fred Silverman, vp programs, and Robert Wood, president of the CBS network, the M*A*S*H cast and crew stated their case. They asked the network to stop shuffling them around and give them a better night. They wanted to know what the show meant to the network and to be better treated than the present situation. “Can you imagine a show going to the network and telling them where they want to be in the lineup?” says Farr. The CBS executives said the show was its crown jewel and agreed to move it, ultimately repositioning it at midseason to Tuesdays at 9. It stayed there for a little more than two years, before landing on its final spot: Mondays at 9.
Secrets behind the movie
If you ever see the episode “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” (watch, above) on cable or online, take a look at the footage of the fire that sweeps through the 4077. You won’t find a frame of CGI. It’s all real. A raging wildfire did indeed engulf the terrain around and within the Malibu Ranch, leaving the camp a pile of embers. According to Nakahara, the fire marshal on site saw the flames coming over the ridge and gave them 10 minutes to wrap up shooting. “When we were done, we ran to the vans, jeeps and trucks and bugged out,” recalls Nakahara. “The fire came down and wiped out the entire set within 10 minutes.”
Alda and Metcalfe drove out to look at the damage and figure out how to incorporate it into the movie. They ultimately decided the fire could add another facet to the story and make it more solid. Metcalfe called the network and said the fire plotline would make it easy enough to add another half-hour to the planned two-hour event. The network agreed.
Funnily enough, the fire had another effect on shooting. After rebuilding the set, the movie still required several external shots to appear in the film before the fire. This included the mountains around camp. Crews had to go in and spray the burned mountains green for those shots and then return them to their charred state afterward.
As with most productions, not every idea made the final cut. One scene called for a picnic on the beach. Alda spied Bailey and Nakahara messing around and thought it would be funny if they lay in the surf and re-enact the scene in From Here to Eternity. He brought the whole crew together. “For two hours, we lay down in that water with waves running over us,” remembers Nakahara. “G.W. had a cigar in his mouth. I was spitting water in his face with waves washing over us. We had a crowd cheering and laughing. The shot ended up on the cutting-room floor.”
The final episode
While “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen” aired as the last M*A*S*H episode, “As Time Goes By” was the last one that was filmed. The plot revolves around a time capsule, a fitting sendoff for the series and its place in our cultural history.
Swit: It was Margaret’s idea. She gives a speech in the officer’s club telling everyone it’s important. It will tell people who was here and the work they tried to do. It was a speech you could relate to as actors in a show trying to do the best they could. It was very difficult to do without cracking up, which I did, but I got it back.
Wilcox: What we were doing was summing up the experience for the castmembers, but it was also a chance to say goodbye to the cast we loved. I said what if one of the things they put in the capsule is Radar’s teddy bear? And what if someone has a fishing fly from Henry’s cap? Let’s use this to say goodbye to the series. That woke everyone up.
Farrell: It was heartbreaking yet thrilling because we knew we were rapping up something we loved and were proud of and that was extra special.
Farr came up with the idea to replicate the episode’s plotline in real life. “Rather than leaving a time capsule in Korea, we should leave one on the lot,” says Farr. “We found a great place near the commissary. One of our crewmembers, Jay King, went out late at night and dug a huge hole for it.”
Alda’s wife, Arlene, a professional photographer, captured the secret moment. The cast drank champagne in glass flutes and placed personal items their characters had used in a water-proof Red Cross medical box. Most of those items donated have been forgotten with time or kept as secrets. Swit confided placing a Japanese robe and white sweater while Farr believes he added a voodoo doll of Col. Potter. At the end, King gave everyone an army shovel with a personal inscription for each individual and the phrase: “I really dug it. Thanks, Jay King 1-12-83.”
What was placed inside that time capsule lives on today with an admiring global audience. “Every day was a blessing. We knew it and loved it,” says Swit.
Perhaps Alda sums it up best: “People always ask me what made the show work. We had a group of very talented people telling stories about people who had really lived through an experience. We created a sense of ensemble formed by sticking together, having fun and laughing.”
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